“There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love.”
Christopher got this right, didn’t he? Reading a wonderful book is like falling in love, isn’t it? Margot Livesey knows the feeling well: At age 9, when she was growing up lonely and motherless in Scotland, she chanced to find a copy of Jane Eyre on her father’s bookshelf. Like countless others before her, Margot was entranced and consoled by Charlotte Bronte’s spirited and compassionate creation. Through Jane’s trials and ultimate triumph, Margot came to understand not only that “life is change,” but that fortune could smile on her as well.
What better homage could Margot pay Charlotte Bronte than to reimagine Jane Eyre — to bring her story alive once again, but in a contemporary setting? That’s exactly what Margot has done in her own novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy. While her story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, Gemma’s circumstances skillfully echo many of situations that Jane finds herself in.
Modeling a contemporary novel on a beloved classic is a risky business, but Margot seems to have pulled it off. She also made a smart move: in the final third of her story, she sails out on her own and takes off in a whole new direction that is original rather than derivative. This bold step is sure to wake up the reader who’s been lulled into complacency by Margot’s masterful updatings of Jane Eyre.
The idea of refreshing a well-known story and giving it a contemporary spin certainly isn’t new: just think about all the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays have been reinterpreted and modernized. But it’s the durability and flexibility of such classics that is truly awe-inspiring. What is there about these stories that makes them timeless and elastic at the same time? How can a writer infuse such resiliency into a work of art? What makes a story endure? And more to the point, how can we bring this timeless, universal quality to our own writing?