In the world of literary blogging, everyone seems to love Jane Eyre. Me? Not so much. Jane Eyre as a character has never inspired me, although I’ve always blamed the horrible teacher who made the girls in our class read Jane Eyre while the boys read All Quiet on the Western Front. The minute you ask me to do something just because I’m a girl, I’m outta there.
So I read all the blog-love for Jane Eyre with skepticism, although I know I haven’t read the novel as an adult and I’m impossibly biased. Still, Jane Eyre lacks fire to me. Sure, she’s strong and overcomes great obstacles in her life. She’s also plain, moral, and a little on the dull side. And Mr. Rochester ranks way down there with Heathcliff on my list of romantic heroes. No, I’ll take Emma Woodhouse or Eustacia Vye any day as a heroine. What I want in a heroine is someone exciting and courageous and occasionally pretty screwed up.
I’m perfectly comfortable with my disdain for Wuthering Heights, but Jane Eyre gives me pause. So I was happy to hear about Margot Livesey’s new book, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is based on the story of Jane Eyre. I may not love the Bronte sisters but I really like Livesey’s work. She’s a Scottish author who’s written The Missing World, Criminals, and Eva Moves the Furniture. All good reads. And Gemma’s getting rave reviews from readers and newspapers.
And yet, about halfway through the book, I found myself unmoved. Gemma is somehow not a likeable character. Her childhood is a shade too pathetic, and as an adult she turns self-reliance into selfishness. She disappears when things get rough, she’s judgmental, and her one “friendship” seems a little forced.
If you know Jane Eyre there isn’t too much plot I can ruin for you, but I’ll stay away from spoilers anyway. Livesey changes the time of the novel, from the 1800s to the mid-twentieth century, post-World War II, and I thought that didn’t work too well. For one thing, Mr. Sinclair’s crime, compared to hiding a mad wife away in an attic, is pretty weak. I found the change in time distracting, mainly because Livesey writes the book from a rural British perspective where much of what happens could also happen in the 1800s. The post-WWII period (at least in the U.S.) was such a fascinating time for women, but I just didn’t see the turbulence of the time reflected in the book, except for the occasional reference to the war.
Gemma’s love for Mr. Sinclair (aka Mr. Rochester) is a little hard to believe. One of Gemma’s primary concerns with marrying Mr. Sinclair is their age difference, which probably was less of an issue in Charlotte Bronte’s time. But in this nearly-modern retelling the much-older employer seducing his young nanny is just creepy. At the same time, I liked that Gemma’s reluctance to marry stems more from her lack of life experience than from his deception. I also enjoyed the setting of the book in the Orkneys and the exploration of Scotland’s Viking heritage.
The most interesting part of the book was Gemma’s brief experience of homelessness. Livesey vividly shows us what it’s like for Gemma to hit rock bottom – she has no money, no food, no one to turn to. As a child she’s frequently abused and then told, at least you have a home and food, and we see what happens when she doesn’t (and what happens to others in her position). It’s then that Gemma becomes most human and most admirable.
But Jane/Gemma are this uncomfortable mix for me of too-perfect and totally insensitive to the needs of others. It’s hard to get past Gemma’s lack of consideration of her employers in the Orkneys and then of her new friends in the town of Aberfeldy. When she finally reaches a point where she has true friends and people who need her, she lies, steals, and runs away. We’re supposed to see her flaws as growth because the book tells us so (she’s told as a child she will someday know what it means to betray others) but telling me that doesn’t make it any better.
So the question is, did I not love this book because it was based on Jane Eyre? And if yes, I wonder if that’s due to my own bias – or maybe I can finally say, in all fairness, that she’s just not a character or a story I enjoy.