Those folks at HarperCollins really know how to make Janeites scream with joy—well—at least this Janeite, who is over the moon from their announcement last Friday that Alexander McCall Smith is slated to re-write Emma for The Austen Project.
One of my favorite contemporary authors, McCall Smith is renowned for his delightful No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, filled with the intimate characterizations and laugh-out-loud social humor. Better yet, he is a huge Jane Austen fan! His writing talents are an ideal match to Jane Austen’s Emma, a masterpiece of “minute detail” layered with unique characters and intricate plot. I am on my knees in gratitude to publisher Kate Elton (we promise not to call her Mrs. E.) for her choice. In my humble opinion McCall Smith is the perfect choice for a contemporary re-write and I am all anticipation of its release in 2015, the bicentenary year of Emma’s original publication.
The Austen Project will include contemporary reimagining’s of all of Jane Austen’s six major novels by popular authors. First up in the series will be, Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope which hits book shelves (and digital readers) this month on October 29th followed by Val McDermid’s interpretation of Northanger Abbey on March 27th 2014 and Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld in 2015. That leaves Mansfield Park and Persuasion still up for grabs.
Speculation abounds in the Jane Austen community over who has been short listed for the last two novels. Each presents certain challenges in matching up the appropriate author, but Mansfield Park even more so. Considered Austen’s dark horse, MP needs to be handled carefully by an author whose skill with intimate family dynamics and incisive wit is key in retelling the story for a contemporary audience. Readers either love MP or hate it, complaining about its timid heroine and weak hero. I am more than a bit biased in favor of the novel’s protagonists: prudential Fanny Price and namby-pamby Edmund Berturm. However, few will fault its brilliantly wicked antagonists: siblings Mary and Henry Crawford. They are the stuff that writers dream of.
There are many talented writers who excel at family stories: Diane Setterfield (The Thirteenth Tale), Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex), Ian McEwan (Atonement), Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees), Anna Quindlen (Every Last One) and Cathleen Schine (Fin & Lady) to name only a few. All of these authors exhibit qualities that could suit, but it will take more than an ear for a family tale to pull off a modernization of MP. It needs someone who has sensitively infused family drama into their stories with a keen sense of pathos and humor. Who better to tell the tale than the world’s best storytellers, the Irish. Call is genetic, or cultural, or whatever, there is nothing like James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, John McGahern or Frank Delaney to rip your heart out and then turn around and make you laugh.
Austen’s MP can be read as a sharp social comedy but it is so, much, much more. I believe that is why some readers do not understand or enjoy it as much as Austen’s other work. They don’t quite get the themes Austen was driving towards: passions vs. principles, virtue vs. vice, money vs. charity, and expect a light, bright and sparkly romance like Pride and Prejudice. The characters transfer into an Irish family drama quite seamlessly. Just imagine the Bertram’s embroiled in dark family secrets (Fanny), booze (Lady Bertram), Catholic guilt (Sister Norris), booze (Lady Bertam), clandestine liaisons (Maria & Father Henry, and Tom Bertram & John Yates) and corruption (Sir Bertram) and you will get my drift.
2014 marks the bicentenary of Mansfield Park’s first publication. From the choices that have been made for The Austen Project to date, publisher Kate Elton has “taught me to hope” that they will choose carefully and might be amenable to my giant hint.
“What is right to be done cannot be done soon enough.” – Emma
So, gentle readers, do you agree with MY choice, or who would you like to see rewrite Mansfield Park?
- Please join us on Wednesday, October 30th for our review of Sense & Sensibility (Austen Project), by Joanna Trollope
Image of Alexander McCall Smith courtesy of Random House © Michael Lionstar; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2013, Austenprose.com