Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery—or so the saying goes. Yet the line between inspiration and sheer duplication is a thin one, and crossing over can be all too subtle. Charlotte Brontë’s classic “Jane Eyre” tells the story of a young orphan girl who is sent to a boarding school by her abusive relatives and later falls in love with the guardian of the girl she takes care of. After the man betrays her trust, she runs away, finds family, and eventually ends up living happily ever after with newfound riches and a repentant lover. Funnily enough, “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” tells that same exact story.
Author Margot Livesey wrote her latest novel in homage to “Jane Eyre.” Her adaptation of the well-known Victorian novel, however, fails to add enough modern spark and vivacity to the old story; the end result is noticeably lacking in originality. Although the writing is impressive, the story moving, and the characters heartwarming, the blatant replication of such a revolutionary piece of literature creates the unshakeable notion that “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” is simply an uninspired counterfeit of the original.
The story, set in the 1960s in Scotland, follows the life of Gemma Hardy, who, after the deaths of her parents and benevolent uncle, lives with her cruel aunt and cousins. When she is 10 years old, her aunt decides to send her to the Claypoole School. Gemma withstands years of abuse from the headmistress and fellow students; throughout her struggles, however, Gemma makes friends and dreams of attending university. After the school closes due to bankruptcy, Gemma becomes an au pair for the niece of Mr. Sinclair, a wealthy bachelor in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland. She and Mr. Sinclair fall in love and get engaged, but after a treacherous act of his comes to light the day of their wedding, Gemma runs away. Eventually, she travels to Iceland, her father’s homeland and her birthplace. There she finds her family, and, eventually, herself.
The story focuses on Gemma’s escape from the clasps of society, occupational demands, and familial responsibilities. Having been an orphan twice over, her ultimate desire is to break away from her duties and inhibitions and return to Iceland to find her true family. This aspect of the story is the one most altered from the plot of “Jane Eyre.” Although the original did extol the importance of female independence, Livesey centers much more of her narrative around this theme. Throughout the story, Gemma’s goals are always of education, independence, and discovery of her past, more so than Jane’s are in the original. This respectably self-centered view allows the adaptation to be realistic in the time period of the 1960s, where issues concerning female liberation played a larger role in society than when the original was published.
Though the story is set more than 100 years after “Jane Eyre,” Livesey includes timeless themes in her story that were also present in Brontë’s novel. There is a great emphasis on Gemma’s increasing separation from her religion. After she is asked if she believes in God, Gemma replies, “I don’t know. I used to because of my uncle, but since he died I’ve met plenty of people who claim to be good Christians and wouldn’t cross the road to help a starving child. If that’s what it means to believe in God, then I’d rather not.” Although thematic messages like this are important, it seems like a choice of convenience, not of narrative necessity, to include moral dilemmas identical to those present in the original. The end result is a plethora of issues like class structure, feminism, and the search for self that are left mostly unexplored. Prominent themes like these from “Jane Eyre” appear obligatory in “The Flight of Gemma Hardy,” and Livesey’s lack of committment to her themes creates a novel nowhere near as poignant as the original.
But this underwhelming facsimile of a classic novel does not disappoint completely. If viewed merely as a homage to the original, it is clearly a poor silhouette of “Jane Eyre,” but if read as a stand-alone novel, the uninspired nature of the book fades into the background, and the liveliness of the characters shines through due to the descriptive emotional territory Livesey creates. Reliving the experiences of Jane and Rochester through Gemma and Sinclair—one aspect of the original work that receives full exploration—feels natural and touching. For a book with such a broad timeline, Livesey paces the story well—an important skill. She does not rush through the early years to establish Gemma as a likeable, independent, and loving young woman, and so Gemma’s transformation from a plain, quiet young girl to a confident, intelligent young lady is believable.
Several times, Gemma revisits the last sermon her uncle writes in the first chapter. “We each begin as an island, but we soon build bridges. Even the most solitary person has, perhaps without knowing it, a causeway, a cable, a line of stepping-stones, connecting him or her to others, allowing for the possibility of communication and affection.” The story follows Gemma from Claypoole to Sinclair’s estate and finally to Iceland, where her path originated. As Gemma explains to her school friend Miriam, “Words are the stepping-stones between one person and another. Sometimes they’re under water and you have to wait for them to surface again.” This thread of emotional connection throughout the book provides the reader with a sentimental connection to Gemma as well as the supporting characters.
“The Flight of Gemma Hardy” is, at its very best, an oft-absorbing replica of “Jane Eyre.” Livesey is a good writer, but her lack of creativity in the re-mastering of the classic novel proves fatal to the ingenuity of her story. As a complement to the original, “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” provides a welcome return to beloved characters. It remains, however, a decidedly sub-par facsimile of its parent novel. If only Livesey had lived up to Gemma’s final champagne toast—“Here’s to living under our rightful names”—and written a more veiled homage to the Jane and Rochester of 165 years past.
—Staff writer Charlotte M. Kreger can be reached at email@example.com.