Is it time for us to move away from Jane Austen and start rewriting Charlotte Brontë? If so, Margot Livesey has put her hat in the ring. "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" is not subtle about its provenance. Livesey prefaces her book with a "Dear Reader" letter that explains that her novel plays off "Jane Eyre" and Livesey's childhood.
She lets us know she is "writing back to Charlotte Brontë, recasting Jane's journey to fit my own courageous heroine and the possibilities of her time and place. And, like Brontë, I am, of course, stealing from my own life."
Gemma grows up in Scotland, as did Livesey, the author of "The House on Fortune Street," and, like Livesey and Jane, she goes to boarding school. Her boarding school is circa 1960s, but it is if anything more brutal than the one Jane was sent to. Bertha makes a cameo appearance, and the novel contains a mean aunt, an aloof older male love interest with a secret, a friend who dies young and a heroine with pluck. As with Cathleen Schine's hilarious riff on "Sense and Sensibility," "The Three Weissmanns of Westport," part of the joy of reading the novel is noting the parallels between original and adaptation.
But the oddest parallel Livesey constructs is her re-creation of rural Scotland in the 1960s as disturbingly similar to Brontë's England. Characters do a lot of walking from place to place, have governesses teach their children at home, and eke out meager livings delivering the mail or working as household managers. There is no popular culture, no television, no sex and only the barest trace of globalism. Occasionally someone drives a car or a woman wears pants, and you remember this novel takes place in the 20th century. Mostly, though, it seems to wander through ahistorical moors.
Gemma is smart, unlucky and hardworking: She is easy to root for. She is not a rebel but a survivor. In the cruel boarding school, Gemma thinks "Defiance was appealing, but it did not warm my cold room, it did not clothe me, it did not fill the long hours after school and chores."
She does not stand up for herself so much as stay out of the way and stay the course. She is rewarded, of course, and the ending is scripted for Hollywood. Which is soothing, but one is left wishing for less disciplined pluck and more mad women in the attic.
Anne Trubek is the author of "A Skeptic's Guide to Writers' Houses."