The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Fate has not been kind to Gemma Hardy. Orphaned by the age of ten, neglected by a bitter and cruel aunt, sent to a boarding school where she is both servant and student, young Gemma seems destined for a life of hardship and loneliness. Yet her bright spirit burns strong. Fiercely intelligent, singularly determined, Gemma overcomes each challenge and setback, growing stronger and more certain of her path. Now an independent young woman with dreams of the future, she accepts a position as an au pair on the remote and beautiful Orkney Islands.
But Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin . . . a journey of passion and betrayal, secrets and lies, redemption and discovery that will lead her to a life she’s never dreamed.
There will be two parts to this review: 1) a review of this book as a stand-alone novel, and 2) a review as a partner/homage to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. I am extra critical for this, as I had to pay close attention to the book for academic purposes.
I quite enjoyed this historical fiction, coming-of-age, romance novel! Livesey paints a beautiful picture of the Scottish landscape. Scottish and Icelandic histories are scattered throughout, connecting each bit of the story together. I also found Gemma’s fascination with birds to be more than symbolic – they were very educational and meaningful as well. Her rough childhood in the late 1950’s boarding schools, through her years as a nanny in the 60s truly developed into a maturing experience. Gemma is an intelligent, strong-willed, lonely character. She knew many people, and people were friendly to her, but she always felt like an outsider. Some of my favorite parts included Scottish and Icelandic folklore, the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy.
My only complaint would be Gemma’s reasons for leaving first Hugh and then Archie. Livesey could have fleshed out the excuses more clearly. I did not get the sense that Gemma felt love for Hugh in the first place – fascination, maybe, but not love – and her reason for leaving him seemed hypocritical, naïve, and silly. She was unwilling to forgive him for a tiny slip-up in his past, which did not make sense to me whatsoever. Archie, however, appeared to actually love her, despite what Gemma thought. She seemed to love him too, or at least more so than Hugh – and her excuse to leave him (he lacked “passion”) also seemed miniscule. In fact, what she did to test him almost seemed risqué, childish, and far too forward. Passion is not the same as lust, and with Livesey’s lack of detail in describing Gemma’s innermost thoughts did not help in distinguishing the two.
I can overlook this because only at the end does Gemma state plainly and directing that her reasons for fleeing both men were immature. I only wished that Livesey gave more reasonable excuses earlier in the book so that, as a reader, I wouldn’t be left wondering and bothered (in an annoyed way) throughout. This history, the detail, and Gemma’s character growth kept me going – I wanted to see what happened next on her journeys!
Part Two (***contains spoilers***)
As far as a homage to Jane Eyre, I could definitely see the similarities. The opening lines, in fact, are nearly the same: referring to not taking a walk that day. The first third of both stories involve a poor childhood in a boarding school, but succeeding in studies despite the hardships. The second portion of both books deal with governess-like positions for a rich, older man in a massive, lonely house; the man has a secret; there’s a family crisis. The third portion of both books show a state of independence, each woman given a new home with two women and a man, and a love ordeal with that man; then later, of course, fleeing back to the older man at the manor. The End.
So, in short, Gemma Hardy and Jane Eyre contain the same skeleton of a story. Jane Eyre is my favorite novel, so of course I’m going to judge Gemma Hardy a bit harshly simply because so many rave reviews say it’s just like the classic. To which I have to say: no, it’s not.
Jane is quiet, observant, respectful of herself and others, a moral compass not through religion but by her own actions, a woman desiring independence and seeking equality among friends. She sought family ties, wanted to repay debts, and did not scour for money only to be rich but to live as simply as possible without starvation. She loved Rochester and Rochester loved her – she only fled him because he was asking far too much of her: to become his mistress while his wife was still alive. For Jane, that is a huge moral and personal disrespect. She also had a platonic relationship with St John, and wanted to travel to India as a sister or friend, not as a wife, because in her eyes a wife is someone to love, not someone to only work alongside the husband.
Gemma is loud, but still observant. She defends herself against attackers but seems to not have any self-respect or hesitation when it comes to new men. She desires independence and friendship as well, but it all seems to be about networking and money. She wanted to know more about her family history, yet somehow it came back to inheritances. Gemma claims to have loved Hugh, but in truth she seemed more infatuated and lustful than in love – there are descriptions of her looking at him, wanting to be kissed by him, doing everything she can to get his attention. She flees Hugh because he switched his WWII draft with a distant cousin, and she can’t marry a “liar.” But then, when she flees, all she does is lie and steal and harm others. Archie loves her, or at least I felt so, but she tested him by unbuttoning her shirt, claiming that if he doesn’t do the same then he has no passion. I would disagree. Archie and Gemma were more equals than Hugh and Gemma.
I also found difficulties seeing this as a modern gothic novel. Yes, there were muddled family histories, but nothing as shocking as a wife locked in the attic. Yes, there were ghosts, but all of them were friendly. There was a manor, but it was not haunted, nor did it have a spooky past.
(***no more spoilers***)
Despite my criticism in Part Two, I stand by what I said in Part One. Gemma Hardy was an enjoyable read, a good adventure, and I liked it very much.
Goodreads: 3.7 of 5