I always wanted to read “Jane Eyre”, and felt like I did after I read the well written novel by Margot Livesey, “The Flight Of Gemma Hardy”. A captivating tale, set in Scotland in the early 1960s, that is both an homage to and a modern variation on the enduring classic”Jane Eyre”. Fate has not been kind to Gemma Hardy. Orphaned by the age of ten, neglected by a bitter and cruel aunt, sent to a boarding school where she is both servant and student, young Gemma seems destined for a life of hardship and loneliness. Yet her bright spirit burns strong. Fiercely intelligent, singularly determined, Gemma overcomes each challenge and setback, growing stronger and more certain of her path. But Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin…a journey of passion and betrayal, secrets and lies, redemption and discovery, that will lead her to a life she’s never dreamed of.
I gushed about the book in 2012, and still think about the powerful story. You can access the full blog here. I’m so grateful Margot agreed to an interview because I loved learning about the challenges she faced while trying to write in the shadow of a masterpiece. Enjoy!
Margot, thank you so much for answering my questions. Let’s get to the interview:
Is “Jane Eyre” one of your favorite books?
Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels. I first read it when I was nine years old, a year younger than Jane is when the novel opens, and I fell in love with her loneliness and her determination. As an adult I’ve re-read the novel several times, always finding new things, and always impressed by how vividly Charlotte Bronte brings Jane, and her passions, to life. It was after leading a book club discussion of the novel and discovering how many readers shared my reactions, that I decided to write my own reimagining of Jane’s story set in 1960s Scotland.
What character trait did you most identify with in Gemma?
Gemma is very different from me but, like most novelists, I’m quite stubborn and I think that trait is one she shares.
Of the situations Gemma faced, which was your favorite, and why?
Gosh, it’s hard to choose. I was very intrigued by the difficulties she faces when she goes to the Orkney Islands as a young and inexperienced au pair and finds herself dealing with the recalcitrant Nell. And I was also fascinated by how she deals with being bullied at her dreadful boarding school where she’s surrounded by girls who are bigger and stronger.
What was it like to write in the shadow of a masterpiece, a novel that has not been out of print since it was published in 1847?
It was both hard and exhilarating. What I wanted to take from Jane Eyre was the classic story of an orphan having to make her own way in the world and overcoming many difficulties and demons but of course those difficulties and demons were going to be different in 1960s Scotland. I tried to signal this to my reader by giving Gemma an Icelandic father in chapter two. One of the biggest challenges, of course, was Mrs. Rochester. Even in 1847 Bronte was worried about her treatment of the mad wife and I determined (albeit somewhat reluctantly) that there would be no attics and no mad wives in my novel. I should say that once I’d decided to embark on my reimagining, I hid my copy of Jane Eyre and didn’t look at it again until after Gemma was published.
What is the best book you read lately?
My dear friend Andrea Barrett just published a wonderful collection of stories: Archangel. The stories are set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and mostly revolve around scientists of various kinds. Barrett does a wonderful job of making me feel like a more intelligent reader and of bringing her complex characters to life.
Who is your favorite author?
I am the kind of person who usually carries several books for fear that my bicycle will get a puncture, or the train I’m on will break down, so I am not good at choosing a single author. This week I’d say Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and the Bronte sisters.
Margot Livesey grew up in a boys’ private school in the Scottish Highlands where her father taught, and her mother, Eva, was the school nurse. After taking a B.A. in English and philosophy at the University of York in England she spent most of her twenties working in shops and restaurants and learning to write. Margot has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the N.E.A., the Massachusetts Artists’ Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts. Margot is currently a distinguished writer in residence at Emerson College. She lives with her husband, a painter, in Cambridge, MA, and goes back to London and Scotland whenever she can. Find out more about Margot Livesey on her website, http://www.margotlivesey.com/