The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
I chose Jane Eyre for my senior thesis on derivative works (by which I of course mean fanfiction) rather than any particular Austen for three reasons: Jane Eyre is often misunderstood and read through the lens of a romance novel, it already has a recognized and respected derivative work associated with it (Wide Sargasso Sea), and the sheer amount of Austen pastiches, even were I to limit myself to a single book, would, frankly, kill me. Of course, I didn’t realize it was the season for Jane Eyre-derived works, and this year alone has brought A Breath of Eyre, the upcoming Ironskin, and The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel which poses an interesting question in terms of derivative works.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy follows the plight of the titular Gemma Hardy, an orphan living with her uncle’s family in Scotland in the late 1950s. After the death of her uncle, Gemma is left to the hatred of her aunt and cousins, until she is sent to a boarding school called Claypoole, where she’s treated poorly but finds friendship and learns. After school, she applies to be an au pair for a little girl on the remote Orkney Islands. There, for the first time, Gemma finds something like a home, helped by her attraction to her employer, Mr. Sinclair. But the parents she’s never known still tug at the back of her mind.
I don’t know if it’s because this was the first novel I picked up after the abject failure of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but I blazed through The Flight of Gemma Hardy and couldn’t wait to read it. It felt like swimming through water after trying to bash my head through a brick wall. Any and every reading is subjective, even when it’s readings of the same book, but I particularly enjoyed just reading this novel, even if I don’t ultimately love it.
A major theme I’ve been picking out of a lot of the Jane Eyre books I’ve been reading this summer is addressing the lack of female friendships and relationships in the original novel. Obviously, there’s Jane’s school friend Helen, but as an adult, there’s little beyond one or two appearances by Jane’s mother. Even Jane Slayre arranges things to give Jane a female mentor, and The Flight of Gemma Hardy does the same. Gemma’s relationship with her female cousins is fairly good, until her aunt decides that she’s not welcome; she never returns, so it’s not developed, but there’s something sustaining about it. And even her time at Claypoole is marked by intricate female alliances and betrayals. I was quite intrigued by the use of female violence that Gemma witnesses. Livesey even transforms Rochester’s gypsy disguise into an actual woman with a beef against him. There’s even a female couple at the end, which I was quite pleased with.
But for all its thoughtful female relationships, it falls short precisely because it recalls Jane Eyre. The Flight of Gemma Hardy isn’t a sequel, a prequel, or a midquel to the original text; it advertises itself as an “homage” to the original novel. For the first half of the book, it plays beautifully off the original, remaining its own creature while nodding appropriately to Jane Eyre. And then it falls apart by trying to become its own creature. It’s a very odd sensation. Had The Flight of Gemma Hardy been published with no mention of Jane Eyre (some the references would have to be downplayed), it would have stood on its own—a bit shakily, but on its own none the less. But because Jane is stalking Gemma’s every step, it’s hard not to compare and have Gemma herself come up short. Even their names are antithetical of each other—Jane Eyre, plain and ephemeral, Gemma Hardy, precious and stubborn. (I’ll be honest, Id idn’t exactly care for her as a character.) And Gemma’s moral dilemma with Sinclair is laughable on its own and just looks petty compared to Jane’s great moral dilemma with Rochester. It manages to feel like it’s artificially trying to hit a beat of the original novel while trying to be itself, and it’s that tension that really hurts the novel. And I feel like I can’t accurately judge the novel on its own merits when it’s both clinging to and pushing away the merits of the original novel.
And then there’s a more personal pet peeve. The St. John analogue reads as asexual, due to his lack of interest in sex, and I was initially quite excited; his confession to Gemma talks about sharing his life’s work, which is reading, and how it can be more enriching when someone you love is doing it with you. He’s not terrified of physical contact; he’s quite happy to kiss Gemma chastely, which he does a lot. Ah, I thought, how delightful! An asexual character treated as an actual human being. And then, of course, Gemma ruined it by assuming he’s mistaking friendship for love (despite his very clear declaration), talks about how if he only kissed her with sufficient passion she’d love him (instead of simply accepting that she doesn’t love him and that is totally okay, it happens), and speculates he’s gay and denying it. On the one hand, it’s the sixties and I don’t expect much of Gemma as a human being; on the other hand, there’s a way for a modern writer to deal with this in a historical context without telling an asexual person that they’re broken and/or confused, even if they don’t have a concept of asexuality. It’s just a concept of treating people as human beings and believing them when they say things. Like that they love someone. Yurgh.
Bottom line: The Flight of Gemma Hardy suffers an identity crisis; after a thoughtful and intertextual first half, it breaks down, simultaneously clinging to Jane Eyre while pushing it away. This tension just hurts the novel, especially when Gemma’s petty moral crisis is compared to Jane’s. And its treatment of the St. John analogue does not endear me to it. If you’d like.
I rented this book from the public library.