Get­ting lost in Austen

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ali­son Gill­mor

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.

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