3 ½ out of 5
When first her mother dies of an illness, and then her father drowns, Gemma is sent away from her native Iceland to live with her uncle and aunt in Scotland. When her uncle also dies, her aunt reveals a strong dislike for Gemma and sends her away to a boarding school where she can attend for free, as long as she works. When the school closes, eighteen year old Gemma goes to work as a nanny for a girl and her guardian in the Orkney Islands in Scotland. Blackbird Hall is lonely and her charge Nell is wild and ignorant, but Gemma finds herself liking it. It’s when she meets the farm’s owner, Hugh Sinclair, that the trouble begins to start. Gemma finds herself falling in love with Sinclair, even as she realizes that he is keeping secrets from her, secrets that could tear them apart.
This is, obviously, a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. I adore Jane Eyre. I can’t even tell you why. It’s just one of those books that got into my heart and my soul and I’ve never been able to get it out. Maybe it’s the fact that Jane isn’t beautiful, she’s smart instead, and she really has to work for what she wants. Unlike fairy tales, where everything is just handed to the beautiful princess by chance, Jane goes after what she wants, and pursues it till she gets it, and I strongly identify with her. So I was delighted to find out that this is a modern version. There are so many modern versions of Jane Austen’s books, so doing Jane Eyre is different and fresh.
And this book started out really well. It follows the plot of JE quite closely, at least a first. Up until Gemma goes to Blackbird Hall (Thornfield) is almost word for word from JE. I enjoyed the ‘flight’ metaphors throughout the story, too. Gemma loves birds, and is adept and spotting them. All through the story she compares herself and others to birds. The metaphor of a fledgling learning to fly is right there in the title! JE has a bird thing going on too, so cheers for picking up on that and running with it.
A lot of the elements of JE work well because it’s set in the Victorian age, when there weren’t hardly any laws protecting either children or women. These elements don’t really translate to a more modern setting. Although this is set in the 1960s, surely there were child labour laws back then? Several people, including a teacher and a doctor, see the abuse that Gemma suffers, first at the hands of her aunt and cousins, and then at her boarding school. Surely there was such a thing as Children’s Aid, even in Scotland 60 years ago? If the town doctor cares enough about Gemma to check in on her weekly to ensure that she doesn’t get physically abused by her fellow “working girl” classmates, or worked too hard by the school, then surely he could tell the police that the school was making girls do housework instead of studying? It just doesn’t seem to fit for the time.
The plot diverges somewhat when Gemma goes to Blackbird Hall, to work for the mysterious Mr. Sinclair as a nanny and teacher to his niece Nell. I liked this section of the book – Gemma seems to come out of her shell a little bit as she makes friends with Vicky (Mrs. Fairfax) and Nell (Adele). Nell isn’t as likeable as Adele is in the books, as she seems to purposefully refuse to show what Gemma has taught her in front of her uncle. But in all, I enjoyed this part. But since I know what happens in the story, I kept waiting for the gothic darkness of the mad wife, which leads me to my next point.
The reason Gemma leaves Mr. Sinclair and Blackbird Hall is so lame. In JE, Jane leaves because she finds out that Mr. Rochester already has a wife. In essence, he is tricking her into becoming his mistress, by way of a fake marriage. While Jane would think that they were legally married and she had the law’s protection as his wife, in reality she would only be his mistress, and have no legal protection, as he already has a wife. Jane, who is deeply religious, is understandably deeply upset that Rochester would try to deceive her like this, when he already knew that their marriage would not be legitimate. She runs away because she fears that she will eventually weaken to his persuasions and agree to be his mistress. She knows that that is morally wrong, and so chooses to leave friendless and penniless rather than compromise her morals. In light of all of that, Gemma’s reason for leaving Mr. Sinclair at the alter are sort of lame. Rather than it clearly being his fault, as it is with Rochester, we’re left thinking that Gemma is being overly dramatic. Surely they could talk it through and get married in a couple of days? Unlike Rochester’s wife, which is a problem that can’t be solved unless she dies, Mr. Sinclair’s secret is able to be solved and forgiven, if Gemma would stay and talk it through with him. You know, like you have to do in a marriage. Now you could argue that Gemma is very young (only 19), and doesn’t know anything about romantic love, but surely it’s obvious that if you have a problem, you don’t leave, you try to work it through. I just found the reveal very disappointing.
Gemma and Sinclair didn’t really seem to have any chemistry either. They’re sedate with each other, and there seems to be no real reason for them to marry so quickly. Especially considering the modern setting, they could just sort of date each other for a while, instead of rushing to the alter having only known each other for a few months. I totally get what Rochester sees in Jane – she’s order and calm and intelligence whereas Bertha is ruled by her passions. But what does Sinclair see in Gemma? She is more intelligent and less shallow than Coco, the Blanche Ingram stand in, but if Sinclair doesn’t like Coco, that’s his own fault for inviting her to stay at his house. He certainly doesn’t have to. It’s the 1960s, he can hang out with anyone he wants. He’s not confined to a gentry class like Rochester is. Sinclair falls in love with Gemma and proposes to her because the story dictates that he must, but there isn’t much passion and fire involved.
There were points where I just really didn’t like Gemma. I’m thinking of one point in particular, where she does steals from someone who was kind of her, in order to get something she wants. One of the things I appreciate about Jane is that she manages to go through her very difficult life without compromising her morals, even at times when it would make her life so much easier, like becoming Rochester’s mistress. Gemma doesn’t have any such scruples. When down on her luck she lies and steals without a second thought, and that made me just really dislike her. Instead of relying on her intelligence and strong will to get her through, Gemma takes the easy way, and steals. I was enjoying the book up until then, but that particular moment put me right off.
I always hope in these sorts of book that while they have the same general plot, they will branch off and do something clever with the story, like my old favorite Lizzy Bennett Diaries. This story followed JE almost word for word, without doing anything interesting with the story. I was really looking forward to how they would modernize the mad wife in the attack, but the aforementioned secret was disappointing.
I wanted to enjoy this book, really I did. But next to Jane’s steely resolve to make her own way in the world, Gemma seems like a weakling. Instead of being representations of the characters in JE, everyone in this book just felt like poor imitations. It was an enjoyable read, don’t get me wrong, but I wanted it to be more than that. How can a book stick so close to the original story’s plot, and yet totally miss the point of it? The point of JE is that Jane rises above her difficult and loveless childhood, and through strength of will manages to do something good with her life. Her realization that while men like Brocklehearst play at being pious, God is still good, and she should not sin, no matter how tempting. Gemma’s story is almost devoid of religion, which to me guts the very soul of JE, leaving it only an empty shell of a plot. I wanted this story, in some measure, move me the way Jane Eyre does. And it just didn’t.