Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma – Less Universal Truths, More Lost in Translation

Anna Walker

Featuring motorbikes, gap years, emails, cannabis cake and (perhaps most surprisingly) ‘doge’* – Alexander McCall Smith has created an insistently modern retelling of Jane Austen’s masterpiece.

one and a half stars

Jane Austen’s sparkling Emma has seen more than its share of modern day revamps, from the preppy nineties Clueless to the slick 2013 YouTube series, Emma Approved.

The ‘Jane Austen Project’ continues in the anti-purist tradition of modernising Austen’s work, offering six contemporary retellings of her beloved novels. Alexander McCall Smith, author of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, adds the latest edition to this series with his reworked Emma.

There is a warm familiarity in Emma’s well-drawn characters, welcoming readers back to the Austen fold with a knowing smile. McCall Smith has reupholstered the paraphernalia of Austen’s world in a manner not dissimilar to the decorative impulses of his Emma, who holds an Interior Design degree from the University of Bath (naturally).

Readers who delighted in the original Emma’s frustrating self-satisfaction will find much to enjoy here; this Emma is far more awful. In fact at times she embodies a shockingly antiquated depiction of womanhood; she laments that women now have to find employment as well as husbands, tries to find new friend Harriet Smith a wealthy boyfriend to pay for her gap year, and even falsely accuses a man of assault.

Though some readers may enjoy Emma’s descent into the loathsome, others —myself included—may sense that McCall Smith has gone too far and in doing so erased Emma’s essential charm.

McCall Smith indulges in the opportunity to develop Austen’s men, taking readers on several amusing rambles through the mind of the awful reverend Elton, who Jane-ites will remember from the original novel and squirm! Mr. Woodhouse is another favourite, with four chapters exclusively devoted to his backstory. These dalliances are lovingly crafted, and it’s clear in every word that the author has a deep fondness for the work he was transposing.

McCall Smith seems keen to use his retelling as a cultural barometer, measuring how far we’ve progressed since the Regency era. Through the chitchat of his upper class characters, he examines murky British History such as Colonialism, which haunted the peripheries of Austen’s oeuvre.

Gender equality is also scrutinised, although storylines concerned purely with finding husbands risk sounding antiquated, if not offensive, in a present day context.

Frustratingly this retelling comes to so close to true modernity yet never quite realises itself. Emma’s increasing bisexual urges towards Harriet, as she encourages her to pose nude for a drawing, prove to be an issue. An openly bisexual Emma is too much of a push for McCall Smith, who merely teases at the suggestion before settling, as indeed it feels Emma does, for the genteel George Knightley.

The general lack of Knightley is another disappointment. His sparring with Emma powers Austen’s original, but here is distinctly absent. When he and Emma fight, the encounter is described as ‘erotic’. Austen’s subtle style built a slow burning affection, here it is heavy handed, and undone with crass, bawdy strokes.

What this update does do brilliantly is leave the reader yearning for Austen’s original novel. For the sharp wit and the burgeoning romances, the cringing faux pas and heartwarming redemptions. Austen’s masterpiece remains irreplaceable, and it’s a surprising comfort to know that her Emma, written 100 years ago, still holds more relevance than a version penned today.