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Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

All by itself, The Flight of Gemma Hardy would be a great book -- an enjoyable coming-of-age story about a young woman who must learn where she comes from and what she is capable of, with a nice little romance thrown in to boot.  Unfortunately, it is also a remake of Jane Eyre, and it can't compete.

What made Jane Eyre such a wonderful book, and a proto-feminist one, was Jane's unwavering integrity.  The book was driven by her sense of right and wrong and her insistence on always doing what was right, even at the expense of her personal happiness. By contrast, Gemma's actions are driven by her emotions; she reacts more than she acts. The one section where her morals come into prominent play is when she leaves Sinclair (her Rochester) because she will not tolerate lying.  Only, Sinclair's secret is no madwoman in the attic; although Gemma is right to be upset at his actions and deception, her reaction -- her "flight" from the castle -- is a rather silly overreaction.

Throughout the next part of the book, Gemma herself commits some bad acts and deceives a number of people, actions that are not only almost entirely unnecessary, but also not what Jane would ever do. The point, of course, is to teach Gemma the importance of forgiveness and understanding, especially with regard to Sinclair. And that's a perfectly laudable lesson, and Gemma is not a bad person despite her actions, nor an unlikeable one (heh).  But she is a bit of a disappointment.

I think part of the problem is that Flight is a twenty-first century retelling, and so personal happiness is the most important thing, not personal integrity.  Good and bad are relative, and people muddle along, acting selfishly or foolishly, focused on their own wants and needs.  Which is how people are like in real life, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to be better.  That's what Jane represented, at least for me -- a woman in a harsh world, mistreated by everyone who was supposed to care for her, with limited options because of her sex and station.  Yet she refused to be broken by this world, she would not let it compromise her, and she most certainly would not take the easy way out of her troubles. Because of this, her happy ending was much-deserved and very satisfying. 

On the other hand, the twenty-first century character of the book has its advantages.  In Jane Eyre her family and the school staff are caricatures of evil -- cruel, bullying, and above all profoundly hypocritical. The analogous characters in Flight are just as cruel and hypocritical, but they are also profoundly human.  Livesey allows us to see their own hopes, betrayals, and disappointments, making them far more satisfying characters.  They also teach Gemma that people are more than they seem, which dovetails nicely with the lessons in forgiveness and understanding she learns later.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy really was a very good book.  It's just not Jane Eyre.

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