Long one of my favorite authors, Margot Livesey explores fascinating elements of the modern human condition in her novels. The Flight of Gemma Hardy takes a new tack involving a reinvention of
Jane Eyre as she skewers the legendary heroine and reinvents her in 1950s Scotland and Iceland. Most startlingly, Livesey brings her young heroine to life as a girl who, while lacking any formal education, is wise far beyond her years.
Forced to live at Yew House after her parents die, Gemma possesses a gutsy, no-nonsense attitude.
She's constrained by the people around her, most notably her vituperative aunt and her abusive, selfish cousins. Only the wistful memories of her beloved
uncle buoy Gemma through the forlorn days and dark months ahead. She remembers fondly how her
uncle neglected his own children to teach her English and how he nursed her
first through measles and then tonsillitis.
In this bleak world of loneliness and solitude, Gemma gradually forgets her
homeland of Iceland and wonders how on earth she’s going to endure the next
seven years at Yew House. Gemma’s discovery of her long-lost relatives - and the fact that she’s good with numbers and can recognize most common birds by flight and song - suggests we're in store for an effective and faithful rendering of Bronte’s harrowing tale.
Picture Gemma alone on a windy train platform in Edinburgh where no one knows her name or her whereabouts, to her time at Claypoole School, where she's presided over by officious Miss Bryant and forced to endure a daily existence characterized by cooking and cleaning. Only later does Gemma understand that her arrival at Claypoole coincides with the great tide of change sweeping postwar Britain. When a friend dies from asthma, the event presages Gemma’s vulnerability as, yet again, she’s thrust out into the world, her reality giving way to despair and to hopelessness.
Forced to shoulder the armor of everyday existence, Gemma’s struggles allow her to finally see her naked self: “Since my uncle’s death I had clung to the belief that I was making my way through to the safe, fertile land of adulthood.” Even working as
an au pair on the desolate Orkney Islands comes with challenges. After she meets Mr. Sinclair, the handsome, stern owner of Blackbird Hall, Gemma must find a way
by which to rip the veil from ordinary life and revel in the passions and feelings that until now she has kept hidden.
Mysterious and evocative, Livesey sets her moody, atmospheric tale with a tragic, hidden cause in the treacherous, beautiful landscapes of sudden rain, moaning winds, and picaresque Scottish valleys,
symbolizing Gemma’s often restless heart. A girl with no money or obvious talents, Gemma flies through her life, enduring great hardship, desiring to be treated like an equal and to be loved and regarded.
From the distant roaring of Gemma’s long-missed friend to the waves of family history that roll all the way from Iceland to cheeky, wayward Nell at Blackbird Hall, the story’s energy
lies in the love that grips Gemma and Mr. Sinclair, a love as tenuous and as vulnerable as the delicate sea birds that Gemma so admires. When an disastrous secret is revealed, all of Gemma’s happiness is in danger of being destroyed.
Like Jane, Gemma will once again face poverty and isolation.
Gemma may not have been graced with beauty or money, but she has a spirit of fire and a real sense of independence. Beautiful and heartbreaking, the novel is about the realization of selfhood and how a once young, vulnerable girl must learn to rise above her circumstances and rule with her heart and not with her head.