Emma: a modern retelling by Alexander McCall Smith is a part of the Austen Project which is re-imagining Austen’s major novels in modern times. What an undertaking!
Alexander McCall Smith was called upon to take on the enormous challenge of recreating a twenty-first century version of one of Austen’s most challenging characters – Emma Woodhouse.
So begins Austen’s Emma and in much the same vein McCall Smiths’. His Emma is wealthy with little need to do much with her life or any desire to make a contribution to the world. She is arrogant, opinionated, and presents herself much as Austen intended, as a person who is hard to like. Emma returns home from university to her eccentric hypochondriacal father with a vague notion of beginning a career in design. She takes it upon herself to interfere with her friend Harriet’s romance, deeming her beau to be not good enough for her. Her snobbishness and unkindness land her in a whole mess of trouble, which eventually leads her to self-awareness and humility.
Austen’s novels have survived and been beloved for 300 years because they are really quite perfect and this project is ambitious indeed. Alexander McCall Smith’s fans will be delighted by this pleasant and witty re-creation and reflect on how money and background still effect relationships. Purists might note that these 21st century girls still had a governess chosen from an ad in lady’s magazine and how none of Emma’s machinations were conducted through social media. Both are examples of a few of the details which were slightly jarring in an otherwise fun read.
Still, for me, the best re-creation of Emma will always be the wonderful Clueless.