“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich” is how we are first introduced to Jane Austen’s titular character in the first line of her 1815 novel, and which aptly describes her 21stcentury reimagining, as told by Alexander McCall Smith. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency scribe has a charming and style which perfectly befits Austen’s tale of naive snobbery, misplaced matchmaking and coming-of-age epiphanies.
Like the other reimaginings before it – Sense and Sensibility was overseen by Joanna Trollope and Northanger Abbey was re-written by Val McDermid – McCall Smith takes Emma and her casual arrogance to a time that swaps carriages for Mini Coopers, but retains many of the quaint facets of the original that are surprisingly compatible with modern times.
Unlike the other writers partaking in the Retelling series, the author of this Emma goes right back to before the beginning, the Big Bang of Emma if you will, and by doing so delves into the past and fleshes out back stories, giving more depth to the supporting characters than before. It means that the fully-formed Emma of Austen’s imagining, appearing handsome, clever and rich on the very first page doesn’t make an appearance here until well into chapter 6, and even then it’s to match make her reliable Scottish governess Miss Taylor with eligible widower Mr Weston, a feat already done and dusted by the start of the original.
Emma has been brought into contemporary times before, most famously in Amy Heckerling’s cult 90s film Clueless. Alicia Silverstone’s interpretation of Cher (Emma’s Los Angeles-ified moniker) gave the silly and entitled character heart and empathy, and while Austen’s Emma is taught a few home truths by the end of her story the feeling remains that she is destined to retain the thoughtless attitude that her privileged place in society enables her to, while luckily having Mr. Knightly by her side to put her right before she puts her dainty foot in it again. The same is more or less true of the Emma of McCall’s invention, despite the firm but fair care of her governess and the gentle, if thoroughly paranoid nature of her father.
It is actually remarked throughout the book by characters both close to and fairly unknown to Emma that there’s something about her that brings about a feeling of dislike, but because we don’t follow her as the principal character until later on it’s hard to feel sympathy for her. She questions her actions from time to time but always justifies them to herself, and even when she feels guilt for a misdeed it’s more for being found out and for people she actually respects expressing disdain for her than regretting the action itself.
The incident where Miss Woodhouse insults Miss Bates purely to get a laugh from the others in her vicinity has always been one that has stayed with me since my first reading many years ago. Her company’s reaction is not at all what she expects, rather they are horrified by her mindless cruelty aimed at her talkative neighbour who, along with her mother has fallen on hard times. The incident is replayed in this re-imagining quite closely to how it originally plays out, and the line uttered by Emma’s eventual love interest is also borrowed for use here. “Badly done, Emma. Badly done” is the berating she needs to adjust her demeanor towards those less fortunate than herself.
Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” and did what she set out to do, but even a character with traits as unpleasant as Emma’s can be fun to read. The original character you love to hate perhaps, McCall does an interesting and subtle job of touching a little bit on the insecurities Emma has as an 19th century heroine in a 21st century world. Jane Fairfax, touchy ice-queen and niece of Miss Bates is accomplished with a degree from Cambridge and a talent for music. Emma has an immediate problem with Jane’s achievements, not to mention her stoic good looks, and finds herself questioning the quality of her own degree in design from Bath University. The stirrings of feelings towards a new friend Harriet Smith – gorgeous but airheaded – cause some introspection, if only for a brief moment or two, and really only displays her worship of the cult of beauty and her tendency towards materialism and shallowness.
Although the novel takes place in what appears to be contemporary Norfolk, there’s a touch of the unreal about it – a fantasy England where young graduates are nearly guaranteed a job in interior design if they come from the right stock and debutantes arrange for photos to be taken for The Lady, in order to advertise for an eligible husband. This will probably not sit well with those expecting an insight into modern society that Austen did so well in her time, but it is a retelling and under that umbrella deserves to be taken in its own merit.
It should therefore appeal to those who liked, but didn’t love Emma the first time round. I don’t know anyone whose favourite Austen novel is Emma, so it should come as an appealing and enjoyable read to any Austenite in need of some light reading. It’s a pity that it didn’t push the boundaries that I almost expected it to; it could have played differently if Emma’s seeming derision of men had been seen through, and her eventual, and not very believable coupling at the end had been pushed aside in favour for one more in touch with the ways of modern Britain and how her character threatened to play out. But for its failings this warm retelling still joins the others in The Austen Project in good stead.
– Aoife B. Burke
First Published in The Tuam Herald on 18th February 2015