Twisted Austen: Emma Reimagined

Many versions of Emma

When I heard of The Austen Project, I promptly rolled my eyes in annoyance and declared it a money grabbing outrage (remember, I’m a purist). In short, HarperCollins has asked six well-known contemporary authors to ‘reimagine’ Jane Austen’s works. So far, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma have been completed.

This year, Emma turns 200 (Jane Austen completed the novel in February and it was published in December 1815) so I decided to give this the proverbial ‘benefit of the doubt’ and read Alexander McCall-Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling.

Jane Austen’s Emma starts with the portrait of our heroine as

handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress of vex her.

In contrast, McCall-Smith’s Emma is a mere afterthought for the first third of the novel. True hero seems to be the overly anxious Mr Woodhouse and his sidekick, indomitable Scottish governess Miss Taylor. This part of the novel is delightful and there are some laugh-out-loud moments (Mr Woodhouse described as a son of a gentleman farmer – those who know Emma well will understand the irony), but this is not Emma.

When finally the events from the original start to unravel and we meet the well loved characters, the story deflates and looks, well, transplanted. It is missing the tempo and effervescence of the original. It is also missing the element of game and intrigue that features prominently in the original. There is no light banter between Emma and Mr Knightley; they actually barely cross paths for most of the novel, making their relationship utterly unconvincing.

The original Emma is a wonderfully flawed character – snobbish and at times cruel to people around her. But she is also intelligent, witty and in possession of a healthy dose of humility. She talks about ‘haunting’ disappointment at her own conduct or ‘how to make any possible atonement’ to Harriet Smith.

Her modern counterpart is simply vacuous and callous ‘rich girl’. She is never convincing when she claims ‘that she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives’ (perchance she borrowed this from one of Mr Elton’s sermons?). Modern Emma’s attempt at reformation is buying Harriet Smith an expensive dress!

The other characters are flat and boring including Mr Knightly, who comes across as a rather passionate man in the original. The treatment of one of Austen’s best comic characters, Mrs Elton, is unforgivable. Vulgar and pretentious Augusta becomes a reality TV star Hazel, who speaks barely three lines! What happened to caro sposo, Mr E, the music club and ride on donkeys to pick strawberries at Donwell? Unforgivable!

The modern Emma simply pales in comparison with the original. It is not because I’m the purist, but also because Emma is a deliciously deceptive novel. First, there was Jane Austen herself who challenged us to dislike Emma. Austen is quoted as saying she had created “a heroine that no one will like except myself” – so like Jane!. Then, there is the subtlety and complexity of the plot and the sub-plots (games, riddles, puzzles) which one starts to discern after reading it for the fifth or even the tenth time. And finally, in the background, sketched in fine brushstrokes, stands the 19th century English society with its moral norms, geo-political situation, social strata and gender politics. This last element is an important one. For example, without 19th century inheritance laws Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax story would be meaningless (as is in McCall-Smith’s version). Even worse, Mrs Bennett would not have had a worry in the world and we wouldn’t have Pride and Prejudice (God forbid!)This seems to be a particular problem for the author of the upcoming ‘reimagined’ Pride and Prejudice.  

Back to McCall-Smith’s Emma. This is how I think it should be read – read the first third of the novel because the portrayal of Mr Woodhouse is delightful. Than go and read the original Emma. Because nothing truly compares to it.

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