Sunday, September 16, 2012

Trains, Janes and Automobiles: Variations on a (Jane) Eyre

I haven't quite finished Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but I wanted to write this now (just in case I'm reading the book's signals wrong and it doesn't follow through on its line of flight from Jane Eyre). Gemma is an orphan raised and then cast out by her aunt, schooled at a brutal boarding school, then hired as au pair to a motherless child in an isolated great house. Eighteen and starved of affection, she is swept off her feet by her wordly, wealthy employer, only to have their hasty wedding halted by a revelation that causes her to flee -- almost to her death. Cared for by a rural family, she is torn between a desire to make a life for herself and the memory of passion.

Livesey follows the characters and plot of Jane Eyre almost every step of the way. The book is particularly good at taking small incidents and themes from Charlotte Bronte's novel -- the significance of birds, questions of faith, the chain of abandoned or badly-cared-for children -- and expanding them. Relocated to post-war Scotland, Livesey's Jane -- Gemma/Jean -- finds herself astonishingly close to the poverty and limited options of Bronte's Jane. But Livesey is also careful to note what has changed, and how the world around Gemma is changing. There are professional women (a vet, a chemist), as well as many kinds of teachers, farmers and housekeepers. There are also women artists -- a musician and a potter -- living the lives that women like the Brontes carved into public consciousness.

Gemma, like Jane, encounters the kindness of strangers, but -- unlike Jane -- through these strangers her world expands. Not (so far) to the missionary fantasy of St. John Rivers (yup, the bit of Jane Eyre everyone forgets or passes over, myself included), but through education, local history and botany, and through Gemma's own story. Her mother was Scottish, her father Icelandic, and she spent her childhood in a fishing village in Iceland before being brought back to Perth by her uncle. So encoded in Gemma's story from the start is flight: travel, escape, freedom, migration. This gives the book a lightness and sense of possibility other than the romantic myth with which Jane Eyre is primarily identified: "Reader, I married" the Great Man, and moreover, the Great House.

Gemma traverses Scotland by train, bus, ferry, van, car and foot; Jane Eyre, too, is a great walker (and occasional user of the post-chaise), but Gemma's journeys take the central place of Jane's relationship to Rochester's house, Thornfield Hall. Instead of the Gothic romance of Bluebeard's Castle -- seductive for all its dangers -- Livesey offers a feminine On the Road, a peripatetic tale of bus stations, cheap hotels, Teddy boys, fish and chips, and sea-sickness. Exploring the heart of a novel about a woman who longs for a home, she finds a new story: a woman who realises that home can be (and has been, for her) a prison; that a home where she is mastered is no home. That she can move.

Livesey's not the first to uncover this taking-flight of Jane into the Eyre. Siobhan Dowd's Solace of the Road tells an even more modern story, of a fourteen year old girl called Holly Hogan who runs away from her foster home in London in an attempt to return to her lost mother in Ireland. Taking only a wig, a copy of Jane Eyre and a nom de voyage, Solace too meets kindness and cruelty (both new and remembered), good luck and awful accidents. Postmodernly, she muses on the resonance of her fate with Jane's, drawing on her knowledge of the only school book she'd ever liked to understand her own journey, especially when she separated from her possessions and stilled by missing a train.

As its title suggests, the sensation of movement offers solace -- at the very least, the solace of choosing to leave a situation, choosing a goal and aiming for it. In Livesey's and Bronte's novels, walking is a solace in itself, both the movement of the body and the opportunity for solitude and observation. Modern transport extends that solace, enabling Gemma/Jean and Holly/Solace to travel farther (and faster) than Jane: not only around the country, but into themselves and their futures.

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