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The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
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's review
Apr 02, 12

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, romance
Read in March, 2012

Reading this book I felt I was reading part Cinderella, part Charles Dickens and part Jane Eyre. The time period is after World War II but the locations of this story are certainly different and interesting – Scotland, the Orkney Islands and Iceland. I am not sure there are many historical romances that have Iceland as part of the setting.

Part One (or the evil stepmother and three stepchildren of Cinderella) finds our orphan, Gemma Hardy, being poorly treated. When Gemma was barely a year old her Scottish mother slips on seaweed and hits her head on a rock, dying the next morning. Two years later Gemma’s father, an Icelandic fisherman, drowns while fishing. Gemma’s Uncle comes up from Scotland and brings her back to Yew House to live with his family which includes a wife, a son and two daughters. There she is happy until one day a few years later her Uncle falls through the ice while skating and drowns. Within a short period of time her Aunt and cousins turn on her and she becomes the poorly treated servant who is made to continuously work and receives nothing in return. While she slaves away the rest of the family dresses up and goes to fancy parties and balls. But unlike Cinderella she doesn’t have a prince to save her — only a troubled teacher and a local doctor step in to help her.

Part Two (or the poor orphaned working child of Charles Dickens) has the local doctor trying to get 10 year old Gemma out of the abusive home. With the urging of the doctor Gemma is sent off as a “working student” to Claypoole, a private girl’s school, to be educated. Gemma quickly finds out that at this school work is emphasized much more than education for working students. Of course the headmistress is wicked and the working girls run in packs making Gemma’s life miserable. Gemma is quick with her studies when she gets the chance to be in class but it is only Miriam Goodall, a paying student suffering from asthma and a badly healed broken leg (there is the lame child) that Gemma befriends till Miriam dies. We follow Gemma over the years as the school goes into decline as fewer students are sent to boarding school. In the end, just before Gemma can take her entrance exams for University the school closes and Gemma is sent out to fend for herself.

Part Three (Jane Eyre episode) has Gemma going to the Orkney Islands to become a nanny to Nell, an orphaned, lonely and wild child who lives at Blackbird Hall, an estate of her banker uncle, Hugh Sinclair. Mr. Sinclair rarely visits his estate, preferring to live and work in Edinburgh. They are cared for by a kindly housekeeper and a mysterious and angry caretaker. Through her resourcefulness and good temper Gemma is able to bring Nell under control and become friends with her. But with the arrival of Mr. Sinclair love slowly blossoms … but a troubling secret that haunts Mr. Sinclair ends up splitting them apart.

Part Four has Gemma running away from Blackbird Hall and Hugh Sinclair on the day of her wedding. She flees across to Scotland and with bad luck ends up losing first her money and then all her possessions. Almost at death she is found by Archie, a rural postman who takes her to a home of two spinsters who bring her back to health. Gemma takes a position as au pair to a local boy but over time she finds that she must again run away from love which leads us to Part Five. Gemma now flees to Iceland to find her Icelandic relatives. With good fortune and kind strangers she finds what she is looking for all these years. Or has she?

So there you have it – The Flight of Gemma Hardy. Orphans, water (note the drownings that happen besides the continuous lure of the ocean), family secrets and a determined spunky spirit are found in this book. A great read for those who love historical romance, the settings (I just couldn’t believe it when the author pulled off the Icelandic part of the story), boarding schools and governess themes. I found I just couldn’t put it down wondering what else would happen next.
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