Book Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy

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This novel by Margot Livesy has been on my to-read list for so long that I had forgotten why I was so excited to read it in the first place.  I vaguely remembered it was in the category of those “modern day adaptation” novels, and thought it was a Jane Austen novel at first.  Maybe Emma.  It was only when Gemma left Yew House for her horrible boarding school that I remembered it was, in fact,  a new version of Jane Eyre.

Let me say that I very much liked The House on Fortune Street, also by Margot Livesy.  But I have to sadly say that The Flight of Gemma Hardy was, well, not the masterpiece that is Jane Eyre.

Why do you decide to re-write a classic novel?  I imagine it could be out of incredible love for the original story.  Or because as an artist, you see something in the story that’s missing, some part of the story that isn’t being told that should be.  I think of Wide Sargasso Sea, a beautiful novel from the perspective of Bertha, the madwoman in the attic in Jane Eyre.

It’s a brave, brave thing to do, because you have just made it incredibly easy for all your readers to compare your novel to one of the greatest works of fiction of all time.  Yikes.  And though I can imagine wanting to re-create Jane Eyre out of an incredible love for the story, wouldn’t there also be a kind of sense in which there is no way to improve upon the original?

The Flight of Gemma Hardy made me very much want to go back and read Jane Eyre again.  I have the vague memory that I discussed Jane Eyre in a college English course, though I can’t remember which one.  I remember making connections between Bertha and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”  There seemed to be so much to say about Jane Eyre from so many different theories of literary criticism.

Why are there so many things to say about Jane Eyre?  Is it because it is truly and objectively a masterpiece, or is it because Charlotte Bronte got lucky?  Or is it a combination of the two?  I’m likely to say some combination of the two.  You can wax on and on about the deep symbolic meaning in almost any piece of art if you’re clever enough.  And let us confess that we never come to a book as blank slates; how much of our love of Jane Eyre or any other classic is conditioned on growing up in a culture that tells us this is what we should love, if we are smart and discerning and intelligent people?  Who doesn’t want to be a smart, discerning and intelligent person?

All the same, I love Jane Eyre.  I love the novel and I love her as a character.  The phrase, “Reader, I married him,” is one that bounces around in my head like a ghost.  The directness of Jane Eyre summing it all up for you right there at the end.

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Jane Eyre, though obviously it looks as if I’ll have to correct that soon.  I don’t remember what else I like about Jane so much.  There’s just the simple fact that I do.  And I didn’t feel the same way about Gemma Hardy.  Or her Rochester, Mr. Sinclair.   I think I’m meant to think that the obstacle that keeps Gemma from marrying Mr. Sinclair at first–the mad wife in the attic in Jane Eyre–is supposed to be a kind of equivalent.  But it isn’t, and so mostly I think Gemma’s being priggish and silly when she leaves Mr. Sinclair.  And I think the people she encounters are a lot meaner and colder than they need to be.  Or maybe it’s easier to accept meanness and coldness in a novel set in the historical distance than it is to accept those things in a novel that is more contemporary.

I’m glad I read The Flight of Gemma Hardy, as it makes me think about the nature of classic works of literature, and will bring something new to my re-reading of Jane Eyre.  But I don’t think it does as well at telling a new version of Jane Eyre as other novels in the same category.  I think of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which moves King Lear quite seamlessly onto the Iowa farmland.  Or for that matter, O Brother Where Art Thou, which takes the Odyssey in a very entertaining direction.

As a final thought, here’s what a re-telling of a classic story does have going for it: the comfort and familiarity of seeing your favorite characters and favorite stories in a new light.  If you don’t believe that we like to hear the same story over and over again, you’ve never spent time with small children who will ask you to read the same book or watch the same movie over, and over, and over, and over again.  Literally, until you feel that you would like to smash said movie or book into a million tiny pieces.  But a familiar story re-told is like meeting old friends again in a new and different setting; like traveling half-way around the world only to find your next door neighbor or your best friend from high school.  And that, Reader, is a lovely pleasure indeed.

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