Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

imageI love Jane Austen. I have done since I watched the BBCs Pride and Prejudice aged 6 with my mother. I was captivated. As soon as I was old enough I began to read the books and over the years I’ve reread them numerous times. However I’m not a purist and enjoy the spin offs and modern adaptions including the two already published as part of the Austen Project. However neither Sense and Sensibility nor Northanger Abbey rank amoung my favourites of Austen’s work. Emma on the otherhand is one of my favourites so I was slightly nervous about this latest effort. My fears to a certain extent was well founded.

Emma, more so then Sense and Sensibility or Northanger Abbey, was always likely to cause problems when being updated. How to reconcile the fact Miss Taylor is the governess in an era when no one has such a thing? The result is Miss Taylor, though still referred to as a governess basically becomes the nanny. Odd terminology aside it at least makes sense. Harriet however was always going to pose a bigger problem. In the original Harriet is an illegitimate child who’s father pays Mrs Goddard for her upkeep. Emma plays matchmaker in an attempt to marry her friend off to Mr Elton, plainly for money. A completely acceptable concept in Regency England when marrying well was the only option for most girls. The update doesn’t work. Harriet’s backstory (sperm donar who for some reason gives her a stipend) is barely believable and while girls regularly play matchmaker for each other, Emma’s ploys come off mercenary in her blatant attempts to find Harriet a “sugar daddy” to pay for her gap year. Emma is many things but never mercenary and to imply such is a gross misunderstanding of her character.

There are other misunderstandings of character in the book. In the original it is clear Miss Taylor knows well how to handle Mr Woodhouse and his eccentricities. I never got that sense in this version. This is perhaps down to how the book is structured giving little time to secondary characters. The first 100 pages are taken up with events which occur before the start of the original book, i.e the death of Emma’s mother and Isabella’s marriage. While interesting I felt this could have been condensed into 50 pages. It takes another 100 pages to reach the point where Emma proposes drawing Harriet’s portrait, an event which occurs approximately 30% into the original. This leaves the author only 160 pages for the main events of the novel. The result feels rushed and a number of minor events and at least one major event are scratched while others are merged together. It is one of the main differences between this book and the previous Austen project books which stuck more faithfully to the narrative.

There are elements which do work. We still get a strong feeling for the relationship between Emma and George Knightly, though we see less of their wonderful repartee. Mr Woodhouse is brilliant. A hypochondriac works better in the 21st century then in the early 19th century. There is also a nice and entirely believable side storyline involving him and Mrs Goddard.

Overall it was an enjoyable, light easy read. If separated from the original then it can be viewed as an above average, 4 star chick lit. However as a modern adaptation of the work of Austen I feel it failed, and that is speaking as someone who is by no means a purist. Would I recommend it? Yes but don’t expect a faithful modern retelling of Emma.

Rating: 3/5


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