The Austen Project is a group that have commissioned six modern-day authors to tackle one Austen novel each, and set it in a 21st century setting. We’ve already had Sense and Sensibility, written by Joanna Trollope, which really was almost an exact retelling of the original, except people occasionally (and I really do mean occasionally) mention things like mobile phone. However, all the key events take place, and I always find it amusing when modern storytellers contrive to have this happen despite the obvious problems they must run into (for example, in S&S, you can hardly have the scandal be, in the modern day, that Marianne was alone with a man for all of half an hour!). Then Val McDiarmid took on Northanger Abbey, which proved to actually be pretty good, despite VM obviously having no idea how to approximate text messages from a teenager.
And now Emma. I’ve just finished rereading the original, as you can see from my most recent review. Out of the three so far, this book is by far the most dear to me in its original form. I love Alexander McCall Smith – not only is he my fellow countryman, but he, for a long time, worked in the same field that I plan to go into, although his speciality is medical law. So I expected a fair amount from this retelling. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.
The first problem is that AMS spends the first 100 pages of the novel going into life at Hartfield prior to the beginning of the original novel. This was definitely a good idea, and there’s a lot of merit in it. I enjoyed the story of Mr Woodhouse’s birth, some of the interaction with Miss Taylor, and, most especially, getting a snippet of John and Isabella’s courtship. However, this comprises more than one quarter of the novel itself. This left only 260 pages in which to tell the story of the original book in its entirety. The “history” part often drags, with people musing on what Emma will turn out to be like, child as she is at that time. Except this isn’t particularly interesting for the reader as we already know what Emma will turn out like! I read modernisations like this to see the take the author has on the events as they happened in the book, not for deep insights into the characters which are pretty impossible given the nature of the retelling.
Secondly, several events from the original are omitted completely. There’s no strawberry picking, barely any Mrs Elton, the Box Hill picnic is curtailed so as to be unrecognisable, and the events between this point and Mr Knightley’s proposal are compressed in such a way that several minor but important events are missing in action. Again, I don’t expect retellings to be point for point faithful (although the preceding two largely have been) but I felt like it was a waste to spend so long on the “history” part of the novel only to then omit so much of what was interesting and dramatic about the original. Characters get very little development – there’s very, very little Jane, and hardly any Mr Knightley at all! It’s hard to imagine why he falls in love with Emma when he barely speaks two words to her throughout this version.
Worst, however, may be some of the inexplicable changes made to established events in the original. The lesbian undertone in Harriet’s and Emma’s relationship was, I thought, almost well done at first – I mean, who hasn’t been utterly mesmerised by the sheer beauty of someone of the same sex almost to the point of wondering if it’s romantic before realising that it’s just aesthetic? However, the weird nude drawing scene was, I thought, poorly done. Frank pretending to be gay made absolutely no sense at all – a double bluff that just left me more confused than sympathetic. The revelation that Mr Knightley had been confiding in Harriet, whom in this version he seemed to think abjectly stupid, was just bizarre, and that Harriet had been seeing Robert all along was even worse – Harriet herself didn’t seem to have had any idea of this until she actually said the words.
The thing is – and this is broadly a criticism of all the modernisations, though most particularly this one – is that there are easy to find analogues for a lot of the stuff that goes on in these. Okay, no one has a ball anymore, but couldn’t they go to a posh club night opening? That’s just one example, but there are plenty of times in this book where the changes made just didn’t make sense and actually made it feel more antiquated rather than less.
It’s not terrible. There are some great moments – the opening about the Cuban missile crisis, some of Emma’s asides are hilarious – but it’s just enough to make it as entertaining as the other entries in this series. I give Emma five out of ten.