McCall Smith brings such intelligence and wit to his version.
—The Daily Mail (emphasis added)
Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma can be judged by two yardsticks. The first is in its own right. The second is by comparison with Austen’s.
The fact is that his is a creditable, even very creditable, piece of work. Judged by the first yardstick, it is enjoyable, well written, and amusing. A few more plot tweaks, a series of superficial changes to things like names, and a tasteful “With thanks to Jane Austen” or “Inspired by Emma” on the frontispiece, and it would have been a lovely read. McCall Smith is, after all, a witty author, and a good one, and judging by how good this book is when it’s going well, I’d have had nothing but good things to write right about now.
But he’s hamstrung by the nature of the project. Judged by the second yardstick, tekel – “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.” I can’t help judging it like that, and, to pre-empt the naysayers, I shouldn’t have to. You invite that sort of judgement when you call your book Emma and subtitle it “A Modern Retelling”. You ask people to compare it to Austen’s work. Sometimes (e.g. in Daily Mail reviews) that pays off, and you’re praised for bringing intelligence and wit to the story. Sometimes it doesn’t.
One particular thing: every now and again, McCall Smith seems to remember that he’s supposed to be making Emma cool and modern, and his thought process seems to have run: “What’s cool and modern? Sex.” Sometimes a further thought is appended: “What’s even cooler and more modern? Bicuriosity.” It doesn’t always work very well.
Perhaps I’m unduly harsh. I had just finished Austen’s original when I read McCall Smith’s, which obviously makes it harder to read it on its own merits, and I freely confess that there are some absolute gems in the modernised version – “it did not become people to claim to have read things in other papers or magazines when it was clearly the sort of thing that one would only read about in The Economist.” When it flies, it really flies. But then, perhaps like (Austen’s) Emma herself “I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.” And Austen is better. She is funnier, she is subtler, she is a better social critic. Two hundred years from now, I fully expect her original still to be read for its own sake. I don’t think the same can be said for McCall Smith’s. (His adaptation, that is. I have no experience of his other work.)
A word on Austen’s Emma. She is probably the most disliked of all the great woman’s heroines. She hasn’t the naïveté of Catherine Morland. Her father is less obviously unbearable than Anne Elliot’s. She’s not whatever Elizabeth Bennet is (I am so looking forward to Pride and Prejudice!). She doesn’t have whatever kicked-puppy appeal people see in Fanny Price (Mansfield Park is the worst Austen novel, and Price is a drip, but I hear some people like her). She doesn’t do any of that archetype-embodying that Elinor and Marianne get up to. But I enjoy reading about her. She’s flawed, realistically flawed for a young woman (only twenty-one), and her story is essentially the story of blossoming emotional intelligence and self-awareness. Perhaps more than any Austenian heroine, she is inescapably good-hearted, devastated at the notion of doing actual hurt, but too often blind to the ways she gives it. As the introduction to my copy says, “we can surely forgive anything in a young girl who, at the end, finds it so desperately hard to forgive herself.”
Author Jane Austen
Best character Mr Weston. You can’t help loving him.
Author Alexander McCall Smith
Best character Jane Fairfax. This version went to my college. #onceaJohnianalwaysaJohnian.