As much as I love Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet — and particularly Mr. Darcy — it may very well be, if I am quite honest, that I, myself, have more in common with Emma Woodhouse. Miss Austen’s Emma is — a “spoilt, self-deluded” (The Guardian), “altruistic, but self-absorbed” (Time), controlling, opinionated, and kind (Me) young woman living in a small rural community with her chronically-neurotic, hypochondriac father. I like Emma. And despite her penchant for getting in her own way, or perhaps because of it, I find Emma quite charming.
I feel I must not be alone. “Emma” has ranked in the top five of girl’s names bestowed at birth in the United States since 2002. However, that is much more likely to the birth of Emma Geller Green on April 4, 2002, to Ross and Rachel of Friends. But where did they get the name? I ask you. (Friends-o-philes know that Monica chose the name first and Rachel stole it. But Monica must’ve gotten it from Miss Austen!)
As part of HarperCollins’ Austen Project, where modern writers have been tasked with rewriting Jane Austen’s novels, The Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith has rewritten Emma. This Emma, A Modern Retelling is the fourth of the Austen Project novels released, but only the second I’ve read. Eligible!, by Curtis Sittenfeld, is most recent and I loved it. In fact, my book club is reading Eligible! on my recommendation this month. Here’s the link to my review of Eligible! https://daeandwrite.wordpress.com/2016/07/17/eligible-by-curtis-sittenfeld/
Emma, The Modern Retelling, treads quite softly on Austen’s hallowed ground. Really, all that Smith has changed significantly is the century. Emma herself, living alone with her father, is as recognizable as a beloved teddy bear. George Knightley is his same lovable self, though a bit reticent; Harriet Smith, Philip Elton, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill. All is so much the same, one is quite shocked when a MiniCooper appears. Even Emma’s slight of Miss Bates finds a modernish interpretation:
Then there was Miss Bates. Emma felt a sudden tug of conscience and told herself that she must make more of an effort with Miss Bates; she must give her a bit more of her time. It would be easy enough; all she had to do was to call on her now and then – Miss Bates was always in – and give her a present of those violet creams that she liked so much but obviously could no longer afford. Miss Bates, she assumed, divided her life between the violet-cream days – before she was an unsuccessful Lloyd’s Name – and the days in which violet creams were just a distant memory. Lloyd’s Names had suffered in many different ways – being deprived of violet creams was just one way in which financial disaster brought hardship. Poor Miss Bates – and there she was sitting next to James, who was being so kind to her, as he was to everybody, whatever his or her failings.
I enjoyed McCall Smith’s Emma . . . but not as much as I enjoy reading and rereading Miss Austen’s original. Indeed, at the conclusion of the “Modern Retelling,” I wondered what the point of it was? There were no updates to plot, character, setting and even the minor changes to things like occupation and schooling (and a sperm donor in lieu of illegitimacy) did not have any significant impact. In her review for the New York Times, Leah Price said:
McCall Smith’s “Emma,” in contrast, reads like a too literal translation. His reluctance to alter now anachronistic details forces him to spend pages explaining why, in an age of universal schooling, Emma would have a governess, and why, at a time when overscheduling afflicts even the erstwhile leisure class, she wouldn’t have a job.
Emma, A Modern Retelling, is an easy read, enjoyable. But unlike Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible! which gives Pride & Prejudice a true modernity, McCall Smith’s Emma doesn’t have much point.
For information on the other Austen rewrites: http://www.boroughpress.co.uk/?s=Austen+
McCall Smith provides several menus from which to choose for your book club.
“Parma ham laid out on a plate with asparagus spears and quails’ eggs” served at Emma’s first memorable dinner party.
Melton Mowbray pies — which is, according Wikipedia, made from “uncured meat, grey in colour when cooked; the meat is chopped, rather than minced. The pie is made with a hand-formed crust, giving the pie a slightly irregular shape after baking. As the pies are baked free-standing, the sides bow outwards, rather than being vertical as with mould-baked pies.” Personally, I would skip those.
The Oak Tree Inn’s blackboard lunch menu of “potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie, sticky toffee pudding.”
And of course, the violet creams, Emma’s gift to Miss Bates. Available for order from Fortnum & Mason or on Amazon. Or if you are a courageous candy-maker, here’s a recipe link: http://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/violet-creams.
Emma is playing Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies on the piano when George Knightley arrives for a visit with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse describes the music — in one of my favorite lines in the book — as “the sort of thing a spider would play if spiders played the piano.”
She also plays Beethoven’s Fur Elise.
And Jane Fairfax is, of course, even more of a talented pianist. She is compared to Bach.
Emma — Felicity Jones might make a fine Emma. Or Emma Watson.
Harriet Smith — Imogene Poots
Jane Fairfax — Scarlett Byrne
George Knightley — Henry Cavill
Philip Elton — Alex Pettyfer
Frank Churchill — Sam Claflin
So there you have it. Read Emma one way or another.
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