The key was emphasizing Jane’s righteous fury and the plot’s outrageous melodrama. Those same elements must have appealed to Margot Livesey when she first read the novel at the age of 9 while sitting in a room that looked over the Scottish moors. (What 9-year-old doesn’t like a good Bildungsroman?) In a brief preface to “The Flight of Gemma Hardy,” the writer notes that her childhood bore an eerie resemblance to Jane’s: She was poor and lonely. She was sent to an all-girls school where the other students bullied her. She prayed nightly for the place to burn down.
Now, approaching 60, with six novels behind her, Livesey has recast Bronte’s novel in the mid-20th century. She claims that “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” is “neither my autobiography nor a retelling of ‘Jane Eyre,’ ” but that’s a little like saying Mr. Rochester is not a married man. In fact, large swaths of “Gemma Hardy” track “Jane Eyre” closely. “Small and plain” as she may be, that original girl is a tough act to follow.
The opening is familiar, except that it’s 1959, instead of the early 19th century, and Gemma is a 10-year-oldorphan in Scotland, not Northern England. Otherwise, the gang’s all here: the spoiled cousins who abuse her and the villainous aunt who crates her off to a ghastly boarding school. Much of the pleasure in these opening chapters stems from recognizing the old haunts: Ah, the red-room where Jane had a fit and passed out. (Funny, it seems smaller now.) And, look! — there’s Lowood, with its consumptive dormitory. “Not one person in this room, or indeed within a hundred miles, wished me well,” Gemma thinks. Some things never change. The teachers make her wear a sign around her neck that says, “LATE,” which seems bad until she has to wear another one that says, “LIAR.” Then, just when she can’t endure this mistreatment any longer, Gemma makes a friend, a sweet girl with a bad limp. But watch out, Gemma: Something tells me your friend’s cough won’t get better.
Livesey reenacts all these allusive scenes without a hint of parody, although she can’t resist having the kindly doctor tell the headmistress, “Even the Victorians didn’t send children to work so young.” Readers who find Bronte’s style too thick and florid will appreciate Livesey’s smooth and lucid prose. She’s a fine storyteller who can maintain the antique flavor of her tale with far simpler sentences and an updated vocabulary.
But like a production of “Twelfth Night” where all the characters are played as cowboys or Prohibition-era gangsters, “Gemma Hardy” left me wondering why “Jane Eyre” needs to be resettled in the late 1950s. Livesey makes little of the contrast between the two tales or even the contrast between the two eras. Indeed, Gemma’s life in these small, remote towns seems so much closer to the early 19th century than the mid-20th that I was always startled when an automobile intruded on the scene. Livesey says that she wanted Gemma to “come of age just slightly before the rising tide of feminism — the pill, equal pay, discrimination,” but why modernize a young woman’s struggle and omit the fundamental revolutions of life for modern women?