SOME feathers were ruffled, some indignation expressed, when Harper Collins announced that it was commissioning well-known authors to write updated versions of Jane Austen’s novels.
BY ALEXANDER MCCALL SMITH
The Borough Press, 361pp, £18.99
This was absurd. Austen’s novels are not Holy Writ (and indeed Holy Writ has itself provided material for novelists). Moreover, they have been adapted for the theatre, the cinema and television. These adaptations have, with the best, or at least the best commercial, intentions, changed a lot. The wooden and uninteresting heroes of the novels have, for instance, been sexed-up no end.
In contrast, the authors of this new series were given strict instructions. The novels were to be set in the present day. There were to be no new characters (or no new significant ones) and no new twists to the plot. Fidelity to the setting, structure and, as far as possible, the tone was required. Alexander McCall Smith was an obvious choice as one of the authors. He is popular, wonderfully fluent, humane, generous and amusing; moreover he is a devoted Austenian. Emma is his favourite Austen novel; also, I would say, the best of the six. So how does he score?
There is one obvious difficulty to up-dating Austen. Her world is not our world. The two questions at the heart of her novels are, first, who should her heroine marry, and, second, how should this be brought about. All her heroines are waiting for the right man to declare himself and they have little but domestic and social trivia with which to occupy their time until he does so. At least two of them are clever, and this is not how clever middle-class girls behave in the 21st century. They have careers and many don’t think of marrying till they are in their thirties.
The first words of the Austen novel are: “Emma Woodhouse, clever, handsome and rich”. She is almost 21. She lives with her valetudinarian widowed father and has nothing to do. The tenor of her life has been disturbed by the departure of her governess, Miss Taylor, to marry a neighbour, Mr Weston. For most of the novel, till Mr Right, in the person of Mr Knightley, declares himself, she engages in some rather mischievous match-making and a little mild flirtation. Though she is intelligent, she actually gets almost everything wrong throughout the novel. This is comedy and it is one reason why she is so attractive.
McCall Smith is dutifully faithful. He does send Emma to university – Bath, excellent choice – and gives her the intention of setting up a design consultancy. But he is still stuck with the requirement that she must live at home with her uninspiring father. A real 21st-century Emma would have hot-footed it to London. Nevertheless, he makes the best of his heroine’s improbable situation.
Fidelity doesn’t mean that there can’t be changes. Some of his are very good. Miss Taylor, a cipher in the Austen novel, existing merely to comment on Emma, and defend her from Knightley’s criticisms, becomes a real character, a self-assured Edinburgh lady, not unlike his own Isabel Dalhousie. The Churchills, who took responsibility for Frank, the son of Mr Weston’s first marriage, are transferred from Yorkshire to Western Australia; this explains more convincingly Frank’s absence from his father’s life and the lively expectation provoked by his impending visit. The flirtation between Emma and Frank is admirably done.
Not all the changes are so happy. McCall Smith gives us much more of Mr Woodhouse than Austen does, a full-length portrait with the background filled in, rather than a snapshot. But in making him a more rounded character, he loses the comedy. Austen knew that glimpses of Mr Woodhouse were enough. There is nothing here as funny as Mr Woodhouse on the subject of boiled eggs: “Serle understands boiling an egg better than anybody. I would not recommend an egg boiled by anybody else.” Again, while the transformation of the younger Knightley, John (husband of Emma’s sister Isabella) into a trendy motorbike-riding photographer is a happy touch, the suggestion that the Bates family were impoverished because they had been “names” at Lloyd’s caught up in the Crash is unnecessary. In Austen’s novel Mrs Bates is the widow of a vicar; what‘s wrong with that?
McCall Smith makes as much as anyone could of the tedious Harriet Smith and Emma’s patronage of her, and his Mr Elton is good, though I miss the appalling Mrs Elton, one of Austen’s happiest comic characters. The aspiring pop-singer Hazel is a poor substitute. Like Austen, he can do nothing to make Mr Knightley interesting, but, unlike Austen, he tries hard to do so. She failed with the enigmatic Jane Fairfax; and he can’t therefore be blamed for failing too. In both novels she is essential to the plot, and no more than that.
Austen’s Emma is a great novel, for all time. McCall Smith’s is a very good one for our time. It will be enjoyed greatly by people who haven’t read the original, and is capable of being read with admiration and pleasure by even the most devoted of Janeites. Their approval will come with reservations. They might echo the great classical scholar, Richard Bentley, whose judgement of Alexander Pope’s version of The Iliad was, “it is a very pretty poem, Mr Pope; only you must not call it Homer”.