The first time I read “Jane Eyre,” I was 32 and teaching it to an energetic class of high school freshmen. After months of male-oriented fare such as “The Odyssey,” “A Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies,” most of the girls soaked up this stirring story of a young woman’s struggles, but predictably the boys cried, “Unjust! Unjust!” Revolt was a dangerous possibility (and I knew I’d be the Piggy character). I either had to persuade these guys to enjoy Charlotte Bronte’s Victorian classic or risk losing control of the class entirely.
Reader, I taught them.
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?
The larger problem, though, is that Gemma is a plainer plain Jane. She rails and she rages, but she never attains the volcanic fury of her predecessor, which, after all, is what makes Jane so hypnotic. Writing anonymously on the Yorkshire moors, Bronte appeals directly to our sense of victimization, our smothered superiority. Why are we not loved? Why don’t people recognize us for who we really are? How long must we endure this “ever-torturing pain”? These are the broiling adolescent questions that “Jane Eyre” gives voice to in such full-throated cries. The novel allows us to luxuriate in our wounded sense of others’ unreasonable disregard for how wonderful we really are. And that same tone of emotional extravagance is reflected in the marvelously gothic plot of “Jane Eyre” that finally bursts into flames and consumes everything.
By modulating all those elements of Bronte’s classic, Livesey has produced a novel that’s far more reasonable, but what more withering thing could someone say about a well-written story? The thunderstorm romance that crashes through “Jane Eyre” is about as disruptive in these pages as a passing cloud. The sizzling eroticism of the 1847 novel makes the tepidness of this modern book’s sexuality all the more baffling.
We want to see “passion in every lineament,” but dangerous Mr. Rochester has become neutered Mr. Sinclair — sometimes aloof, but hardly threatening. (No need to bother Timothy Dalton; we can use Hugh Grant for the film version.) As Mr. Sinclair jokes with Gemma, “It’s not as if I have another wife.” Yes, poor Bertha hasn’t just been removed to the attic; she’s been evicted from the story entirely, replaced by a clotted plot complication that produces barely enough heat to keep the book moving, let alone burn down the mansion. (If you want a different view on “Jane Eyre,” go back to Jean Rhys’s “Wide Sargasso Sea” — it still smolders.)
When an author dons the mantle of a classic, it’s not unreasonable to expect her to reanimate it in some significant way. There’s nothing jarring or silly about this homage (for that, see Sherri Browning Erwin’s “Jane Slayre” with a werewolf bride in the attic), but for all of Livesey’s intelligent and graceful storytelling, she keeps Gemma Hardy’s flight too close to the ground.
Charles is The Post’s fiction critic. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY
By Margot Livesey
Harper. 447 pp. $26.99