“Covering” the Classics: an Homage or a Rip-Off?

Ripping Off The Classics_LiveseyCharlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) has inspired numerous adaptations. Margot Livesey’s novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy (2012), is a recent example.

Borrowing heavily from Brontë’s classic, Livesey’s book features an orphan girl who attends a wretched boarding school before becoming an au pair in Scotland in the 1960s. Her charge is an eight-year-old girl, the niece of Mr. Sinclair, a wealthy bachelor. You do not have to read the book to know what transpires between Gemma and Mr. Sinclair, as the relationship on which it was based, the one between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, is well-known (if, however, you do not know anything about Jane Eyre, then please proceed with caution: there are a handful of spoilers in this post).

Livesey’s novel has its charms, such as its omission of the parts of Jane Eyre that may seem outlandish to modern readers (I roll my eyes when the fortune teller reveals her identity); however, the adaptation lacks many of the virtues of Brontë’s original.

For example (here are three of many issues!):

  • Why would forty-one-year-old Mr. Sinclair be romantically involved with an eighteen-year-old employee he barely knows (who presumably still looks like a child based on the description)? In Brontë’s novel, Mr. Rochester’s ardent feelings for Jane are similarly sudden, but make more sense in light of Mr. Rochester’s tortured past, loneliness, the incidents that brought them closer together (such as Jane’s saving his life), and his stated attraction to Jane’s “unearthly” qualities.***
  • Why did Gemma disappear so abruptly on their wedding day? Mr. Sinclair’s “secret” did not feel like a big deal to me. It’s a lie, maybe enough for Gemma to break an engagement, but enough to run away, nearly die in a ditch, and assume a new identity? I don’t think so. Whereas in Jane’s case, I can understand why she left Thornfield; she couldn’t marry Mr. Rochester.
  • Livesey’s adaptation lacks the lesson of Brontë’s novel that, as Jane says, “beauty is of little consequence.” Livesey attempts to stay true to this aspect of Jane Eyre with platitudes about appearance, such as “The [peahens/female mallards] don’t need to be flashy to attract attention,” but she does not show us this lesson by actually making Gemma unattractive. Gemma is plain to some, but many others proclaim her to be pretty and her relationship with Mr. Sinclair cannot be based on much substance apart from physical attraction.

I left this novel feeling very ambivalent about the merits of adaptations like this one.  Part of the writing process is building a story from scratch, scene by scene, and it feels like cheating when a writer simply borrows a blueprint for a story that someone else developed 150 years ago.

To be sure, literary references are part of the creative process, and even Shakespeare borrowed plots from the earlier works of others. But should unoriginal derivatives be billed as stand-alone novels when there is little novel about them? Perhaps Charlotte Brontë’s name should be featured as prominently on the cover of this novel as Ms. Livesey’s name. The book description on Amazon refers to it briefly as “an homage” to Brontë, but in the ebook version I read, Brontë is mentioned nowhere, except in the extraneous “additional praise” section. The author’s sole reference to Jane Eyre is a single line in in the acknowledgement, “My main literary debt is obvious.”

These are not legal questions—it is generally legal to borrow plots, especially from old books like Jane Eyre, which has been out of copyright for over a century. The question is one of propriety.

There are many who will enjoy The Flight of Gemma Hardy for its light romance, charming setting, and strong similarity to Jane Eyre (without the passion), but I still wonder whether this book is worth $7.99 (on Kindle) when the original Jane Eyre is free (on Kindle).

For a positive review of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, see Bibliosue.

*By the way, I think the worst pick-up line/marriage proposal ever is in Jane Eyre, when Mr. Rochester proclaims to Jane: “You—you strange, you almost unearthly thing!—I love as my own flesh. You—poor and obscure, and small and plain as you are—I entreat to accept me as a husband.” In comparison, Mr. Darcy’s first proposal to Lizzy in Pride and Prejudice is positively smooth!

_________________________________

*I wrote this post long before I ever considered updating a classic myself. I published Amelia Elkins Elkins–a “courtroom drama” version of Jane Austen’s Persuasionin June 2015. The blueprint for the romantic parts of the story came from Jane Austen, but the legal framework came from my imagination (with a little guidance from real-life mesh litigation). It was also important to me that the book be inexpensive, considering the fact that the real thing, Jane Austen’s classic, is free.

26 thoughts on ““Covering” the Classics: an Homage or a Rip-Off?

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  10. kirkykoo79

    Interesting post. I don’t generally see the point of ‘covers’ of classic novels unless there is something significant added. (Do it differently or do it better – I’d apply this to song covers too.) However there are many great books (not strictly covers) that wouldn’t exist without ‘Jane Eyre’. The obvious one is ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, but my favourite is ‘The Eyre Affair’ by Jasper Fforde. If you haven’t read it, check it out. (I’ve reread it recently and will hopefully get around to posting about it on my blog soon if you want more details.)

    1. I loved “The Eyre Affair”! I also liked several of the other Thursday Next books, which I read a number of years ago. Maybe it’s time to re-read them. I’m looking forward to reading about it on your blog!

  11. At first, I thought that this article was going to be about those “retold” tales that involve futuristic/supernatural elements, such as “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” I am more okay with something like that, as it offers something new to the story (and, as you mention, is legal to do) and is an interesting challenge to try and parody the writing style of older times. And credit to the original author is always given. However, when a book’s plot is taken and then credited to someone else, then that is just unfriendly borrowing.
    –JW

    1. I rather like stories that put familiar characters into completely different situations. Those books are fun to read. That’s not what Livesey did (in my opinion). The first half of “Gemma Hardy” tracks “Jane Eyre” very closely, and the second half only deviates in ridiculous ways.

  12. The “secret” that thwarted their intended marriage was so dumb that it made me question the author’s understanding of basic 20th Century history. The “secret” had two parts: a banal and meaningless part that would not have bothered any reasonable person, and an extraordinary part that made him a bona fide hero! So what’s the problem?

    To top it off, the ending was so bad it was insulting to readers.

    1. Yes, the ending was extraordinarily dumb. I decided it was virtually impossible to talk about the ending specifically without sounding cruel, so I decided to focus on three other points.

      I have found that I like “Jane Eyre” the more I think about it, while it seems that quite the opposite is true for “Gemma Hardy.” The more I think about “Gemma,” the more irritated I am by it.

  13. I’ve got a Kindle on the way and now I’m extra curious to read Jane Eyre. Yes, I must admit I haven’t read it. But that’s why I have good blogger friends like you to push me in the right reading direction. 🙂 As for the Flight of Gemma Hardy, I don’t think I’ll bother, unless it ends up being a free ebook.

    1. I hope you enjoy it! It’s one of those novels I like more in retrospect than at the time I’m reading it. It’s worth reading, though. As I said in the post, parts seem outlandish to the modern mind, but it also has so many timeless qualities. My heart breaks for young Jane, who is similar to Harry Potter (I have no idea whether Rowling drew upon Bronte intentionally). Jane is an orphan living with a cruel Aunt (and a cousin like Dudley) before she goes off to a boarding school. Jane’s Lowood is nothing like Hogwarts, but there are modest supernatural elements to the story. It’s interesting that Fiona Shaw plays the Aunt in both the 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre and in Harry Potter.

  14. Great post. As a former hunter, I’d like to correct the analogy that female birds dont need to be flashy, therefore human women don’t need that, either. Female birds are plain so they can hide; it’s a protection thing. Males have to be flashy to get their attention.

    In our world, both men and women need to stand out to win mates. 🙂

  15. I’m fine with updating a classic, but I definitely agree with you that there has to be something new to it, some new twist that makes this other version worth reading; it can’t just be the same story.

    This is a movie and not a book, but I love how “Ten Things I Hate About You” took Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” story and updated it, as an example of a classic redone and redone well. 🙂

    1. I thought “Ten Things I Hate About You” was a good adaptation, too. It is sufficiently different from the original, as is “Clueless” (in comparison to “Emma”).

      Livesey’s book tracks “Jane Eyre” very closely, particularly in the first half. The connections to “Jane Eyre” start to fall apart in the second half, but not in ways that improve the story (such as Mr. Sinclair’s unimportant “secret”). The biggest differences are location and time, but even these changes do not separate the novel much from the original. The book takes place in the mid-1960s and yet it might as well have taken place in the mid-19th Century. Gemma barely even uses a telephone!

  16. Marriage proposals—Now wouldn’t that be an interesting blog question..Ask everyone how their husband’s proposed to them..My husband got down on one knee! : ) It was very sweet.

    1. Yes, it would. My husband proposed at the Flower Show in Boston. While I didn’t quite expect him to give me ring there, I wasn’t surprised either. We had been discussing it for months.

  17. You make some really apt points. Updating a classic? Well, since all art repeats and comes from past experience, it is difficult to make that which is truly original, but you cite many curious parallels and those which are not done as well as the original. It seems that a book should be different enough not to draw the reader into direct comparison.

    1. Generally, I don’t support harsh copyright protections. I believe that the creative process is dependent on a certain amount of borrowing, but when you borrow too much, then I start to question what value you’ve added. Just because it’s legal to lift an entire plot from another book doesn’t mean you should.

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