I love homages, retellings, adaptations of well-known stories. When they're done well, they can add a lot of understanding to the source material while still standing as their own piece. The Hours
was brilliant in that it helped me see Mrs. Dalloway
in a new light; it utilizes many aspects of Woolf's technique and nods to her plot, but it still works as an independent creature.
In the The Flight of Gemma Hardy
, Margot Livesey takes Jane Eyre and plops her down in the middle of 1950s Scotland. It's been a long time since I read the Jane Eyre
and it was never really one of my favorites, so I tried to focus on this as an independent piece as opposed to comparing it outright with what Bronte did. I'm still not sure if that was the right approach. Mostly because Livesey works so hard to stick to Bronte's plot that you can't avoid comparisons, but it feels unfair to base my opinion solely on how well the two synch up.
Livesey writes very well, and Gemma is an interesting character. The biggest obstacle, to me, is that most of what takes place in Jane Eyre isn't something that strikes me as particularly plausible for the 1950s. After Gemma is orphaned, she goes to live with her maternal uncle in Scotland. The uncle also passes away, and Gemma's aunt and cousins begin to treat her as a servant. Given the opportunity to escape, Gemma takes a scholarship at a boarding school, only to discover that scholarship girls at the school are little more than servants themselves. Fast forward a few years: the school's dwindling enrollment has led to its doors shutting and a desperate Gemma takes a position as a nanny/governess for Nell, the wild child niece of the single and aloof Hugh Sinclair. Despite the twenty-year age gap between the two, Gemma and Hugh fall in love.
This is all well and good for mid 19th century England, but is this really the kind of thing that's likely to happen a few decades ago? Aside from a few references to television, cars, and modern medicine, I often forgot that Gemma was growing up in relatively modern times. Livesey stuck so closely to Jane's story -- almost point for point -- that she seems to have forgotten the need to update it for a new century. Separated from the source material, Gemma's early life is so awful that it almost becomes over the top. Not that no one in the twentieth century has exclusively bad luck, but it's not usually because they're treated as a servant by their hateful aunt and again by the headmaster of their school.
Once Gemma and Mr. Sinclair fall in love, Livesey begins to diverge from Bronte's plot. I don't really know how to discuss this without spoilers, so consider yourself warned: Instead of a madwoman in the attic, Gemma leaves Mr. Sinclair because he used his distant cousin's identity to avoid unpleasant duties during the war, in exchange for trying to get his sister Allison (Nell's mother) to marry Seamus. Allison died instead and Seamus stops Gemma's wedding to announce all this because, essentially, if he couldn't have Allison, Sinclair shouldn't have Gemma.
This doesn't strike me as sufficient reason to call off the wedding and slink away from the house. The madwoman in the attic is one of the most iconic elements
of 19th century literature, and taking her out of an homage to Jane Eyre that otherwise sticks to the original point by point makes little sense to me. Perhaps Livesey assumed that, in order to keep her reader guessing, she needed to change up the big secret? Okay, I can understand that. But Livesey's alternative doesn't seem comparable and it really weakens the motivations for the rest of the novel.
After Gemma leaves, Livesey returns to the original plot, but with some slight variations: Gemma ends up with a fellow named Archie, who arranges for her to nanny another child. Archie falls for Gemma and wants to marry her, but Gemma doesn't return his feelings and bails. The reason this worked in the original is that Jane did not want to marry St. John out of duty but Gemma seems to be leading Archie on the whole time and in the end steals money from her charge's grandparents in order to travel back home to Iceland, where she learns that she's inherited a fortune from her paternal uncle. She intends to go back to the family Archie set her up with, but is surprised by Mr. Sinclair on the plane. But! While she loves him, she wants to live her own life and go to college, which had been her life's ambition throughout.
The whole thing just ends up straying so much from the point of Jane Eyre
that I have a hard time empathizing with Gemma once she flees from Mr. Sinclair. Jane was a noble character who sought to balance her desires with what was truly "right," which is why she runs away from Rochester when she learns that he is already married: she wants him but she knows it's wrong. She doesn't marry St. John because she doesn't truly love him, and she ultimately marries Rochester only after his first wife dies in a fire that left him blind. Gemma's actions don't seem to be motivated by this same search for balance; she just wants to be happy. Gemma's story is well-written, but it ultimately feels like Livesey's missed the point.
Like I said, it's been a while since I read Jane Eyre
, but am I wrong?