Author on the Bookcase: Margot Livesey
Please welcome author Margot Livesey to On the Bookcase! She tells us why she chose Jane Eyre as her muse when writing her novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy.
My most recent novel, The Flight of Gemma Hardy, is a reimagining of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I never expected to embark on such a venture. Writing a novel is hard enough anyway. Why write in the shadow of one that has been widely beloved since it was published in 1847?
There are several answers to this question: that I hoped to get my work to a higher level, that I wanted to ask how a girl of no means and no family can come into her own, that I wanted to pay homage to Bronte’s novel. But Gemma Hardy is also a homage to one of the most enduring loves of my life: reading. My early years as a writer were spent waitressing and writing short stories. Very slowly the stories improved, partly through practise and partly through my becoming a better reader. If only Francine Prose had written Reading Like A Writer twenty years earlier.
I still remember the excitement with which I read Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). Rhys doesn’t so much re-imagine Jane Eyre as extend the story in unexpected ways. In the original Jane, an orphan, survives a ghastly school to become a governess at Thornfield Hall. She falls in love with her employer, the much older Mr. Rochester, and he with her. But on their wedding day Jane learns that the mad woman she’s glimpsed in the attic is Mrs. Rochester. She flees. After many vicissitudes, she and Rochester are reunited.
Rhys’s novel takes this plot for granted but shifts the point of view away from Jane, first to Mrs. Rochester before her marriage and then to the young Rochester. In writing Gemma Hardy I did not borrow from Rhys in obvious ways – I was determined to create my own 1960s version of Jane – but I did try to emulate her freedom and her depth of characterization. There would, I resolved, be no attics in Gemma Hardy.
Since Wide Sargasso Sea almost ever year brings a new crop of re-tellings but Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres (1991) remains a touchstone. Her project is the opposite of Rhys’s. She transposes virtually every scene of King Lear to a farm in Iowa, giving Shakespeare’s familiar characters twentieth century names and attitudes. “We’re going to form this corporation,” Larry Cook tells his three daughters, “and then you girls are all going to have shares …. You’ll each have a third part in the corporation. What do you think?” (p.19) Readers, happily, know the answer.
While Rhys steered me away from minor characters, Smiley made me realize that a faithful reimagining of Jane Eyre in 1960s Scotland would be wildly implausible. Sexual manners have changed so much in the last century, not to mention the treatment of mental illness. In the opening chapter of Gemma Hardy I signaled my homage, recreating Jane’s fight with her cousin, but in my second chapter, I left Bronte behind and gave Gemma an Icelandic father. I wanted the reader to know I was not planning to follow every step of Jane’s journey.
Cynthia Ozick’s Foreign Bodies was published in 2011 so I can’t claim it as a model but rather an exhilarating companion in revision. In her reimagining of Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Ozick manages to be both faithful and original as she transforms his hero, Lambert Strether, into her clever, courageous heroine, Bea Nightingale. As I edited Gemma Hardy, I tried to emulate her wit and her keen sense of suspense.
Every reimagining has taught me a different lesson but they all reinforce the most important lesson: whatever its source a book must have a life of its own. The best retellings include both readers who know the original and those who don’t. However much I love Jane Eyre, Gemma Hardy has to make her own way in the world, fight her own battles and slay her own dragons.
Thanks for sharing with us Margot!
Margot Livesey is the acclaimed author of the novels The House on Fortune Street, Banishing Verona, Eva Moves the Furniture, The Missing World, Criminals, and Homework. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Atlantic, and she is the recipient of grants from both the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. The House on Fortune Street won the 2009 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. Livesey was born in Scotland and grew up on the edge of the Highlands. She lives in the Boston area and is a Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College.