Monday, February 10, 2014

To be regarded

Quite possibly, it was Jane Eyre who turned me into an English major, and -- from a great distance -- a librarian. I can remember -- clear as a bell -- my revelation, upon reading Jane sometime in high school, that Jane was the origin story for all those trashy "governess" romances (I'm talking to you, Victoria Holt) that I inhaled wholesale at an earlier age. And Charlotte Brontë's version was so much better! (Curiously, as I was listening to this latest audiobook, a friend of mine reported that she is deep into a winter study of the book, its cousins and its many, many film interpretations. My library owns seven different versions ... I'm pretty sure I've seen them all!)

So, like The Séance from two weeks ago, Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy is meant for me. Livesey moves the novel's time period forward about 100 years to the late 1950s-early 1960s, relocates the memorable Yorkshire landscape to Scotland, the Orkney Islands and Iceland, and [sorry fans] does away with the madwoman in the attic. But otherwise, this is Jane Eyre to the life.

We first meet Gemma Hardy, age 10, coping with the recent death of her beloved uncle (who took her in when she was orphaned at three) and her resulting "demotion" in his family -- from cousin and niece to barely tolerated denizen of a cold attic room. Gemma's father was Icelandic and she was christened with an Icelandic name, but her history is a blank. Her nasty aunt soon packs her off to Claypoole, a boarding school where Gemma will be one of the "working" girls, paying for her education by helping with the meals and the cleaning. Of course, she and the other working girls are really slave labor with a snippet of education tossed in, but Gemma forms one close friendship with Miriam, a doomed asthmatic. Another of her many losses.

When the school closes before Gemma has a chance to taken her university entrance exams, she finds a job as an au pair at Blackbird Hall on the remote Orkney Islands, looking after the spoiled niece of Mr. Rochester ... er Mr. Hugh Sinclair, a London banker with family roots in the Orkneys. You know what happens next ...  I won't spoil the non-madwoman part, but Gemma has to do a little more fleeing and a little more finding of herself before, well, before the final clinch.

There is so much for an Eyre fanatic to love here -- the deliciousness of coming upon each familiar scene of the original and seeing how Livesey has updated the story. For example, Gemma and Mr. Sinclair meet on a dark night as he is changing the tire on his car. Gemma finds shelter with two lesbians after running from her broken engagement. The author also brings the wild settings of rural Scotland, the Orkneys and Iceland to vivid life. The characters are numerous, but all are fully realized -- and not a one resorts to a type (well, maybe the femme fatale that Sinclair brings with him to the Hall), and occasionally act differently (but honestly) from their 19th century counterparts. Although I've got to say that while Gemma is a worthy successor to Jane, Mr. Sinclair pales next to Mr. Rochester.

The one flaw for me was Gemma's reaction to the revelation of Mr. Sinclair's wrongdoing in the hours before her wedding. While the announcement comes honestly (it doesn't spring from nowhere), Gemma's horror seems excessive. As I write this, I may be reconsidering ... Her uprightness and occasional self-righteousness have been amply demonstrated, while (on the other hand) her youth and innocence seem to belie her understanding of the revelation. Hmm ... perhaps I'm too much on Team Eyre/Rochester to accept this as a reason for Gemma's flight. But Gemma has to leave, her flight is the whole point of the novel.

I understand that the trajectory of this novel is also influenced by Livesey's own childhood and adolescence. (Now, where did I read this?) From her website: "The Flight of Gemma Hardy is, in my mind, neither my autobiography nor a retelling of Jane Eyre. Rather I am writing back to Charlotte Brontë, recasting Jane's journey to fit my own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and place. And, like Brontë I am, of course, stealing from my own life." From the New York Times: "When Margot Livesey was nine years old, growing up motherless and lonely in Scotland, a book on her father's shelf caught her eye: Jane Eyre."

The marvelous Davina Porter (listen to her here talk about her work) narrates the book. She is just about perfect, reading Gemma's narrative in a tinged-with-Scottish English accent, while Gemma's dialogue has a much thicker burr (as if the years in London as Mrs. Sinclair had smoothed it out). Gemma's sense of fair play and moral rightness are clear in Porter's insistent delivery. The novel's other characters are all fully voiced, with everyone -- regardless of age, gender or origin -- sounding natural and authentic, even the Icelandic relatives Gemma unearths. Porter paces the lengthy novel so well, with moments of tension, romance, and loving delivery of the bountiful descriptions of the settings.

As often happens, reading one book leads to contemplation of another -- in this case, the original. Audio offerings at my library are beyond pitiful: one version on CD (no downloadable) read by a narrator I didn't care for the one time I listened to her. Audible has a version read by Juliet Stevenson, which would likely be marvelous ... marvelous enough to pay?

Margot Livesey also winds me about to the actor Roger Livesey ... are they related? Or is it just a really common Scottish name (or is it Welsh)? Whatever ... one of my very favorite romantic movies starred Roger Livesey and took place in Scotland: I Know Where I'm Going! I try to watch this every year or so.

[Two scenes from Gemma's travels.  Gemma and Mr. Sinclair visit the 3,000-year-old ruins of Skara Brae on the Orkney's Bay of Skaill. This photograph of the settlement was taken by Antony Slegg as part of the Geograph Project and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

[A landscape in Iceland, taken by Manfred Morgner, also from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Narrated by Davina Porter
AudioGO, 2012. 14:53

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