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.
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.