Jane Eyre is the perfect coming-of-age novel, if you ask me. To read a 20th century retelling is a joy. And this is not just any retelling, but a beautifully written one that dovetails back and forth with the original, sometimes staying close, sometimes wandering farther afield. The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a great book in its own right, but it also offers the opportunity to ponder the author’s choices and what they say about women’s lives and independence in the 1960s compared to the mid-1800s.
There is also great pleasure to be had in the correspondence between the title and the text. As a young girl, Gemma would “fly away into the pictures” of her uncle’s birding book. She is attuned to the natural world, and birds in particular. She takes great interest in the unfamiliar species she spots in the Orkneys during her walks. Gemma herself is in flight more than once. It’s not a complicated correspondence, but it is lovely.
How many teens read Jane Eyre these days? I’m not sure. In my school, Wuthering Heights is a much more frequently assigned text. Fortunately, Gemma Hardy stands alone. And it might inspire the right young reader to pick up its inspiration.
Obviously, I am a huge fan of The Flight of Gemma Hardy. I suspect it will be among my personal favorites of the year. So why didn’t I give it a starred review? First, it sticks a little too close to the Jane Eyre storyline for the first half. And the nature of its appeal is not immediately engaging. As I mention in the review, it becomes progressively more absorbing as it moves forward. This is not the ideal trajectory for teen appeal. Also, the writing style is full of detailed description, both of place and of emotion. The reader comes away with clear mental pictures of the English country house where Gemma lives with her uncle’s family, the landscape and wildlife of the farm in the Orkneys, and the shores of Iceland. I reveled in this immersion myself, but I think it might slow down some teens readers. Gemma is young and very interesting, but she is rather adult in her self-examination, in the way she reflects on her motivations, influences, and cares. On the other hand, she is such a teenager in her yearnings for wider experience and the black & white nature of her judgments. Then she matures, gains perspective and some of that experience, and finds peace with the imperfections both of her past and of the man she loves. She grows up.
It wasn’t until I wrote all of this, including the review below, that I allowed myself a look at the New York Times review. (One of my rules, as you can imagine — no reading other reviews until I’ve figured out my own.) How touching is that first paragraph? I’m sure it’s not necessary for such personal experience to inspire a book, but it certainly explains the deep connections between Jane and Gemma… and Margot.
Adult/High School–Gemma is born in Iceland, but taken to England to live with her kind uncle after her father disappears at sea, fishing, when she is barely three. She is alternately ignored and abused by his cruel wife and children after his death, so she pursues a scholarship to attend boarding school. Unfortunately, at Claypoole scholarship students are lucky to spend any time in the classroom, more often preparing meals or cleaning bathrooms. Still, Gemma excels and, at 18, wins a post as nanny to a young girl who lives at Blackbird Hall, an isolated farm in the Orkney Islands owned by the frequently absent Mr. Sinclair. For the first time, she has a comfortable room of her own and satisfying work. But she is restless, and begins to suspect that making it to adulthood is only the start of her struggle for a better life. In this retelling of Jane Eyre set in the1960s, Gemma yearns to attend university, to be “beloved and regarded” as an equal, to know more about where she came from. Mr. Sinclair’s shame is not a wife in the attic, but a wartime lie. Birds and images of flight appear lightly and effectively throughout the text. Gemma shows an interest in birds from a young age, and her behavior mimics theirs, alighting briefly on a spot before taking off for the next, moving away from her aunt’s unhappy home, from Claypoole, from Mr. Sinclair, finally flying toward Iceland to find her past. Livesey’s affecting version of Brontë’s coming-of-age story becomes more and more absorbing the farther it moves away from the original, as Gemma finds the compromises in life that will work for her. –Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City