Snobby Austen – Emma: A Modern Retelling

Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review.

If you’ve poked around this site even a little bit, you will know that I love Jane Austen. I started reading her books when I was about 11 and I never looked back. Each time I re-read any of them, they seem like a completely different book.

I know that there are loads of Austen fans that love the books that are still a part of that world, that can’t wait to hear what happens to their favourite characters at the hands of different authors but I’m not one of those readers. Occasionally there will be a book that promises a different spin and I’ve given a handful of those a whirl (Those books by Syrie James, Austenland, Longbourn by Jo Baker, Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James) but in general, I’m not interested.

And then Alexander McCall Smith turned his pen (or computer, not sure what his preference is) to Jane Austen and I couldn’t stop myself from reading his effort. It’s not perhaps the most original idea to take a classic story and update it (Clueless is also based on Emma, 10 Things I Hate About You is the Taming of the Shrew etc) but when Alexander McCall Smith gives it a try, you kind of assume it will be good.


In Emma: A Modern Retelling, Emma Woodhouse is still an inmate of Hartfield in the country village of Highbury. Her father is still a hypochondriac, and her governess, Miss Taylor, still ends up with Mr Weston. The vicar, Mr Elton is still a douche, Frank Churchill is still dishonest, Jane Fairfax misunderstood and Harriet Smith is still Emma’s project.

But while I always found Jane Austen’s Emma to be generally well-meaning, if a tad overbearing and snobby, she was always a product of her time and so her bad behaviour could be excused in a way. Mr Woodhouse is much more involved in Emma’s life in McCall Smith’s novel – he admonishes her when he feels like she’s been cruel which Austen’s Mr Woodhouse never did. It was hard at times to like this modern Emma – she tries setting up her friend Harriet in a situation where she wouldn’t have to work because for this Emma it’s the most natural thing in the world to make men pay for her lifestyle while she pays him back in a comfortable home and dinner on the table. It was hard to cheer for this Emma, to make excuses for her. At some points in the novel, I actively disliked her.

In that respect, Emma: A Modern Retelling offended my modern feminist sensibilities. But I appreciated that McCall Smith’s characters were more frank than Austen’s. When Emma offends Miss Bates, she comes right out and apologizes properly  – she feels bad for a good long while too. They have an open conversation about the way Emma made Miss Bates feel. Jane Fairfax too is given the opportunity to tell Emma exactly how she feels about her which Austen’s Miss Fairfax is never allowed to do.

But the great thing about Austen’s Emma is the slow burn of her feelings for Mr Knightley. By the time they both voice their feelings on the matter, it’s not a surprise to the reader. In an effort to modernize the rest of the village (Frank Churchill has been a resident of Western Australia,  Jane Fairfax went to Cambridge, Harriet’s parentage is part single mother, part anonymous sperm donor etc) McCall Smith forgot to flesh out the Mr Knightley story – Mr Knightley has been a background actor until all of a sudden he’s declaring his love for Emma. If you’re already familiar with the Austen version you’re like “oh right, they love each other” but if you’re not I imagine it would be a bit out of left field.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of these Austen-related books but for me, nothing will ever come close to the original.

18 thoughts on “Snobby Austen – Emma: A Modern Retelling

  1. You raise an interesting question for me: can an author ever realistically get the feel of an era they have not lived through?
    I haven’t been all that fond of the many Austen-esque novels that have come out, but I do love Austen. But, she was writing from a place of great familiarity with her topic, where as her flatterers are not.
    This is often the case for me, I love writers who wrote about their own historical time, but I don’t like historical fiction that much and I think your post just made me figure out why.
    I’m not saying you have to “realistically” portray an era in order to write a good book – I read a lot of fantasy and sci fi and the authors haven’t lived through those worlds and times. But usually, when it comes to fiction that is supposed to take place in a past time period of our reality, I would rather read it from an author who has lived it rather than researched it.
    Great post – thanks for provoking the thoughts 🙂 -Tania

    • Thank you for the compliment!
      I am an obsessive reader of historical fiction. I find that most of it is done quite well but I would agree that there is no substitute for someone that actually lived in the time. When I’m first reading a new historical fiction author who uses terms from the times (things like “old chap” or “sweeting”) I do find myself cringing. I think like in most things there are those that have done it well and those that maybe need to work on it some more.

  2. I’m with you. I like Austen, but I don’t read many spin-offs, because I feel pretty sure they will disappoint me. I do own Death Comes to Pemberly, but haven’t read it. I just read your review of it, and it sounds like you liked it okay, so maybe I’ll give it a try. Same with Longbourn. I think my mom has it. I might stay away from this one, though. Emma was never one of my favourites anyway. Good review!

    • I loved Emma when I was younger. The older I get, the less I have in common with our heroine. Now I’m much more fond of Persuasion and Mansfield Park. P&P will always be number 1, followed closely by Sense & Sensibility however.
      Death Comes to Pemberley was alright, I think because it took the same characters but told a new story. And PD James totally owns that she is not Jane Austen in the Foreward which I really appreciated. The added bonus with Death Comes to Pemberley is that it’s now a PBS Masterpiece Mystery series. Sadly, Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth are not reprising their roles.

      • I love the BBC version of P&P. It came out when I was at university, and my friend and I would watch our favourite parts over and over again. (We rarely had time to watch the whole thing.) To this day, whenever my kids are talking and I can’t make out what they are saying, I yell out “What are you speaking of?”. They have no idea why I do it, but they will someday. 🙂

  3. I love these types of books! Interesting how the modernization changed the character, even though she technically stayed the same. Makes sense though.

    My favorite recent “add on” read was Juliet’s Nurse…Romeo and Juliet told from the Nurse’s perspective. Loved it. I teach R&J and the author nailed every little piece Shakespeare wrote for the Nurse in his play, plus fleshed her out wonderfully.

  4. Thanks for the review! Hmm, very interesting. I was thinking about reading this book and you’ve given me lots to think about.

  5. Modern retellings are so fascinating. I think they make us analyze what makes a book great. Is a story still beloved if you change the time and place or does that choice make it lose some of its magic?

    I have to confess that I sometimes found Emma obnoxious in the Austen novel and I think putting her in the present would only make it worse (at least for me)!

    • In this case it definitely lost some magic.

      A modern Emma is not easy to live with. She’s so thoughtless when it comes to other people and such a snob. These things existed in the Austen Emma too but they were a product of their time and so much easier to swallow.

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