A clever orphan girl, mistreated by relatives, then sent to suffer cruelly at boarding school, finds heartbreak and eventual heartsease with a brooding older man. Sound familiar?
“Neither my autobiography nor a retelling of Jane Eyre,” says Livesey (The House on Fortune Street, 2008, etc.) about her new novel in the foreword. However, this story bears more than a passing resemblance to Charlotte Brontë's immortal classic. Poignantly narrated, Livesey’s tale opens in late-1950s Scotland where, after her uncle’s death, harsh new conditions are imposed on 10-year-old Gemma by her cartoonishly callous aunt and cousins. Sent to horrible Claypoole School as a working pupil, Gemma becomes a lonely, bullied drudge until befriended by asthmatic Miriam, whose sad death gives Gemma the power to endure. After the school’s closure she moves, now almost 18, to a remote Orkney island, to work as an au pair caring for Nell, the unruly niece of taciturn banker Hugh Sinclair. Love and a surprise proposal follow, and it’s here the story parts company most noticeably and least convincingly from Jane Eyre. Shameful secrets, foreign travel and a quest fulfilled follow, before Gemma finally establishes a future on her own terms.
Nicely, touchingly done, and the familiar story exerts its reliably magnetic pull, but fans of Jane Eyre will wonder why.