The Flight of Gemma Harding

Does this sound familiar?

A ten-year old orphan is adopted by her mother’s brother.  When her uncle dies, her cruel aunt mistreats her, and her mean cousins find every opportunity to torment her.  Finally, she is sent off to a boarding school where her life becomes even more miserable as she finds herself an indentured servant to earn her board and tuition. Eventually, she becomes the governess to a precocious young girl in the care of her handsome and rich benefactor.  It is no accident that Margot Livesey creates a modern-day Jane Eyre in her gothic romance –  The Flight of Gemma Harding.

Like Bronte’s heroine, Gemma is feisty, smart, and determined to have a better life.  Fans of Jane Eyre will recognize familiar scenes, but Livesey carefully modernizes the tale with clever historical updates. Gemma yearns for a university education (doubtful that Jane ever could aspire to that in the 1840s), but most elements are the same – except for one important difference.

Mr. Sinclair is not Mr. Rochester, despite his similar handsome and rich attributes.  When 18-year-old Gemma flees on her wedding day from 41-year-old Hugh Sinclair, no lunatic wife haunts the attic.  His sin is still deceit, but Gemma’s perception makes it seem worse.  He suddenly is no longer the idealistic hero she had imagined.

“It’s not as if I have another wife, or a mistress, or a child.  I did something wrong when I was eighteen.”

No spoiler here, but the revelation of Sinclair’s fumbling left me yearning for the brooding Rochester.  As the story continued, I found myself checking my memory – missing the original.

Livesey focuses on Gemma’s coming of age tale – making the book more readable to its young adult audience.   In Livesey’s version, the heroine finds her heritage and her fortune in Iceland.  And, of course, lives happily ever – after she grows up a little.  The ending is not as dramatic as Jane Eyre, but retains the elements of romance and possibilities.

I remember listening to an updated song with my parents as they remembered its original version – so much better, they thought.  Having never heard any other, I did not understand their anxiety – until later when I heard theirs.   The Flight of Gemma Harding has all the romantic elements for an easy read, and Livesey’s eloquence kept me reading to the end.   But will readers who have never read Jane Eyre know the difference?  Will they know what they are missing?

Related Article:  Jane Eyre