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 Persuasion—in 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.