Tag Archives: The Austen Project

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.


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.

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

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)
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.

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.

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!


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.



“The Austen Project” and Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope

GUEST POST – teachergirl73


leaf divide

To mark the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s works, there are several authors that have been committed to paying tribute to her stories. I was lucky enough in the fall of 2013 to attend a Q&A for the novel “Longbourn” by Jo Baker, following a special screening of Joe Wright’s production of “Pride and Prejudice” which was the setting used for her novel.  Longbourn follows the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants living in the Bennett household. It was an excellent read, and my review can be found here at Penny Dreadful Book Reviews.



A few months after reading Longbourn, I stumbled onto “The Austen Project”, where I discovered the plan to re-write several of Austen’s novels with a modern twist (http://theaustenproject.com/). The first re-imagining of Austen’s stories is Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility.


sense-and-sensibilityTrollope’s modernization of Sense and Sensibility places the women of the Dashwood family in the present day, living in their beloved Norland Park, a beautiful old Georgian manor estate in Sussex.  Elinor, Marianne, Margaret and their mother Belle, are left homeless and almost penniless at the death of their father Henry. The girls’ half brother John, and his most unlikeable wife Fanny, force the ladies out of the only home that they have ever known as they claim John’s rightful inheritance as the first-born son.

The world is looking very bleak for the Dashwood women, when they are suddenly rescued by the charity of a distant relative. This long-lost connection is revived thanks to Edward Ferrars, who happens to be Fanny’s much nicer brother. It is clear that all the Dashwood ladies like Edward, but it is Elinor, the eldest daughter, who seems to have Edward’s eye and vice versa. But the main theme of this story is that “nothing is as it seems“, and the road to happiness is not easy for any of the ladies.

As I read Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, I was reminded of why I try to avoid this story. I have read and watched various versions of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion and Emma over and over again through the years, enjoying every interpretation that I have seen.  Sense and Sensibility, however, might be the one Austen story that I never want to read or watch on the big screen again. The women are all victims, from the beginning until the end, and that is something that I just cannot digest as a reader.

Unfortunately, Trollope’s version did not help my issues with the Dashwood sisters, with Elinor playing the perpetual doormat, while her younger sisters Marianne and Margaret behave in spoiled and over-indulged manner. Even their mother, Belle, would rather keep her head in the sand rather than take charge of their unfortunate situation.

photo (7)

In my opinion, the Dashwood sisters do not hold a candle to the Bennet girls from “Pride and Prejudice”.  I believe that even Emma Woodhouse, the main character from Austen’s “Emma”, who despite being a much indulged young lady by her widowed father, she is still a far more likeable character.

As I have never read anything from Joanna Trollope before, I’m not sure if this novel is typical of her writing style, but I don’t think that I’ll go seek out another by her. There were many points throughout the book that I found the writing to be choppy and disjointed. Her decision to have Belle’s daughters refer to her as “Ma” certainly doesn’t seem to ring true for a well-born English family, especially one set in present day. I was half-expecting the cast of Little House on the Prairie to step into the scene every time the girls called “Ma!”.  Unfortunately, my expectations for this novel were far higher than perhaps they should have been.

I am still looking forward to reading the rest of the novels from “The Austen Project”, with Val McDermid’s modern day version of “Northanger Abbey” in the waiting in the queue of my TBR list.  I feel like it might be a better fit for my personality 🙂

Rating: C+


Author1271052560Joanna Trollope was born on 9 December 1943 in her grandfather’s rectory in Minchinhampton, Gloucestershire, England, daughter of Rosemary Hodson and Arthur George Cecil Trollope. She is the eldest of three siblings. She is a fifth-generation niece of the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope and is a cousin of the writer and broadcaster James Trollope. She was educated at Reigate County School for Girls followed by St Hugh’s College, Oxford.

From 1965 to 1967, she worked at the Foreign Office. From 1967 to 1979, she was employed in a number of teaching posts before she became a writer full-time in 1980. Her novel Parson Harding’s Daughter won in 1980 the Romantic Novel of the Year Award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association.