The Importance of Being Emma by Juliet Archer

This modern version of Emma uses the same (or, in some cases, similar) names Austen uses, and places similar characters in 21st century situations. Emma, a Harvard MBA, is now marketing director of her family’s mail-order delicacy business, Highbury Foods. Her childhood crush, Mark Knightley, a man 11 (not Austen’s 16) years older than she is, works for his family’s food business, Donwell Organics. The age difference between the soul mates is exactly the same as the age difference between the Westons, which reduces any concern over that issue. Emma’s talkative secretary, Mary Bates, nicknamed Batty, is the updated Miss Bates; Flynn Churchill is controlled by his adoptive mother (a sister of sorts); and Mr. Woodhouse thinks he’s allergic to all stings and bites. He keeps an EpiPen on his person at all times—a Mr. Woodhouse for our times, indeed. Harriet is a newcomer to Highbury Foods, fresh from a stint as a temp for Robert Martin at Abbey Mill Haulage. Her unenviable task is to replace the recently married Kate Taylor, who was Mr. Woodhouse’s PA.  Harriet later encounters Robert and his sister at Ford’s garage. The game during which Frank and Jane sort out their private concerns is now Scrabble, and Box Hill is a fancy restaurant.

Finding the clever updates is part of the fun of reading this version, but the language entertains, as well. When Emma questions Flynn about his relationship with Jane, for instance, she asks, “How much did you see of her in Weymouth”? With irony lost on Emma, Flynn answers that he has seen “as much as [he] ever want[s] to”—that is to say, all of her, and he’d like to see it all again. The ante is upped, sexually, for our times, which serves Archer’s purpose as she juxtaposes the relations between Emma and Mark (a link to the Mark Darcy character, perhaps?) with those of Philip Elton and his crass girlfriend, Augusta, here called Gusty. Elton’s live-in girlfriend (as opposed to wife) paws his derriere in public (under his pants, mind you!).  She runs the Maple Grove Consultancy with equal parts arrogance and annoyingness. And I felt only mildly offended that Archer has them shop at Ikea.

Archer provides both Emma and Mark’s perspectives in this modern twist, and many structural decisions enhance the perfect duality in the relationship. After the initial scene in which we are presented with a 14-year old girl nicknamed Mouse and an obviously attractive, suave young man she adores, Archer immediately sets up parallelisms that reinforce their equality. Mr. Knightley has been working in India for eight years; Emma has been earning advanced degrees. Emma feels attracted to Mark much earlier in this story than she does in Austen’s Emma, which reduces the creepy factor even of Mark’s comment that he has loved her “since the day [she was] born.” Emma does misunderstand the situation with Mark’s love life and even misses the significance of Elton’s riddle (an ad for their product), but she understands several other situations much better than she does in Austen, including that something is up between Frank and Jane.

The Importance of Being Emma, which owes its satirical bent to Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen, is fast-paced and clever, with great attention to detail.  Though you should be warned that it is part of a series called “Choc Lit” (is that why each chapter is named for some food?), perhaps when we decide to read just to enjoy, the flavors of this story will call to us as Austen’s always do.

Published in: on March 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. What a lovely review – made my day!
    Just to answer a few points – I reduced the age difference between Emma and Knightley to make things like her teenage crush more plausible and less ‘creepy’ (to use your terminology). I changed his name because I don’t know anyone called George of his age – older, yes (and let’s not forget Mr Clooney!), and younger, but not in their thirties. Mark was chosen for personal reasons – although your reference to Mark Darcy doesn’t hurt! And I wanted Austen experts to enjoy finding the modern parallels, just as you have done, as well as writing a story that non-experts could enjoy. Believe me, it was great fun to write from start to finish!
    To clarify – Choc Lit is my publisher ( and the series I am writing is ‘Jane Austen in the 21st Century’. It does what it says on the tin – next on the list is a modern version of ‘Persuasion’ and I plan to do all six of Austen’s completed novels. For more information, please see my website
    Juliet x

    • I’m so glad you found my review, Juliet, and I’m excited to read the rest of the series. Thanks for many hours of fun!

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