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.