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REVIEW: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

Dear Ms. Livesey,

The cover song has always occupied a precarious position in the annals of music lovers. On the one hand, it is quite a safe thing to do—cover someone else’s song. One already knows that it is beloved. One already knows what sort of person might like that song. It has a brand, a mark, a name already stamped upon it. You, as the musician, can rely on people’s nostalgia to bring to the song you are playing emotions you might not be guaranteed to evoke through your own work. If you are a really excellent musician, you may even bring to the original song something that wasn’t there before. You may make it better. You may, like Jeff Buckley singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” create an entirely new song.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot LiveseyBut there is also a risk in covering a song, especially a beloved song. You may just make people wish they were listening to the original. You may just make people sad that they never got to see the Beatles the first time around. You may expose your own mediocrity by attempting a song that is beyond your abilities. You may, like a cover band at a wedding, make people’s skin crawl with your rendition of “I Will Always Love You.” Yes, the cover song is a dangerous thing to do.

So, too, are books that re-tell classic works of literature. There’s something both naive and arrogant in supposing you, as an author, can say something more interesting about, for example, Lolita, than Nabokov did. It’s rather an act of hubris, isn’t it? Of course, when it is done well . . . but there’s the rub. You’ve got to do it well. And if you don’t? There’s a lot more to lose.

In the book description on Amazon.com, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is called a “captivating homage to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre” which is rather misleading. Homage? Is that the word to use? I would not describe this book as an homage to Jane Eyre. No, that book would be Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart. This book is Jane Eyre—Jane Eyre dressed in the slacks and cardigans of the 1960′s, Jane Eyre missing all its teeth and replacing them with wooden dentures—but Jane Eyre, nonetheless. There are, of course, differences. But those differences are in the details rather than the plot structure, the themes, or the characters. The differences are either superficial, amounting to just mere costume changes, or they are substantial in such a way as to make the plot simultaneously absurd and dull. This is, in my opinion, merely a bad cover version of Jane Eyre.

The book is divided into five parts roughly corresponding with the parts in Jane Eyre. The first two sections focus on Gemma’s childhood, the loss of her only friend Miriam, and her years at Claypoole School. The third section focuses on her time as a nanny to a young girl, the niece of a wealthy banker and landowner, Mr. Sinclair on the Orkney Islands. Part four focuses on her flight from Mr. Sinclair upon learning his secret and Gemma’s recovery of herself during that time period. The last part focuses on the discovery of the remaining family she never knew she had—a family that lives in Iceland—and her eventual return to Mr. Sinclair.

Gemma Hardy is an orphan. Her beloved Uncle has died leaving her in the care of an aunt who, she is coming to realize, hates her. When the village doctor suggests that perhaps she might be better off at school, she sees this as her chance to escape the increasing misery and grief that seems to be her lot at Yew House. Much like the titular character of the book upon which this novel is based, Gemma finds that school is not at all what she expected. Claypoole is a school with an inordinate number of scholarship girls, but they are not there to learn. They are there to earn their keep. Gemma finds no solace at Claypoole but she does find a kind of freedom. When the school closes, she takes a position as a nanny for the Sinclairs in the Orkney Islands. It is there she meets the handsome, brusque Mr. Sinclair and promptly falls head over heels in love with him. But Mr. Sinclair has a secret that seems to be connected to the steward, Seamus Sinclair. Despite this, Gemma feels as if she has finally come home. But this feeling is shattered when, on her wedding day, a secret from the past is revealed and forces Gemma to find her own way in the world.

So, ya know, like I said, it is pretty much Jane Eyre. The names have been changed, but the problems are real, as they used to say on Mathnet part of Square One.

And the book is problematic. It wants to retain all the elements of the original whilst modernizing the plot. What this means is that Ms. Livesey has to jump through some very difficult hoops in order to sustain the original plot structure. Her decision to set the story in the 1960’s makes certain elements of Jane Eyre nearly impossible to deploy with any kind of verisimilitude or believability. I think I can say with a fair amount of confidence that it is a fact that orphaned young women in the 1960’s had advantages and opportunities that orphaned young women in the 1840’s simply did not possess. I hope that we can all agree that this is the case. It certainly seems like it ought to be the case. I suppose it is important that as a reader I certainly felt it ought to be the case. Getting a job in the 1960’s, even without references, wasn’t nearly as difficult as getting a job in the 1840’s, surely? But in order to give to Gemma the kind of isolation and alienation that is the hallmark of Jane’s character, Livesey has to do a lot of work in order to make that come off in the setting she has chosen

We see this problem first on the announcement that Claypoole School is closing due to financial difficulties. As such, Gemma finds that her dreams of university are unlikely to manifest themselves. She must find other employment until such a time as she can gain entry into a university. On the advice of a professor she takes a job as nanny. Well this seems all fine and dandy. I accept this. I find this believable. However, it makes her about 18 years old when she meets Mr. Sinclair (42!), which granted is about the same age Jane was when she met Mr. Rochester but 18 in 1966 seems a hell of a lot younger than 18 in 1846. Also, there is no reason that Mr. Sinclair should be that old except for the fact that the author needs to have had him fight in WWII. It all seems so forced, this plot. Where Jane’s involvement with Rochester is rife with inequalities (age, class, education), these differences are superficially dealt with in The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Nor are we given the kinds of conversations between Gemma and Sinclair that occur between Jane and Rochester; conversations that are essential to the establishment of these two people’s connection and love for each other. The age difference between Sinclair feels out of place and anachronistic within the confines of the setting. More importantly, it seems superfluous to the rest of the novel, an unnecessary holdover from the original that doesn’t make any sense in this new book.

Because the fact of the matter is, Gemma has more long term opportunities than Jane did. She still could to University. She can go to University. She could get another kind of a job. She could become a doctor or a lawyer or a spy. Jane Eyre didn’t have those choices. Where Jane comes off as having a valiant integrity—albeit an idealistic and at time impractical integrity—against a society that inexorably attempts to degrade her, Gemma just comes off as spoilt and foolish and unaware of the world around her or the possibilities it has to offer.  I could have forgiven the acrobatics Livesey employs to maintain the “homage” to Bronte had they had any emotional weight within the narrative. But they didn’t. A book that I was finding rather innocuous became really annoying to me when Sinclair reveals his great, dark secret.

If you will recall, the great, dark secret of Mr. Rochester is one of the most scandalizing reveals in the history of literature and a large part of that novel’s themes revolve around it. The problem is that it simply does not work in a modern context. Mr. Rochester had very little choice about what to do with his wife. Assuming, as I do, that Bertha had some kind of severe schizophrenia or something then she couldn’t simply be allowed to live in a house like a normal person where she might end up hurting a totally innocent bystander or herself or a servant or something. Nor could he put her in a madhouse. Oh well, Rochester could have but considering the state of madhouses in the 19th century, that seemed a really despicable thing to do. Even Rochester, not known for his upstanding morality, thought it was despicable. I’ve always taken the position that Rochester was doing his best under the circumstances. It’s not like he locked her in the attic and THEN she went crazy. No, he locked her in the attic BECAUSE she went crazy. But even this is an overly simplistic version of the matter.

Bertha’s existence and her insanity bring up a lot of issues in the novel, issues that must be dealt with before the “Reader I married him”. Is Bertha a kind of mirror to Jane? To Rochester? Is she a metaphor for female sexuality? Is Rochester cruel? Is he evil for what he has done to her? For his deception of Jane? Is Jane right to leave him? Does he deserve to be burned in his bed? What does it mean to love the unloveable? Is Bertha any more or less unloveable than Jane feels herself to be? What is forgiveness? What is atonement? How do these relate to things like class and gender and money and sex and death and God? I could go on. In short, the revelation of Bertha in the attic is pivotal to the religious, ethical, and existential questions that weave throughout the book. If you take away the particular of that revelation and replace it with something else, that something else should perform as powerful and visceral a problem to the characters and to the reader as the original revelation. You know, if you are writing an homage and all that.

Spoiler alert: I will in the following paragraphs reveal Mr. Sinclair’s secret.

[spoiler]Mr. Sinclair switched identities with is distant cousin Seamus during the war so that Mr. Sinclair could be an RAF pilot. He did this because he was drafted as a Bevin Boy and since he’s terrified of small, enclosed spaces, he knew spending the war in a mine would make him insane. Seamus agreed to this because Sinclair promised him that he would get his sister (Sinclair’s) to fall in love with Seamus. Both of them came back from the war and then switched their identities back, no problem. But, Sinclair’s sister didn’t cooperate being kind of a loon and then ending up dying in a river for which Seamus resents Sinclair bitterly.

No. That’s it.

[/spoiler]

 

Gemma gets her knickers in a twist, decides she can’t trust Sinclair anymore, etc. etc. just as Jane does. Only this seemed a rather tame secret in comparison to having a mad wife in the attic. And Sinclair wasn’t going to commit fraud or bigamy or anything by marrying Gemma. All in all, the whole thing seemed like a rather unfortunate incident. Even at 18, naïve and arrogant as I was, I would not have considered this to be a big, fucking deal. That Gemma does is baffling to me as a reader. I was expecting something like murder or an actual exchange of identities, like Hugh Sinclair really was Seamus Sinclair. It could have been incest, or God anything that would have a force like the original.

The question I came away with is this: if one is going to re-tell a story, or re-imagine a famous work of literature, a famous song, a famous painting—what does your version of this other story offer the reader? What makes your version of this story interesting or different? What does it add to the original? How does it converse with original? What does it leave out and why? What does it focus on and why?

It seems to me that The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a book that didn’t bother to ask these questions. It simply regurgitates the original story into a different time period without asking any significant questions either of the narrative or through the narrative. This might suggest that this book is badly written. But it isn’t and I struggled with it because of that. In fact, it is quite well-written. The prose is clean and smooth; the setting is detailed in such a way as to paint a picture in your mind’s eye; the characters, both primary and secondary, are complex, well-drawn and interesting; it is what I would call a well-crafted novel. Yet, even as I recognize the craft that went into writing this novel, it lacked a vital spark. I recognize this is a vague criticism. It is not helpful to the author. But readers will know what I mean when I say: This book had no breath. I slide through it with all the ease and expediency of a drive-thru, and I drank it with the same unthinking speed as a chocolate milkshake. It was, in short, forgettable, flavorless, and fast. More so, because it only made me think with regret of the book I’d rather be reading, Jane Eyre.

As such, despite the skill with which this novel is written, I must give a C- for being one of, in the words of Jarvis Cocker, “the sad imitations that got it so wrong.”

Lazaraspaste

P.S. To those interested, the incredible video to Pulp’s “Bad Cover Version” can be found here.

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Lazaraspaste came to the romance genre at the belated age of twenty-six. While she prefers historicals, she's really up for anything . . . much like her view of food! Some of her favorite authors include Jo Beverley, Anne Stuart, Lisa Kleypas and Joan Smith. Once a YA librarian, she is now working towards an advanced degree in literature with the mad idea of becoming a critic and teacher. Though she loves romance, fantasy has always been her first love. She hates never-ending series and believes the ending is the most important part.

17 Comments

  1. Ros
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 09:50:44

    Oddly, I just finished reading Sharon Kendrick’s Forbidden Innocent which is also a retelling of Jane Eyre. I thought it suffered from similar problems to those you mention in the review of this book – i.e. a too slavish copying of the original. There was a whole series of Presents based on classics, some of which worked rather well (I loved Kate Hewitt’s version of Emma, Mr and Mischief) but others didn’t. I think it’s a very tricky challenge to work with a well-known, well-loved book and create something new. But unless you’re going to create something new, what’s the point?

    My favourite retelling of Jane Eyre, btw, is Jasper Fforde’s utterly brilliant The Eyre Affair.

  2. Laura Vivanco
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 10:33:05

    The bargain in the secret sounds very silly. How could anyone promise that? It seems totally illogical to have expected the third party to cooperate. Why do you think it made that person a “loon”?

    Re the outcome, though, maybe the author thought she’d pay a little bit of homage to Hamlet?

  3. Rosa E.
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 13:01:51

    I may be misunderstanding something, but . . . Sinclair was terrified of small, enclosed spaces, so he elected to spend the war in a small, enclosed airplane thousands of feet above the ground? That seems counterproductive.

    Overall, this book sounds like a huge missed opportunity. The author might have been better off using her skills on a new, original story rather than trying to retell a classic.

  4. Anna Cowan
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 15:50:47

    Weirdly, for most of this review I was thinking I’d love to read this book. The 60s setting (and the Orkneys – so beautiful, remote, melancholy) seem like an interesting setting for Jane Eyre, retold.

    But the secret reveal does sound awful. It frustrates me as well when a character goes into a huff and derails their life over something that doesn’t have quite enough impact.

    Also, the conversations between Jane and Rochester are what make that book. If there isn’t that same quality between them, it could only be disappointing.

  5. Dabney
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 18:06:54

    I enjoyed Jane by April Lindner. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a good fun adaptation.

  6. Lazaraspaste
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 18:38:04

    @Ros: Exactly. I think people can do wonderful interpretations but this was not one. I’ve heard a lot of great things about The Eyre Affair. I’m glad to get another rec for it.

    @Laura Vivanco: That’s what I thought. It just seemed silly and because of that I never felt it had any emotional force. An homage to Hamlet? How so? I’m feeling dense today.

    @Rosa E.: Yeah. Like I said, this book was well-crafted but ultimately for me it wasn’t a very interesting read at all. I felt like it was just Jane Eyre 2.0 and I think was hoping for something more, especially more gothic.

    @Anna Cowan: Other people might enjoy it. I think the setting and the period were probably the strongest parts of the book. But, like I said, it missed it for me in the relationship. I’ve seen other more positive reviews about it.

    @Dabney: I was actually wondering about that book. I’m glad to hear it was fun, even if not perfect. :)

  7. Dabney
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 18:57:28

    It’s interesting to me that movie adaptations often do a better job than book adaptations. I love the Silverstone movie Clueless, watch Ten Things I Hate about You at least every year or so, and enjoyed the heck out of Cruel Intentions. I’ve yet to read a classic redo I’ve liked as much as any of those films.

  8. dri
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 20:03:45

    Whaaaaaaatt? To that secret, I mean. Totally lolzworthy.

    I have yet to find a Jane Eyre homage that does it justice. I, for one, absolutely loathed The Eyre Affair and felt totally cheated that we don’t even get to Thornfield until the very end. I always mutter “false advertising” about that book.

    (Although I do have a secret fondness for The Raven Prince … and I don’t suppose Wide Sargasso Sea really counts as a homage … :p)

    So you can imagine how I just sat up eagerly at the mention of Nine Coaches Waiting. Mary Stewart as in the lady who wrote that marvellous Merlin trilogy?! *goes to google* Zomg, yes! Holy mother, I have got to get that.

    I’d love to see a review of the April Lindner novel. Too wary to try it out on my own. Especially since I’m just about to start my annual re-read of JE. :p

  9. Dabney Grinnan
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 20:09:04

    If you are a JE purist, Ms. Lindner’s book will not work for you. It’s a very light adaptation. I see on Goodreads that she is publishing a book called Catherine, a retelling of Wuthering Heights. It’s set in the Village….

  10. E.D. Walker
    Jan 31, 2012 @ 22:21:37

    “This is, in my opinion, merely a bad cover version of Jane Eyre.” Classic.

  11. Laura Vivanco
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 03:29:58

    @Lazaraspaste:

    An homage to Hamlet? How so? I’m feeling dense today.

    I was joking, but when you wrote about someone “being kind of a loon and then ending up dying in a river” it made me think of Ophelia.

  12. Jane
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 06:57:21

    @Dabney That book is on sale for $2.99 ( A | BN | K S )

  13. lazaraspaste
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 11:05:12

    @Dabney: I’m no purist. I’ve really liked all those adaptations. My feelings, which I hope I expressed in the review, is that an homage or an adaptation really needs to strike a balance between the original themes and emotions evoked and giving a really interesting or new interpretation of those themes and emotions.

    @dri: Nine Coaches Waiting is pretty awesom. Most of Mary Stewart’s earlier mystery novels are, IMO, pretty awesome though. I hope you enjoy it. You can probably find a used copy on the cheap, too.

    @E.D. Walker: Heh. Thanks.

    @Laura Vivanco: LOL. Okay, I get it. Yes. Let’s call in an unconscious homage to Hamlet.

  14. MaryK
    Feb 01, 2012 @ 13:18:37

    Hey, did somebody invoke Mary Stewart? Oh, just a “this is no Mary Stewart” comment. Never mind then.

  15. Nafiza
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 08:30:36

    You know, I think majority of Jane Eyre retellings suffer from all the issues you have talked about. I remember reading Jane and being not so pleased with how it turned out. Jane, in a modern context, seemed to have turned into a vapid, annoying creature who lacked dignity and a backbone. Funnily enough, the modern Jane kept all the elements of the original and the author’s explanation for keeping a wife in the attic was “you know how those places are.” That seemed a bit ridiculous especially considering the modern reader really does know how those places are. Anyway, amazing review and it helped me decide whether to spend time (and money) on this.

  16. AMG
    Feb 02, 2012 @ 20:21:54

    You are the second person to compare Nine Coaches to JE. I have probably read that book about 75 times, and I NEVER thought about it that way. But I’m willing to now. I love Mary Stewart’s 50s/60s rom/suspense books (except for Touch not the cat/gabriel hound-too much cousin love).
    Oh and Pulp is awesome.

  17. The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey « wendingthroughwords
    Jun 27, 2012 @ 13:59:36

    [...] are confused.  I’d sooner recommend reading the original.  I like the metaphor in this review, comparing Gemma to a bad cover song. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like [...]

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