Getting lost in Austen
BEFORE Jane Austen began her 1815 novel Emma, she said, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” This is a challenge even for Austen, whose Emma Woodhouse can be spoiled and self-satisfied but also charming, witty and well-intentioned (though often with disastrous results). For Alexander McCall Smith, imagining an Emma for the age of sexting, soap operas and social media, it ends up being impossible. Despite being tremendously genial, his modern retelling of the Austen classic never gets us to care about his heroine. McCall Smith is the impossibly prolific Scottish wordsmith behind The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books, the Sunday Philosophy Club series, the 44 Scotland Street novels and the Professor Dr. von Igelfeld Entertainments. His update of Emma is the latest entry in The Austen Project, in which six contemporary writers have been tasked with modernizing the work of the Divine Jane. Joanna Trollope started out with a 21st-century version of Sense and Sensibility, and crime writer Val McDermid recently delivered her take on the gothic mystery of Northanger Abbey. Like them, McCall Smith faces a sticky problem: Austen’s work is animated by social constraints, most of which no longer exist. The English class hierarchy hasn’t disappeared, but it is less rigid and allencompassing. (Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father, notes with some surprise that his daughter Isabella’s children “speak like Cockney barrow boys.”) In particular, sex and marriage are much easier to get into and out of, and young women no longer have to fret about not being wed by age 19. Emma might be the easiest Austen novel to update, since the original is not dependent on the traditional marriage plot. Austen’s Emma, the indulged daughter of a wealthy widowed father, doesn’t have to marry and declares quite frankly that she won’t. McCall Smith’s heroine is also wary of wedlock. As she puts it: “Pretty, clever and rich people did not have to bother with such things.” Emma’s friendship with George Knightley, her handsome older neighbour, is less about the possibility of marriage and more about moral growth. Emma’s real task is to grow up. Emma’s emotional transformation can be hard to follow, however, as McCall Smith keeps bombarding us with back-stories. In Austen’s book, minor characters illuminate the main themes, but here they just distract. There is Miss Bates, an aging single lady of straitened means who tends to witter on nervously. There is Mr. Woodhouse, whose late 18th-century worries about drafts and diet have been replaced with a hypochondriac’s interest in echinacea, omega-3 fatty acids and antibacterial wipes. There is Harriet Smith, the naive young woman Emma hopes to mould. In the original novel Harriet suffers from the stain of illegitimacy. Here she is held back — at least from Emma’s insufferably privileged vantage point — by being unable to afford a gap year in “somewhere exotic such as Kenya or Thailand.” Some of the updates of characters and situations seem strained or just silly. Even worse, McCall Smith labours so diligently to parallel Austen that he fails to create a convincing world of his own. Paradoxically, works that range more widely from Austen’s source material often feel more true to its spirit. Bridget Jones’s Diary, for all its Chardonnay and casual sex, is a terrific adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The veteran McCall Smith is never a terrible writer, and his prose rolls along well enough, with flashes of insight and humour (including inside jokes about the Scottish propensities of Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess). McCall Smith does make us aware of the genius of Austen, but unfortunately this is often through his own flaws. Austen conveys characters’ histories with concise elegance, while McCall Smith drags things out with extraneous detail. She deftly handles the social interaction of large groups, using dialogue to reveal character, while he resorts to endless explanations. McCall Smith also has a tendency to ramble, rather like the unfortunate Miss Bates. In the end, his updated Emma feels amiable but unnecessary. Winnipeg writer Alison Gillmor still has high hopes for Curtis Sittenfeld’s update
of Pride and Prejudice.