Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
Please Note: There is a spoiler for a twist particular to this modernisation towards the end of the review. I have indicated where in the review this is, so if you do not want to be spoiled, do just skip over the rest of that paragraph.
If you follow me on twitter, you will be aware that I had some difficulty writing this review. Simply put: I was not sure what I thought of this novel at all. I think (I hope) it is clear from my recent post about Literary-Inspired Web Series that I quite enjoy well-done modernisations of classic literature; in fact, I watched Emma Approved (a modern adaptation of Emma) regularly during its release and, although it is not a series I would necessarily recommend, I thought it was fairly clever in its adaptation choices. Yet reading McCall Smith’s modernisation of Jane Austen’s novel left me feeling somewhat disconcerted and wrong-footed. Is there a difference, perhaps, between reading a modernisation and watching a modern adaptation? Or is it the combination of Austen and McCall Smith’s writing which feels a little unnatural? Personally, much as I enjoy McCall Smith, I’m inclined to think the latter.
Unlike Austen’s Emma, McCall Smith spends a significant portion at the beginning of the novel on the backstory of the characters, detailing particularly Isabella’s romance and Miss Taylor’s relationship with the Woodhouse family. This is largely due to McCall Smith’s familiar writing style: he is not afraid of digression for the sake of establishing the state of a relationship. However, whilst this works in McCall Smith’s original work, it did not have the same effect in this modernisation. After a lot of thinking on this subject, I think I have identified the two main issues this beginning presented for the rest of the novel: firstly, the pacing; secondly, the character investment.
I’ll cover the pacing first: Austen’s Emma may be a novel about a quiet country town, but is still a fast-paced book with plenty of mystery, intrigue, and comedy. Austen tends not to worry too much about revealing backstory at the start of the novel, instead revealing information as she feels necessary throughout the narrative. McCall Smith’s backstory-heavy opening, then, which forms a sizeable amount of the novel, means that there is a sense of imbalance in the pacing between the start of the narrative and the end of the narrative. The beginning is slow-paced, giving the reader information about the Woodhouse family and their relationships, and generally building the world of a modern-day Emma. In contrast, the end of the narrative is fast-paced to the point of feeling rushed, with plot points which span more than one chapter in Austen’s original condensed into a page or two.
Secondly, the character investment: it was interesting to me that the characters McCall Smith chooses to focus on in the opening chapters are Mr Woodhouse, Isabella, and Miss Taylor. I would have loved for McCall Smith to develop the start he made with these characters further, as these are clearly vital relationships for Emma and influence many of her decisions. However, after becoming invested in these characters during these opening chapters, I was surprised to find that they are mentioned very little in the remainder of the narrative. Instead, as a reader, I was being asked to invest in other characters and put to the side those I had just been reading the backstory of. I think this was a particular issue with regards to the character of George Knightley: one of the reasons the Knightley-Emma relationship works in the original Austen is the close friendship these two characters have had from a young age. Without that foundation, and with Knightley sidelined for most of the narrative, the relationship in the McCall Smith retelling reads as a little forced.
So why the conflict? If there are such big issues with the novel, why am I still unwilling to write it off completely? Well, the thing that McCall Smith brings out brilliantly in the novel is just how unaware Emma is of the reality of the lives of those around her. Developing Austen’s theme of Emma’s false assumptions, McCall Smith ends the novel by cleverly showing how Emma has misjudged so many of the situations she has encountered throughout the narrative. My particular favourite (SPOILER ALERT) was the reveal that Harriet had not only been secretly dating Robert Martin the whole time, but had also been scheming behind Emma’s back to set her up with George Knightley. I have to say, giving Harriet such a large degree of agency did a lot to redeem the novel as a whole for me.
In conclusion, there are a myriad of problems with this modernisation and I’m not sure I would recommend it. I would probably suggest that they go and read Austen’s Emma instead. Or watch one of the many adaptations of the novel that have been made. However, McCall Smith’s writing is readable and there are some clever twists which update the original narrative well. I, therefore, wouldn’t say that I disliked it. But I would choose Austen’s Emma over this one any day.