Emma: A Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith

With what eagerness did I await this treat, a joining of quite possibly my favorite modern writer (I devoured the 44 Scotland Street series and sung its praises to all my reading friends and some non-reading ones) and my favorite novel of my all-time favorite writer. He then dedicates the book to his two daughters, a gesture always likely to appeal to a Daddy’s girl like me.

McCall Smith’s version begins with the birth of Mr. Woodhouse during the Cuban Missile Crisis, as our narrator explains that the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy likely accounts for young Henry Woodhouse’s being an unusually “fretful child” (2). His mother proudly tells her friends that her son is a “valetudinarian” and derives “additional satisfaction” in sending them “to the dictionary,” a pleasure I admit I shared when I wrote my senior honors thesis entitled “Virtue and Valetudinarianism.” This Mr. Woodhouse, however, boldly defies his father’s expectations about being a “gentleman farmer” so he can pursue “engineering design” (4).

Though I never would have asked to be placed in Mr. Woodhouse’s head, it was a fascinating experience as McCall Smith has the new widower contemplate a governess for his now motherless girls. Though he does not dare to think he’d “make a very convincing Captain von Trapp,” he does think of the 26-year old woman and Maria in the same breath (11). Anne Taylor’s vegetarianism is of particular appeal to Mr. Woodhouse since it indicates a “sensible interest in nutrition” (10). Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor both drink chamomile tea, but what really wins him over is her “calm, self-reassured manner that inspired utter confidence” (16-17). Plus, she speaks French, “as any self-respecting governess surely should do” (16).

Young Emma, interestingly, directs her dolls as she does in the Romola Garai film adaptation. This little Emma tells one doll that she will never “find a husband unless” the doll does as Emma says (25). Later, there is a constant comparison of Harriet to a doll, even Mr. Knightley imagining Emma enjoying Harriet’s company because “Harriet [is] the next best thing to having a doll” (237). Emma is reminded by Harriet’s “pertness” of her childhood “cut-out dolls” (239). Emma also enjoys arranging things, or, in her father’s house, rearranging them. McCall Smith has her swap the position of two “pictures in (Mr. Woodhouse’s study,” which reminded me of the Gwyneth Paltrow film adaptation, 33). She does it, she says, “to make them happier,” so we can’t help but like her, just as we do her predecessor (34).

Miss Taylor becomes a stepmother of sorts to the girls, with none of the Cinderella or the physical relationship with their father issues. At 17, Isabella is ready to move to London to find some light work rather than to stay in school to take exams “that she would evidently not pass” (36). Mr. Woodhouse is of course concerned about the air quality. Still no sign of Mr. Knightley or even John Knightley, the younger brother we know Isabella must meet soon. Isabella does not seem concerned about the serious microbial risks her father frets about, but in the book, isn’t she at least nearly as valetudinarian as her father is?

Concerned that Isabella will “get herself involved in all sorts of affairs” otherwise, Mr. Woodhouse decides she should get married; to make sure “suitable people” know she’s available, he arranges to get her photograph into Country Life, which presents “a picture each week of an attractive young woman” (40-42). The photograph they submit of Isabella has “to be reasonably interesting,” and finally, Mr. Knightley, “just twenty-five” and the inheritor of both big house and attractive looks, enters the scene (43, 45). His brother, John, who inherited “such investments as his mother had” and thus may “indulge his taste for expensive cameras,” has bought a “flat in a fashionable part of London” (46). George, meanwhile, has introduced several innovations to farming his property and appreciates Emma’s “independent, insouciant manner,” even though to her, he is just “a vaguely avuncular figure” (48). McCall Smith treads lightly here—and well so—taking care not to have an adult man lusting after a teenage girl. We still don’t get even a glimpse of him.

Mr. Woodhouse is annoyed with John from the start of their interaction, when the former calls the latter to ask him to photograph Isabella, which suits well with the book. John is so clearly unlike his brother, both from the often silly perspective of the older man but also from ours. Our Mr. Knightley would never use an insouciant tone with Mr. Woodhouse. Mr. Woodhouse contemplates “how quickly” a man could “transition . . . from the world of George Knightley, with his faultless taste, his life of understatement and simple decency, to this world of leather jackets,” long hair, and a tattoo (53). Even worse, after the photo shoot, John decides to take Isabella for a ride on his Ducati without even asking Mr. Woodhouse. I think it’s an interesting choice to leave his readers in Mr. Woodhouse’s point of view for so long. Those of us who know the book are likely to think of him as a lovable buffoon of sorts, but here, though his concerns seems exaggerated, we are more likely to incline our views with him than against him. Many, if not most, loving fathers would be concerned to send their 17-year old daughters on the back of a bike with an adult man on their first meeting. That said, it seemed to me an odd choice to have Mr. Woodhouse subscribe to and read Scientific American.

At the start of chapter 5, we shift perspectives, beginning with the moment of Emma’s sister’s wedding. (only one typo to distract me—here, of Wodehouse on p. 60. Wrong book.) There’s a cool line about Emma leaving school, driven away “one afternoon, zeugmatically, in floods of tears and the survey Mercedes” (64). This Emma, unlike the original, does travel a bit, such as on a “fortnight’s trip to Florence and Siena,” and later, summers in Paris or Edinburgh or Morzine, which causes her father a “great deal of anxious hand-wringing,” but at this point in the story, the narrative seems more influenced by Miss Taylor’s perspective if by any at all, so we don’t really know how Emma is affected by it (65). The governess well understands that there is often “no point talking to Isabella” about philosophical matters, but Emma, she sees, listens and contemplates her idea, or Plato’s, rather, about the chariot (aka the soul) being driven by two horses, one “all the brute appetites” and the other “the finer side” of human nature, which must not be allowed to be “pulled down by its companion” (66). Emma understands, gives Miss Taylor a generous token of her understanding, and returns home prepared to study decorative arts at the University of Bath. Miss Taylor, meanwhile, at Mr. Woodhouse’s insistence, will stay on as his secretary, so, in essence, doing nothing and drawing the same salary as always.

McCall Smith lets us get to know Emma a bit better as she becomes a young adult. During her university days, Emma refuses her father’s suggestion that Miss Taylor live in Bath with her, but she knows “the suggestion” comes not from distrust but from anxiety. She loves her father, and she accepts his constant worrying. She tells herself that “at least [her] father . . , is harmless” and tells her friends “that one’s parents are harmless” is all “one can hope for in life” (76). When she graduates, Emma proposes a dinner party with the idea of starting to match people up and assessing them from her new adult perspective. As she goes through the Highbury residents we know so well, we also hear Miss Taylor’s opinion of each person, but even more tellingly, we learn that Emma sometimes pictures Mr. Knightley while she is in bed, and smiles when that happens.

There’s a somewhat awkward conversation between Emma and Mr. Woodhouse over her feelings about Mr. Knightley, whether she likes him, what she calls him (George, she says 109), and the gap in their ages. They agree, however, that “he’s one of these people who doesn’t really have an age,” which is a clever way of heading off that potential source of discomfort among readers (110). I was then confused why she says she will have two “contemporaries” (Mr. Knightley and Harriet) at her dinner party. What about Mr. Elton? And Miss Taylor?

Meanwhile, McCall Smith handles Harriet quite differently from anything for which I was prepared. I was not expecting Emma to doubt her own sexuality when she meets Harriet. Emma finds “naivety attractive” (how, then, will she find Mr. Knightley attractive?) and hears all about Harriet’s work as an “extra in the role-playing they do” at Mrs. Goddard’s (115). When Harriet joins Emma for coffee, Emma really studies her in a way that seemed more than vaguely sexual, noticing her perfect “Cupid’s bow of a mouth” and her “China-doll build” (145).How is it that we still have not seen or heard Mr. Knightley? The anticipation is too much! When we finally do, it’s because Harriet comments that she would “love to put him on [her] mantelpiece,” which should introduce Emma to any jealousy long before it actually does here or in the original (and seems really forward for her first meeting with Emma) (119).

Mr. Woodhouse’s reaction to Miss Taylor’s engagement is funny and also sad. His first thoughts are of himself—“Miss Taylor was his secretary,” “what will happen to me?” and “was she seriously contemplating spending Christmas without them?” (123) Emma’s reaction is strange, too: she imagines Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston having sex, and the narrator’s comment is that “the absurd is always so tasty” (124). Why is that absurd? As if that weren’t enough, Mr. Woodhouse, too, contemplates Miss Taylor’s marital relations, concluding that she is “asexual” and that passion for James Weston “would be like sleeping with a farm animal” (139). Poor guy has made quite an impression in the Woodhouse house.

Frank’s backstory is interesting: he grew up mostly in Western Australia but had contact and even visits with his father until that point on a regular basis. When Mr. Churchill inherits a “wine estate in Margaret River,” Mr. Weston generously thinks about what is best for his son, imagining Frank will “have the time of his life out there” and will “become an Australian . . . which is a fate that [Mr. Weston] would gladly wish on anyone” (94, 96). What a nice man. McCall Smith also fleshes out Mr. Weston’s history, including three older brothers who own a distribution firm and an ex-girlfriend after his wife’s tragic death. He also has always felt guilt for “having abandoned . . . his infant son” (101).

McCall Smith makes some disturbing, and I thought illogical, choices with respect to Emma’s character. She’s rather tactless, even for her, telling Miss Taylor that Emma herself will not “need to [marry], of course” (128). Several days later, Emma says she saw “something just like [a dress of Miss Taylor’s] in the Casino and Textile Museum in London” (133). At least that time she recognizes her foot in her mouth. McCall Smith makes Emma’s desire to match people up stem from a desire to play the divine, which we have seen used as a motive before but which I don’t think Austen intends. Several times, the narrator discusses Emma imagining bringing people together is “rather as G-d might feel” (140). It also doesn’t make much sense that Emma assumes so much negative about men without any reason. Why does she tell Harriet that men are interested only in “S . . . E . . . X” and seem to believe they all have “designs” on girls like Harriet? (149) Emma may be overconfident in Austen’s novel, but this assumption seems to come from nowhere. She also “shiver[s]” when she thinks of sex (150). So now she has sexual dysfunction? Again, why? Moreover, the text states unambiguously that Emma does “not think one actually [has] to listen to a man” (153). Again, based on what in Austen or even in this story? Emma’s plans include Harriet using Elton to finance her gap year. Since when did Emma become a user of that sort? Or so materialistic? McCall Smith’s Emma is detestable, and I wanted so much to like her, both for her sake and for his.

Mr. Knightley’s story finally gets explored in chapter 11. The reason this catch is still a bachelor McCall Smith explains with a relationship of four years at the end of which the woman left him for the guy who installed their solar panels. She apologized rather than mislead him, but he has become “wary” and even “slightly distant” (160). He, though, is the source of info about Harriet’s parentage, which isn’t shameful at all (but does make him into a gossip of sorts). In this version, Mr. Knightley combats Emma’s laughter at Robert Martin working in a B and B by asking what “useful contribution” she makes to society, which, though he immediately regrets saying it, seems unnecessarily harsh for his character (170). Mr. Knightley is lonely and finds Emma a relief from that because they talk openly about whatever is of interest to him, and she “always raise[s] some interesting perspective” in addition to making “him want to laugh, with her dry humour and her mischievous remarks” (236-7).

Several other departures from the original occur, some interesting and some just wrong. Mrs. Goddard “puts something in” her cake (183). When Miss Bates has some of Mrs. Goddard’s cake, she looks “up at the sky in a somewhat dreamy manner” (296). Emma’s motive for sketching Harriet isn’t Mr. Elton at all but just that her new friend looks like a Botticelli woman (185). Now Emma wants to draw Harriet naked? What is going on here? If Mr. Knightley and Miss Taylor want to teach Emma right from wrong, why do they feed her gossip? Now it is Mrs. Weston’s turn, as she tells Emma about the Yamaha delivered to Jane Fairfax and posits that the Campbell’s are “the sort of people who have never bought anybody a piano” (205). I thought it awkward that Jane, who is obviously talented, calls herself “hopeless” at piano when it turns out she studied music at Cambridge! (209) No wonder Emma gets jealous—except her first feeling when she learns about Jane’s “exotic” beauty is “aroused” curiosity (203). Does she feel drawn to Jane as well as to Harriet? Moreover, why does McCall Smith have Emma contemplate Jane Fairfax’s “boyish figure” after meeting her? (220) Perhaps it prepares us for Emma’s asking Harriet to disrobe for a nude portrait and telling her it was her own idea. At that point, Emma asks herself if her own behavior is sexually motivated. If it isn’t, is it just for control? Either way I found disturbing for someone we’re supposed to like. And what is the point in having Mrs. Firhill see Harriet?

There’s an awkward shift into post colonial guilt that both Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse seem to feel, particularly with respect to slavery. Mr. Woodhouse ponders cleansing his hands by apologizing to “the descendants of [their collective] victims,” which I found disturbing both because he wasn’t an oppressor and it seems wrong to paint him as such but also because an apology doesn’t suddenly make everything okay (238).

The Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton interactions are very different here as well. Because Harriet sees Frank first and funds him attractive, Emma deliberately leads her to think he is gay and therefore unavailable to them. Why? I want more loyalty to the original. Frank basically tells Emma he is gay but closeted and asks permission to flirt with her as a decoy. And when Elton finally tells Emma his intentions, we don’t feel nearly the shock or disturbance we do in the original. Harriet has only just started talking with him, not planning a future with him, and it happens in Emma’s own garden, from which he promptly leaves without any awkward carriage ride. It seems like a mistake but not a big deal. Emma considers making up a story about Elton, but the text says she does “not tell lies” (267). What about the one that Frank is gay? Then she, in essence, makes up Elton’s drinking problem and outrageously saws he looks like Joseph Goebbels (271). Why is this here? And why does she add a blatant lie that he “manhandled” Emma in the garden (272)? She also does not share the fact that Elton has seen the nude portrait of Harriet, which apparently Emma set without setting the painting on top of it. Mr. Elton, meanwhile, loses his license to drive after driving drunk from Emma’s rejection, ends up in a ditch, and goes to London, where he meets an untalented “Edith Piaf impersonator” who pursues him for the money she thinks he has (279). (That’s a twist from the original.)

The Box Hill incident doesn’t seem as terrible here either, though certainly unpleasant. I wasn’t sure what the precedent is for the tension between Frank and Emma over the bottle of wine. He doesn’t recognize his family’s own vintage (even saying it’s just “all right for a picnic”) and thinks she set him up to look like a fool (292). What event is this one supposed to parallel? Emma mutters that the company may have put some picnickers to sleep right after Miss Bates has been talking a lot, and the latter assumes she needs to work on not getting “carried away with a subject” (298). Since Mr. Knightley and Emma don’t seem as close and Frank is not even there, the tension of the scene is reduced. Later, however, when Mr. Knightley scolds her, we feel the tension, and the narrator is clear that this is a point that will change Emma “to an extent that is truly surprising” (305).

Some of McCall Smith’s updates really work in honoring the spirit of the original. I really like what McCall Smith does with Mr. Woodhouse, including his obsession with global warming, which seemed an appropriate modern version of our beloved Mr. Woodhouse’s concerns. He assesses the quality of each summer by “the incidence, throughout the world, of major weather disasters” (274). He also turns out to know Mrs. Goddard “reasonably well” (284). Nonetheless, Mr. Woodhouse is too wise in this version, even teaching Emma that “when someone does wrong . . . we must remember that that person is still a human being like the rest of us” and therefore “not rush to throw the first stone” (285). Another likeable update is that Emma directly apologizes for her remark at the picnic to Miss Bates. Emma also apologizes to Jane Fairfax, but that conversation is much more awkward because Jane doesn’t let Emma off the hook and is apparently quite upset about Emma’s flirting with Frank and then saying Frank is gay. When Emma hears that Harriet has been invited to Donwell Abbey and that Harriet plans to wear the new cashmere dress and suede boots Emma insisted on buying for her, suddenly she feels “this could not be allowed to happen” (334). The biggest shift is not what happens in the end but rather how it happens. Without spoiling it for you, I like it. Emma seems a little silly since, as she is trying to control Harriet’s situation, Harriet has already handled it—and Emma’s, too, but at least Emma is trying to be kind, which seemed to be true to Austen’s character. In the end, McCall Smith has Emma realize that happiness “is something that springs from the generous treatment of others,” a lesson we could all use to bring more happiness to the world (361).

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Published in: on May 2, 2015 at 10:16 am  Leave a Comment  

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