Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith – A Review

Emma Alexander McCall Smith 2015 x 200From the desk of Katie Patchell: 

Two years ago The Austen Project launched their first reimagined Jane Austen novel in the series, Sense and Sensibility (by Joanna Trollope), that has so far included Northanger Abbey (by Val McDermid), and the most recent, published in April of this year—Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith. Heralded as ‘Jane Austen—Reimagined,’ each successive book has gathered mixed reviews, yet also a wide readership, as many fans of Jane Austen’s beloved classics look forward to finding out (with anticipation or trepidation) how each of Austen’s six novels have been modernized.

While I’ve enjoyed reading each of The Austen Project books so far, there’s a common issue faced in each of them, one that should be addressed in reviews and even everyday conversation. This issue is: How much can be modernized in any classic update without detracting from the original book? It’s always difficult to decide, as a reader and I’m sure as an author, what can be updated and altered for the 21st century, and what has to stay the same in order for the story to honor the original (and author’s intent). For instance, there are some things—such as views on love, sex, and marriage—that have been updated in this version of Emma to fit the author’s modern beliefs, which do not fit with the original Emma’s written views on these issues or Jane Austen’s beliefs. Some things hold true throughout the centuries, and sometimes removing these in a modern interpretation of a classic significantly takes away from the integrity and meaning of the story. Some of the differences found in this modernization include: Miss Taylor initially moves in with Mr. Weston before their marriage, Emma casually calls her dad ‘Pops’ all the time, Isabella Woodhouse and John Knightley are expecting twins before saying ‘I do,’ and Emma wonders if she’s attracted to females while painting Harriet in the nude.

However, modern reimaginings generally have their merit and individual strengths, and Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is no exception. I enjoyed some of the character updates, particularly their personalities, motives, habits, backgrounds, and careers. Miss Bates’ reasons for talking so much, Frank Churchill’s growing-up years in Australia, Mr. Weston’s past as a rugby player and backstory, Harriet Smith’s modern-day naiveté and love of Robert Martin, son of B & B owners, Mrs. Elton, previous singer on the show, Look at Me!, and most hilarious of all, the sometimes-wise, delightful hypochondriac, Mr. Woodhouse (some things never change). His hilarious (but usually always uttered seriously) comments about germs, his fears, and his views on weddings and children were some of my favorite bits of this modern retelling.

I especially loved the modernization of Mr. Knightley (fan girl confession—he’s always been my all-time favorite Jane Austen hero!). His modern-day generosity to his neighbors and county, ability to talk to the young and old, intriguing backstory, and even the interesting ageless qualities of his character (seen in the original too, and perceptively mentioned by McCall Smith), were all really well done. Sadly, Mr. Knightley doesn’t appear as often as he does in the original—he rarely shows up in the first three-fourths of Emma, and overall, he has only three or four actual conversations with Emma. While this was extremely disappointing, the conversations and interactions that they did have were well written and enjoyable to read, and my inner romantic enjoyed the modern banter. The confrontation after the dramatic Box Hill scene was as painful and powerful as the original, and McCall Smith’s writing paired with the modern setting highlighted nuances easy to miss in the original for modern readers.

Emma has always been my favorite of Jane Austen’s stories—probably because when I was eight, this was my first introduction to the world of Jane Austen. I’ve always seen Emma as witty, brave, and well meaning, and while flawed, still loveably human—but not everyone feels the same about her after reading the original. McCall Smith’s reimagining gives new insight into Emma’s character, and with the modernization as well as the author’s unique perspective, Emma’s heart, motives, and growth at the end are all seen in a different and more sympathetic light.  One thing that particularly stood out to me was the question Alexander McCall Smith brought up early on—What if Emma’s desire to control others and dislike of intimacy (unless completely governed by her) started by her growing up without a mother? Obviously this fact can’t explain all of her actions in the course of the novel, but it does bring up an important point, one that affected the shaping of Emma’s character and choices in the original and modern versions.

While the pacing was slow—it took until chapter 17 (out of 21) to get to Mr. Elton’s proposal—and many events, conversations, and storylines from the original did not appear in this modernized version, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma was an interesting, and at times, very enjoyable read. And while I disagreed with some of his updates, there were also sections that led to laughter and a new understanding of the characters. Overall, this latest publication of the Austen Project reminds readers of the beauty of Jane Austen’s stories, and is able to point all readers, new and old, back to the greater enjoyment of reading Austen’s phenomenal original.

3.5 out of 5 Stars

Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon (2015)
Hardcover, eBook and audiobook (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0804197953

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Our reviews of the other books in The Austen Project

Cover image courtesy of Pantheon Books © 2015; text Katie Patchell © 2015, Austenprose.com

Disclosure of Material Connection: We received one review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. We only review or recommend products we have read or used and believe will be a good match for our readers. We are disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

11 thoughts on “Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith – A Review

  1. I appreciate hearing another review as I have anticipated the novels more than I’ve enjoyed the actually reading. The updates seem to include more extremes of contemporary culture than the originals which tell of a more everyday life of JA’s times.

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  2. I think you’re absolutely right about the troubles of adapting to modern times. Some do it much better than others and I find that the writing style of an author can definitely help gloss over some of the “Jane would NEVER write that,” moments for me! I picked up my copy of this a few weeks ago and I can’t wait to read it!

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  3. I’m on the fence still about reading this JANE Austen Reimagined project. I’ve read a lot of great fan fiction–and let’s face it, this is what this project is despite it being touted as something new and inventive. And so far the reviews have not been compelling enough for me to make the investment of valuable reading time. Thanks for the review.

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  4. That’s a good point about any modern retelling- what is brought forward and what gets lost to modern mores. I think that’s especially true of these b/c they seem to be meant to be modern takes on the classics and not just loose retellings.

    Glad the spirit of Emma and Knightley shined forth though disappointing that their interaction is so limited.

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  5. I read this back in April (how I spent my time at a wedding reception- pausing to tell everyone what I was ready and chat about books) and I liked the writing style but not so much the story – or lack thereof. I wish he had included more of the original plot of the novel. I loved Mr. Wodehouse and his backstory the most.

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