The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is a modern re-write of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre set in twentieth century Scotland.
Livesey purposely follows the plot line of Jane Eyre quite closely for most of the book, including little details along the way that readers of Jane Eyre will recognize — like beginning the book with a near identical sentence and matching weather conditions to the beginning of Jane Eyre. In the opening of The Flight of Gemma Hardy we meet the orphaned Gemma as she is coping with the death of her uncle and the subsequent rejection by her aunt and cousins. Not surprisingly, Gemma is sent away to a nasty school for girls in the Borders of Scotland.
The time Gemma spends at the girls’ school is difficult and depressing. Despite the harsh circumstances, Gemma manages to get an education for herself and to make a friend or two along the way. Eventually the girls’ school closes and Gemma is forced to find a job to support herself. After sending out numerous inquires, Gemma finds employment as a tutor to a motherless child residing at Blackbird Hall in the Orkneys.
It is at this point in the book, when Gemma moves to the Orkney islands, that the descriptions of the Scottish countryside begin to appear and one really notices that this book is set in Scotland. Gemma heads to a farming community in the northeast part of the main island where Blackbird Hall is situated. Once at Blackbird Hall Gemma must win the trust of her charge, a wild youngster named Nell. Over time Gemma gets to know the other staff in the house and their families. Eventually the elusive Mr. Sinclair, Gemma’s true employer, comes to Blackbird Hall to visit his niece, Nell, and check on the progress she is making with her new governess.
Knowing the plot of Jane Eyre, we know that Gemma and Mr. Sinclair fall in love, and, of course, have a major falling out which results in Gemma’s moving away from the island back to the mainland. At this point the plot line diverges a bit from what we would expect. Gemma is taken in by two middle-aged women in the town of Aberfeldy and eventually finds tutoring work there. Like Jane Eyre she is drawn into a relationship with a young man but there is a different twist to how it unfolds. Part of this unfolding involves her deep interest in Iceland, the land of her mother’s birth, and her longing to return there to see where she herself spent several years as a young child. Of course the book must end with a similar conclusion to that of Jane Eyre which means Gemma gets back together with Mr. Sinclair. Livesey throws in a little feminist-sounding twist to the very end bringing the story of Jane Eyre truly into the modern age.
“Meanwhile she punched down the dough and asked what the Borders were like. I told her about the soft, rounded hills, the remains of volcanoes — volcanoes in Scotland, she exclaimed — and the green fields. I described the abbeys the regular girls had visited on school trips, and Sir Walter Scott’s house.”
Travel Notes: this book would be ideal for reading while traveling in the Borders, during a visit to the Orkneys, or a stay in Perthshire.