Review of ‘Emma’ by Alexander McCall Smith

Available from Harper Collins.

This is the second Austen Project book I’ve read (following Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’, reviewed in my last post).  I had been led to believe by the critics that it would not be as good, and it wasn’t, even though I’m probably Alexander McCall Smith’s greatest fan.  (Was I influenced by the critics, Dear Reader?  Should I have not looked?  Perhaps.  Probably.)

As Val McDermid did with ‘Northanger Abbey’, Alexander McCall Smith turned it inside out and made it his own, moving the Woodhouse pile, Hartfield, and the village of Highbury (I always think of the Arsenal!) from Surrey to Norfolk, although I don’t know why.   However, it was not easy to translate a story about a rich girl living in a big house in the country with nothing to do into modern life and portray her character sympathetically.  Inevitably, Emma becomes a bit of an alice band.  When the story starts, Emma has just graduated from Bath University with a degree in interior design, but without a real passion in the subject, and, whilst she is very childish in some respects, she is also prematurely middle-aged, with an overwhelming interest in her neighbours.   Like the real thing, she interferes in other people’s business, believing she knows better, with disastrous results.   Jane herself wrote of ‘Emma’, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” (Wikipedia, quoting Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1926. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967. p. 157).  Yes, Miss Austen, you did.

Maybe it’s because the setting is contemporary, or because I read the real ‘Emma’ a long time ago, when I was young and callow, but AMS’s characters seem more lifelike, to the point of being caricatures.  Emma herself really is horrid, Harriet Smith incredibly thick and gullible, and Mr Woodhouse so much of a hypochondriac that it’s a wonder he ever got out of bed.  In fact, in my opinion, Mr Woodhouse occupies too much of this adaptation, especially at the beginning, when we have to read his life story, with AMS converting him into a bit of a sage, with a knotty opinion on world affairs.   Another character who takes up too many pages is Miss Taylor.  Who she, you might ask, Dear Reader?  In the original, she has a very minor role, as Emma’s former governess who has recently wed Mr Weston, but, because – after Mr Woodhouse’s life story – we have to read about Emma and Isabella’s childhood, she looms large – and Scottish.  Miss Bates, one of the stronger characters in the real thing, appears only briefly.  Mr Knightley is shadowy, dull and worthy, a Darcy without the edginess.  True to the original, Emma realises she loves Mr Knightley only in the last few pages, but in both versions this is an unsatisfactory ending.

‘Emma’ is a story in which very little happens.  Many of the (only) 300 pages were taken up with typical Alexander McCall Smith meanderings, exploring what everyone thinks about everything.  These are normally a pleasure to read, but not here.  I do believe bringing ‘Emma’ into the present day was difficult task as parts of it belong wholly to the Regency period.

So do I recommend Alexander McCall Smith’s ‘Emma’?  Yes, actually.  It was a pleasant read, more Alexander McCall Smith, though, than Jane Austen.

Jane Austen, painted by her sister, Cassandra.

9 thoughts on “Review of ‘Emma’ by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. Ah, you clearly enjoyed it more than I did – I suspect that must be because you like McCall Smith in general more than me. Not that I don’t like his other stuff, but I don’t really love it either. This was the book that finally finished The Austen Project for me – I can’t bear the thought of what they will do to Pride and Prejudice…

    1. P&P will be done by Curtis Sittenfeld, who is apparently, an American writer. Have you read Joanna Trolloppe’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’?

      1. I know – and I don’t mean to be insular about it but…American?!? 😉

        Yes, and I’m afraid I disliked it just as much as Emma. I quite enjoyed Northanger Abbey though, but the themes in it make it a bit easier to transfer to modern times.

      2. Well, I don’t get on with Joanna Trolloppe generally and I can’t bear to think what she’s done with S&S.

  2. I wasn’t aware of this project at all (I also just read your review of the “new” Northanger Abbey. Can’t say it inspires me to pick up the books, regardless of the authors. And can we really milk Jane Austen more than she has been milked already? And you are right – it’s hard to fathom a character like Emma moved forward to the present day.

    1. I agree with you that Jane Austen is much ‘milked’. Have you read ‘The Jane Austen Bookclub’ and ‘Austenland’? It used to be that Jane Austen was a secret – uncool – treat daughters shared with their mothers, but now her work is being used as a prototype for all manner of literature aimed at women. One thing that has always irked me is that people refer to her as ‘Jane’ when I’m sure she would consider this too forward. According to the custom of the day, she would think of herself as ‘Miss Austen’ or ‘Miss Jane Austen’ seeing as Cassandra was the older sister.

      1. I did read the JA bookclub (but not Austenland) and I even enjoyed it. I will admit. Ms Austen has become big business and I suppose the powers that be want to make her palatable to younger generations. But there is nothing wrong with discovering her later in life. I know that my stepdaughter, who is into the Hunger Games, wouldn’t give a crap right now about Regency England.

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