I think it was earlier this year I read a modern take on Pride & Prejudice and mentioned there were a slew of authors of different genres who’d taken on Austen’s work. Alexander McCall Smith, known to me as the writer behind The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, took a stab at Emma, my second favorite Austen book. I was a little worried about a man taking on Austen’s work; part of her appeal when I was younger was her subtle (and not so) jabs at the patriarchy. Nonetheless I dove in.
If you’ve lived under a rock, never took an English literature class, or loathe Gwyneth Paltrow/Kate Beckinsale/BBC you might not know that Emma is the tale of the titular wealthy young woman who lives alone with her anxiety-plagued father. Her older sister is married with young children. Emma and her father both enjoy the company of a nearby neighbor, Mr. Knightley. Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, has stayed on with the family until she meets and marries another neighbor, Mr. Weston. Original Emma has very little to do and society affords her little opportunity of occupying herself, so she decides after her successful introduction of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston that she should be a matchmaker and help others find happiness in love. She herself feels no compulsion to marry. This is disastrous, as Emma is spoiled and a bit selfish, though good-hearted deep down. In Smith’s updated version not a lot has changed. Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) is a hypochondriac, her sister lives in London with her four children and Mr. Knightley’s older brother. And Emma is still bored with nothing to do after university. She has plans to start her own interior design business, and does dabble in art sometimes, but mostly she just throws dinner parties.
One would think sometimes that the premises in Austen’s work would be too dated to apply to modern times and in some ways that is true. However, if you can write around silly issues no one cares about now (such as whether someone’s parents are known), the central themes still hold up fairly well. I enjoyed Smith’s retelling of Austen’s frustrating but ultimately lovable heroine. I have yet to pick up any of his other work but I am curious enough now to check it out. Does the light-hearted sense of humor that comes through in this Emma also feature in his other work? Or is that his way of paying homage to Austen as well? I will find out eventually I am sure. I like his characterization of people and while it may help that I have read Austen’s version a few times and seen MANY film/tv adaptations of it, I was able to picture many of the characters in a modern setting easily through Smith’s writing.
I did find it a little hard to find Emma in this book – so much of it is about other people that it almost turns her into a background character in the one plot that I love the most – her growing love for Mr. Knightley. Knightley himself is so minor that when they finally do get together it’s kind of out of nowhere. I could be misremembering the original novel and basing this feeling off the movies which use subtle longing looks a lot to demonstrate this love story. In any case it didn’t ruin things for me and so I’d recommend it to Austen lovers. It definitely reads a lot faster than the original!