“One messes with the classics at one’s peril.”

“One messes with the classics at one’s peril.”

Last week I had the pleasure of hearing Alexander McCall Smith discuss his brand-new novel Emma: A Modern Retelling at the first stop on his American book tour.

The novel is the third in The Austen Project, a new series of six novels that pair bestselling authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works.

Val McDermid penned the first book in the series, a reimagined Northanger Abbey published in April 2014. Joanna Trollope’s updated Sense & Sensibility followed in November 2014. Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice is due out in 2016. The authors for Mansfield Park and Persuasion have not yet been announced.

The project has its critics, who have called the series everything from “unnecessary,” at best, to “a travesty,” at worst. They insist that it’s impossible to update Jane Austen for modern times, and they have a point.

But golly, it’s fun to try. When approached by The Austen Project in 2013 with an offer to write Emma, McCall Smith said it took him all of 30 seconds to say yes. At his talk in Louisville last week, he said getting to update Emma was “like being given a large box of chocolates” and that spending time in that world was “one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.”

But he also acknowledged the responsibility that comes with updating Austen for modern times, saying that “one messes with the classics at one’s peril.” Reimagining Austen was like retelling a Greek myth; her stories are so appreciated and so widely known that “a certain responsibility” accompanies any re-write.

McCall Smith said he doesn’t object to modern updates of classic works: even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is fine by him. But he does say it’s necessary to approach the work in the right spirit and with due respect for the original.

Emma A Modern Retelling

When we went to hear McCall Smith speak about his Emma, I was a hundred pages in to the book, and was finding it surprising: McCall Smith hewed much closer to Austen’s storyline than I expected, but his tone didn’t resemble Austen’s at all, though he does share Austen’s wry humor: at one point Emma comments that Harriet Smith is a rather old-fashioned name.

I’m glad I had the opportunity to hear him speak before I finished the book, because I quickly realized that he wasn’t striving to sound like Austen. He wanted to be true to Austen in another way: by telling a story in which virtue is rewarded.

The original Emma shows the growth of its protagonist’s moral development: over the course of the novel, Emma comes to terms with the fact that there are other people in her world, with their own wants and interests, and she learns to accommodate their desires, as well as her own. In short, Emma grows up.

That is how McCall Smith’s reimagined Emma is true to Austen’s, even though it will certainly give hard-core Janeites the vapors (especially when they see the liberties McCall Smith took with Harriet): it remains a book about growing up.

I found McCall Smith’s Emma a fun, entertaining read, but I’m certain I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much had the author not reframed my expectations at the midpoint. I’m equally certain many Jane Austen fans will abhor this reimagining, finding it strays too far from the spirit of the original.

But I find that—even with Austen—there are more ways to be true to the spirit of the original than I’d imagined.

Have you read this reimagined Emma yet? Do you intend to? Should I go ahead and pass you the smelling salts? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. 

P.S. For the Janeite who ran out of Austen novels, and my favorite Jane Austen film adaptations.

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48 comments

  1. Miriam B says:

    I requested this book from my library and am excited to read it. I had never heard of the Austen project until a few days ago, but I plan to give all the books a shot. I typically give a book 50 pages and then decide if I want to keep reading or not.

  2. Breanne says:

    I read Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility but didn’t realize it was part of this project. I really enjoyed it but I enjoyed it because I was familiar with the original and could see where she was going and how she extracted the essence of the story.
    I’m not an Austen purist and I’m going to see if my library has this Emma. Its sounds fascinating and I have a love/hate relationship with his other books so want to see how this one is.

    • Anne says:

      Oh no! The library hosted him at the main branch downtown. They put notices about things like that on their website. In the past I’ve enjoyed their programs, like with Deb Perelman (Smitten Kitchen) and David Eagleman.

  3. Andrea says:

    **Your link to Northanger Abbey goes to Sense & Sensibility**

    I plan to read this book (just got it through Audible)! I love Alexander McCall Smith’s writing, so when I heard he was rewriting Emma, I was quite excited. I was also at the LFPL event — he is such a delightful author! I’d heard him speak about 8 years ago, and he is still just as charming!

    (I also am looking forward to P&P, reimagined by Curtis Sittenfeld, another writer I love.)

  4. Bernadette says:

    I really enjoyed this one! I actually just saw it in your previous post, and read it over the weekend. I am adamantly against re-telling, parodies, re-settings, etc. of Austen (only her … I actually really enjoy parody in general; I suppose it’s just something about her special status!), but I do so like Alexander McCall Smith’s writing. But this was a very pleasant read, and I felt it was somewhat true to the original. I’ve also never particularly like “Emma,” so perhaps I would have been less enthusiastic had this been P&P or Mansfield Park. There are some pretty awful reviews of this out there, but strangely, some of the faults of this book are things I think are lacking the real Emma — I’ve never really like Emma herself, or Mr. Knightley, and always felt their romance came out of left field. I thought he did a nice job of recreating some of the scenes with a modern twist.

    There was some repetition — and I think that is something that Smith does as an author — his characters quote the same lines, and make the same observations over and over again. But I’m hooked by now, so I’ll continue to read all his new works, anyway!

    • Anne says:

      This was the first AMS book I’ve read, even though his No. 1 Ladies series has been on my to-read list for AGES.

      And you may be interested in hearing that he said one of the big challenges in his Emma was writing a character who isn’t all that likable, at least at the beginning—which is exactly what Jane Austen thought of her Emma.

      • Torey says:

        Your first AMS book ever? You are missing out. He has several series and I have enjoyed them all. He’s such a smart writer and loves tackling ethical questions.

  5. I think I might have confessed to you before that I’ve only read two Austen books. I know. And I come from a well-read family that never read Austen, either. I heard once that readers usually prefer Austen over the Brontes or the Brontes over Austen but almost never love their books at the same level. My vote is for the windy moor! Perhaps this is a discussion for another time?

    Anyway, I know the books I am coo-coo passionate about feel very, very personal. When other authors have written books about the same characters or retellings or sequels, it is often very hard for me to even think of reading them. Somehow I don’t want to participate in something that taints / takes away from the original for me. I know you’re a huge Austen fan and have read many retellings. I’m curious: How do you feel, at a gut level, about this sort of thing?

    • Anne says:

      I honestly haven’t read many retellings: I don’t usually care for fanfiction. That being said, I LOVE Clueless, You’ve Got Mail, and the Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

      I’m in favor of good stories, period. I’m not keen on mediocre retellings that gain an audience solely because they borrow characters from other writers’ good stories.

  6. Leah says:

    You know, I have never read a single Austen novel (lower the pitchforks, please!!) but I do love retellings. In some cases, like with Jane Austen, I think it might help a bit that I’m not already familiar with the story. I personally really enjoyed Charles Lovett’s First Impressions for example, but a friend who loves Austen couldn’t finish it. When it comes to retellings though, I’d rather have the author use his/her own voice instead of trying to sound like so-and-so.

    I’m also a big fan of biographical fiction which is close enough to retellings that I’m lumping them together. Naturally I’d hope the author would keep the Big Picture accurate, but I’m all in favor of fudging tiny details in order to create a good story.

  7. Vanessa says:

    I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that there was even an Austen Project going on. I live in Toronto and there has been zero press about these books coming out (and I’m a little annoyed about that). So, thank goodness for your blog because without it I would never have known about Emma: A Modern Retelling. I’ve since added it to my iBooks wishlist! x

  8. Tuija says:

    I’ve read it. Though I’m perhaps a hard core Janeite, it didn’t upset me 🙂 I guess I’ve learnt to modify my expectations?

    I think McCall Smith did well in bringing Mr Woodhouse to modern times. I also really liked his take on Miss Taylor. On the other hand, because he wrote such a lot about Miss Taylor’s back story and all the other parts of the story that happened before the point where Austen’s Emma actually started, he had to condense and even leave out many big parts of the plot of Austen’s Emma. (I don’t know if I’m saying this very well.) He did justice to the growth story, but I would have liked to have more action and dialogue with Mr Knightley, for example…

  9. Heather says:

    I will have to check this book out. I have no issues with modernizing Jane Austen and she is my favorite author of all time. But I also think Clueless is an awesome movie too! LOL

    • Mairsydoats says:

      Same here!! Clueless is, for me, the best retelling of Emma. I’m good with adaptation/parody, etc, providing the quality of writing is still high. Schlocky sloppy writing is what can kill it for me.

  10. JerryT says:

    I didn’t like Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and am not tempted to read the revised (if that’s the correct term??) Emma.

    • Anne says:

      I haven’t read that one yet (though I am now inspired to do so) but I am absolutely positive you are not alone in your dislike for it.

  11. Laura says:

    I love all of AMS’s books (minus the Portuguese Verbs series, that one’s a bit too odd for me and one other collection of short stories but anyway…) and so I’m thrilled to see that he’s written this modern retelling. I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it. Emma is my least favorite of main six Austen novels and I’ve read them all many times. I actually just gave my copy of Emma away because I realized I didn’t want to read it again. So I’m definitely interested to read AMS’s take on her.

  12. Frances says:

    I loved clueless (especially since I was about the age of the characters when the movie came out.) And because of that I read Emma ( something that wasn’t on my radar to read then) and enjoyed it. I think the reason the movie worked though was because it was more an “inspired by” storyline with key elements in the plot used. It wasn’t a retelling with the exact same characters….something I don’t normally like since I feel the book has already told the story so why rewrite it? I am interested in this concept though and will probably pick it up to read. Will let you know then where I stand with this new version….

  13. Karisa says:

    I think I’m going to add this to my to read list. Personally I was glad to hear he used his writing style as opposed to trying to sound like Austen. I couldn’t make it to the actual story in Death Comes to Pemberly because the author was trying so hard to write like Austen, but he sounded like fan fiction.

      • Danae says:

        Me too 🙁 I simply love P. D. James but didn’t like Death Comes to Pemberley. It wasn’t the concept, it was the poor writing – not at all my experience with James’ earlier crime fiction! My favorite of hers is An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.

  14. Dana says:

    Confession: i have read Pride and Prejudice only once, a few years ago. I enjoyed it and have since purchased several other Austen books at the used bookstore but have yet to read any of them. I did read in a commentary about JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series that Emma was one of the books that she read over and over. Apparently it was a huge influence on her writing. That made me more interested but Emma has not bubbled up to the surface of the TBR pile yet.

    Your post makes me more interested in getting to Austen and Smith.

  15. Hannah says:

    I’ve read a lot of Austen and I love her. I haven’t read any modern re-tellings of her work whatsoever. This isn’t because I’m a snob (at least I hope not!) but because I truly feel like part of a story’s muchness comes from its setting, time period, dialog, etc. So to remove those elements, or to update them with a modern twist, isn’t a retelling to me. It’s creating a different story altogether. For whatever reason, it feels like a lazy move on an author’s part to do that. Maybe it isn’t. But I just can’t go there.

    • Anne says:

      I love that you used the word “muchness” to describe this, and you’ve articulated why I have complicated feelings about “updating” classics. (Although when the update is awesome—think Clueless or You’ve Got Mail—my feelings are much less complicated.)

  16. Sue says:

    I love your blog and have been a reader for years……I’m not sure how to say this nicely, so I’ll just say it: I am really tired of the constant book posts! It feels like 90%’of your content is about books or reading. I’m sure it’s not easy to come up with fresh material every day! we all know your love of reading and books and if this is now a blog about books, that’s great…I just won’t check in every day expecting to read blog topics like you used to have last year. I’m not trying to sound snotty…I just want to know if this is now strictly a blog about books

  17. I think Smith is dead on: respect is key when rewriting a classic. I don’t typically go for modern retellings of classic books, but I love modernized myths and legends. And BBC’s Sherlock is pretty darn awesome. I think the reason I like those so much is because it’s clear that the rewriters wouldn’t be making a modernization if they didn’t love the original. When that love shows through, the retelling is actually pretty good! 🙂

  18. liz n. says:

    Although I’m slightly intrigued by the Austen Project, I doubt I’ll read any of the re-tellings. My take on it is a bit odd, but here goes: to adapt a book for film is fine (even though, let’s face it, about 50% of the movie versions of books make me want to tear my hair out. “The Hobbit” atrocity, anyone? The missing “I don’t think you’re a waste of space” scene between Dudley and Harry? Only one Steele sister in “Sense & Sensibility?”) Putting a book onto film is playing with the story in another medium, and can work beautifully…but to essentially re-write a book makes no sense to me. A LOT of Janeites have taken the utmost offense to the Austen Project, but I see it as, “Meh. Whatever. I don’t get it.” So…probably a slim-to-none chance that I’ll read any of the new versions, although I do understand the point of the project. I just find it kind of a waste of time. I wish I had a more fervent reaction to the whole thing, but my enthusiasm for the Austen Project is lukewarm.

  19. lulu64 says:

    This made me think of the YouTube channel Pemberley Digital https://www.youtube.com/user/PemberleyDigital that a friend recommended. I haven’t watched more than a few episodes yet of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved but I find them rather amusing. They’re adaptations of Pride & Prejudice and Emma (obviously) done like vlogs, and there are other classics too, like Little Women. I enjoy Austen in general but I’m not the world’s #1 fan or super attached, so I don’t know if these would be every JA fan’s cup of tea, but I think the folks in them are charming and it seemed appropriate to this topic of adaptations!

  20. Jory says:

    I just finished this. I really enjoyed it for the most part, but it’s biggest flaw, I think, was that there was simply NOT ENOUGH GEORGE. He spent a great deal of time developing basically every other character and giving us interesting, but not really necessary information, and not enough of our hero. Perhaps he was worn out by the end…

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