Margot Livesey wrote this novel as an homage and update to Jane Eyre, for modern times. Never having read Jane Eyre (shame on me), or Margot Livesey’s many lauded novels (more shame), I can’t make direct comparisons and analyses, but, it doesn’t matter. Ms. Livesey succeeds in showing that Charlotte Bronte’s story is timeless.
And never before did I think of Jane Eyre as a coming-of-age novel!
The biggest challenge – and intent – for Ms. Livesey has to have been creating a mid-20th Century parallel to the Victorian trajectory of Jane’s life for young Gemma’s own flight through life. She too spreads her wings out of an archaic, impoverished, unloving, remote late childhood to personal and social challenges, and finally a kind of contemporary (late 20th v mid-19th Century) womanhood. I should admit up front, I did not appreciate her “modernized” ending. Well, this is an thought-provoking read as well as a good one.
It is fascinating to pass through her adaptation of Jane’s Victorian charity school environment to an exclusive 20th Century boarding school with “scholarship students”, of which “fortunate” Gemma becomes one; but that’s just a cloaking phrase for an actual practice wherein those disadvantaged girls are the unpaid school workforce, on top of their study demands, and the butt of the well off girls’ nastiness. Economics and class never change.
Moving on, Gemma becomes not a governess in a gloomy Hall, but a modern nanny. Her challenging young charge lives in an isolated but very comfortable contemporary island household, with a peripatetic father often off-island on business. There is no madwoman in the attic, no brooding, dark-browed, romantic hero. Rather, some unexpectedly self-indulgent and neurotic rich professionals.
Gemma, never a super-heroine, always a protagonist with a feeling intelligence, negotiates these and other challenges with sometimes smooth and sometimes rocky determination. In fact she’s one of the most determined heroines I’ve ever encountered – not for nothing is she named Hardy – which can be less than sympathetic.
When at last she breaks out of her successive nesting environments, and makes a Great Personal Decision, her apparently final choice may not be in the least what many would expect, or agree with. I am one of those who disagree. Admittedly, I may have missed something.
But there is no doubt that following Gemma’s flight toward the modern world is involving. Much of the pleasure comes from the best-selling, award-wining Ms. Livesey’s writing. There is something seductive in the vocabulary and phrasing. Combined with the plot, the novel was a gratifying experience of being in the hands of a completely trustworthy story teller.
Author’s Website: http:/margotlivesey.com