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Emma: A Modern Retelling


Emma: A Modern Retelling

Jane Austen may have been dead for nearly 200 years, but she still casts a long shadow over literary and pop culture. Every year brings new adaptations or interpretations of her work, both literary and cinematic (currently in production: a film version of 2009’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES and indie director Whit Stillman’s take on LADY SUSAN). And then there’s the Austen Project, where six contemporary writers offer updated takes on the author’s six completed novels. Alexander McCall Smith’s EMMA is the third installment in this series, following Val McDermid’s NORTHANGER ABBEY and Joanna Trollope’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. Unfortunately, Smith’s efforts to drag the famous Austen heroine into the modern world fall flat.

Smith has imagined a 21st-century Emma Woodhouse, who would not feel at all out of place in her original creator’s Regency milieu. The daughter of a rich country gentleman, Emma lives a life of cloistered ease and luxury. Wealth means she does not have to work, though she has earned a degree in design and has vague plans to start her own interior decorating business. That gives her plenty of time to indulge in her largely ill-advised matchmaking schemes. First, she sets up her neighbor, Mr. Weston, with her governess, the prim Miss Taylor. Bored young women have been trying to fix up friends and acquaintances since Austen’s era, but the idea that Emma would have a governess in this day and age is antiquated at best. Equally mysterious is why the intelligent, capable Miss Taylor would settle for such a limiting career. She has so little to do after her charges are dispatched to school that she spends her days taking online courses on the trade routes of the ancient Middle East. Later she’s reduced to Mr. Woodhouse’s secretary, a purely ceremonial position.

"Die-hard Janeites may get a kick out of the idea of Emma driving a Mini Cooper, and Smith has produced a breezy book that will help them while away a few hours."

After her initial success as a Cupid, Emma turns her attention to Harriet Smith, a half-orphan who works at an English language school, attempting to set up the sweet, naïve Harriet with the pompous vicar Mr. Elton. She also engages in a little flirtation herself, trading quips with Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. As in the original, all this scheming ends badly. Gradually, Emma comes to realize both her own failings and her love for her handsome, bland neighbor George Knightley. The story mirrors Austen’s novel almost exactly, yet it seems lifeless and off-key. Emma is self-centered, squeamish about sex and an unrepentant snob, but lacks much charm to make up for her faults. Barbs that are meant to be witty come off as caustic, and she never seems to truly grasp that others lack the advantages she’s been fortunate enough to enjoy.

Not all of these problems are Smith’s fault. Even in the original Emma is difficult; Austen called her “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yet by hewing so closely to his source material, he has trapped himself. It’s not that the story’s basic premise is out-of-date. Amy Heckerling successfully transplanted it to the world of Beverly Hills teens in 1996’s delightful, funny film Clueless. That movie put a fresh spin on the classic --- the nervous father was transformed into a high-strung lawyer, and Emma herself morphed into a dim yet good-hearted Valley Girl. Smith, on the other hand, has imagined a pocket of England where social conventions haven’t evolved since the early 1800s. The gender politics in particular are decidedly retro. Like her predecessor, this Emma makes the case that her wealth means she’ll never have to marry; it doesn’t occur to her that many of her less wealthy contemporaries are also not counting on husbands for their financial security. “You can still find men who are prepared to look after women,” she assures Harriet.

When Smith genuinely stretches the bounds of the original material, he’s more successful. The lonely, hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse (one character whose quirks actually translate well to the modern world; he’s a junkie for all the latest medical studies) gets a love interest in the form of Mrs. Goddard, a goofy hippie who makes cakes with a “special” ingredient. Giving Emma an interest in interior design fits nicely with her character’s desire to rearrange things, whether that be household objects or people’s lives. There are occasional flashes of insight as well. “There’s a big difference between a mistake, which is all about harm you didn’t intend, and a misdeed, which is harm that you did intend,” Miss Taylor tells Emma.

Die-hard Janeites may get a kick out of the idea of Emma driving a Mini Cooper, and Smith has produced a breezy book that will help them while away a few hours. But a few bright moments aren’t enough to counteract the sense that this Emma should have been left in the 19th century where she belongs.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on April 10, 2015

Emma: A Modern Retelling
by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Publication Date: April 5, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0804172412
  • ISBN-13: 9780804172417