If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It! My Plea to The Austen Project

GUEST POST by teachergirl73

The Austen Project is celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s works, which I think is a wonderful thing because some of my all-time favourite novels are written by her. I think that my love of Jane Austen’s writing is part of the problem that I keep running into as I read these “re-imagined” classics. For Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope and now for Alexander McCall Smith’s interpretation of Emma, I am left feeling disappointed for I truly believe that both novels had the potential to be more engaging than they were.

After reading Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility, I came to the realization that it is the adherence or lack thereof to the basic premise of the story which I have the most difficulty with. Regardless of which version be it the many film adaptations or Trollope’s modernization. You can read my review for Sense & Sensibility here http://wp.me/p3xI0z-173.



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From GoodreadsThe summer after she graduates from university, Emma Woodhouse returns home to the village of Highbury, where she will live with her health-conscious father until she is ready to launch her interior-design business and strike out on her own. In the meantime, she will do what she does best: offer guidance to those less wise than she is in the ways of the world. Happily, this summer brings many new faces to Highbury and into the sphere of Emma’s not always perfectly felicitous council: Harriet Smith, a naïve teacher’s assistant at the ESL school run by the hippie-ish Mrs. Goddard; Frank Churchill, the attractive stepson of Emma’s former governess; and, of course, the perfect Jane Fairfax.


When I picked up Emma by Alexander McCall Smith, I thought for sure that I would get the satisfaction of reading a new and modern twist on a story that I already adored. An added bonus was that I had already read several books in Smith’s series “The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency” and thoroughly enjoyed them, so I felt like it was almost a guarantee that I would enjoy his take on Emma. After much pondering, I think that are certain elements of the story that Smith did a very good job at such as adding comedic moments and characterizations that were quite entertaining. In the end, however, I really believe that he missed his mark with his portrayal of the two most important characters in the book, Emma Woodhouse and George Knightly.

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Jeremy Northam and Gwyneth Paltrow as George Knightly and Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

The story begins with a brief explanation of how Mr. Woodhouse had grown into the most lovable “worry-wart” you might ever encounter. His bemoanings and theories of how the proverbial “sky is falling!” were some of the best and funniest parts of this novel. Smith also created more of a background for some of the smaller characters in the story which were highly entertaining, such as Mrs. Goddard, “the hippie”, who was known for adding her “special” ingredient into her cakes, and Mr. Elton, the vicar, who was desperately looking for a wife with a large family fortune to bail him out of some bad property investments.  Smith’s embellishment of these characters was definitely an excellent addition to the story. Unlike Sense & Sensibility, Persuasion and even Pride and Prejudice, Emma is a lighthearted story that is definitely meant to make you smile or even laugh out loud in places. I would say that Smith kept with that theme throughout the book.

Ever alive to the social comedy of village life, beloved author Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is the busybody we all know and love, and a true modern delight.”

Source: http://theaustenproject.com/books/#sthash.kgwCPjPy.dpuf

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Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz in Clueless (1995)

My problem with this description about the book is the part that states “Emma is the busybody we all know and love”.  I have to say that I did NOT love Emma. I had the exact opposite reaction to her character, which was a first given that I’ve seen several variations of the story in film and read the original novel. It was his description of Emma from almost the very beginning that gave me great pause. His interpretation of Emma was that of a completely self-absorbed, spoiled, mean, little rich girl who was so completely ignorant of how her words and actions impacted others that she was completely unlikable.

This characterization of Emma left me quite confused because my recollection of the story did not leave me hating Emma, and if I had only ever read Smith’s version of the story, then that is exactly what I would feel about her. Smith’s attempts to describe Emma’s motivations were also erratic with at one point he seems to try to imply she is bi-curious and that is why she becomes so fixated on Harriet Smith’s friendship, to making her almost into a “madam” as she encourages Harriet to become a kept woman as a way to help fund her “gap year” travel plans. It is an interesting interpretation but not in keeping with the core of the story, which no matter how an artist reimagines, it should remain constant. Emma in this version, hardly shows much affection or true caring for anyone else other than herself.

EMMA [BR / US 1996]   GWYNETH PALTROW, TONI COLLETTE     Date: 1996 (Mary Evans Picture Library)
EMMA [BR / US 1996] GWYNETH PALTROW, TONI COLLETTE Date: 1996
As for Mr. Knightly, here again, I was left wanting. I kept waiting for the magic to spark between Emma and Knightly as I knew that it should, but it never actually happened. As I struggled through the novel, I kept thinking, “Why would this guy ever want to be with her?” When it came down to the significant moments in the story where Mr. Knightly tries to help Emma see the error of her ways, I never got even a hint of the passion that I knew should have been there between them. I kept waiting for the chemistry to erupt, but it never really happened. Even when Knightly and Emma were arguing which is where you would expect the fireworks between two people who are in love and don’t know it yet to show, the emotion just seemed to fizzle.

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Jonny Lee Miller as George Knightley in Emma (2009)

I was so perplexed by the novel, that I felt the need to go back and watch the BBC mini-series that aired on Masterpiece Theatre back in 2010, starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. I also went back to the original novel by Austen to do some comparisons between scenes and dialogue. In both cases, Emma’s character was written with far more depth so that we see that there is more to her than her being a spoiled, indulged little girl, but she also demonstrates great affection throughout the story for those closest to her, such as her father, Ms. Taylor and Mr. Knightly. It is these signs of empathy and humanity that I felt was really lacking throughout most of Smith’s book. Most importantly, you can feel the passion between Emma and Knightly and it is clear that there is more than just friendship developing between them from the beginning, even if neither character realizes it.

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Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller as Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley in Emma (2009)

So this all brings me back to the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it“, something that I sincerely believe those involved in The Austen Project need to consider. Modernizing Austen’s stories is a tall order, no doubt about it. My next book from The Austen Project to-be-read list is Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid. Here’s hoping that Northanger Abbey will live up to its inspiration!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

AMSAlexander McCall Smith is the author of the international phenomenon The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie Series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, and the 44 Scotland Street series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served on many national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and he was a law professor at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland.

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