Fresh from university, Emma Woodhouse arrives home in Norfolk ready to embark on adult life with a splash. Her sister, Isabella, has been whisked away on a motorbike to London, and Emma’s astute governess, Miss Taylor, is at a loose end watching Mr Woodhouse worry. Someone is needed to rule the roost and that person, Emma knows, is her.
Prepare to meet a young woman who thinks she knows everything. Emma spends her increasingly free time rearranging the family home of Hartfield, at the helm of society dinner parties, or instructing her new protégée, Harriet Smith. If you’re Emma Woodhouse, you don’t have to be in London to find parties or amusement—or make trouble.
But for someone who knows everything, Emma doesn’t know her own heart. And there is only one person who can unsettle Emma’s indestructible confidence: her friend and neighbour George Knightley. Has this young lady finally met her match?
Ever alive to the social comedy of village life, Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma is a true modern delight. Carriages have been replaced by Mini Coopers and cups of tea by cappuccinos, but Alexander McCall Smith’s sparkling satire and cozy sensibility are the perfect match for Jane Austen’s beloved tale.
A Note from the Author:
Everybody likes Jane Austen—or almost everybody, even those who have yet to read her. Film versions of the Austen novels abound, with new interpretations coming out virtually every year. There is also a steady stream of prequels and sequels, and forays into the world of even the most subsidiary of characters in these extraordinarily beautiful examples of the English novel. Then there are the fridge magnets, the writing sets, the biscuit tins. Jane, it seems, is all about us, and in many different forms.
The purists can get a bit sniffy about some aspects of this. Memorabilia are one thing, they say, but the stories themselves should be left well alone. There is some justification for this approach: there is no point in trying to improve on perfection, and it is presumptuous to imagine that anybody could do so. There is also a more general argument against the reusing of characters and themes that have already been thoroughly explored. Again, one can see the point in such criticism, but this is to ignore the fact that the revisiting of familiar and much-appreciated characters can give pleasure to those who like the originals so much that they yearn for more. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia novels were continued by two highly-skilled successors who seamlessly prolonged the delights of the world he created. Similarly Ian Fleming’s James Bond has had a number of successful outings since Fleming’s death. And now Agatha Christie’s estate has given the green light to the return of Poirot under the care of a new writer.
Jane Austen has no literary executors to control what anybody does with her, but in my view there are still restraints on how we should treat her characters and plots. First and foremost, I felt that if I were to tackle Emma I should do so with proper respect. That means that a novel of that importance should not be subverted, but should be approached in a spirit of celebration, and indeed admiration. When I sat down to write a modern Emma I decided at the outset that the plot of my book should follow the general direction of the original’s plot and that the moral point of the book—and there is a moral point to Emma—should be retained. Emma in my mind is all about the growth of moral vision and the conquering of selfishness. So it would be wrong to make of it a triumph of self-interest.
The modernisation itself was more problematic. It would be easy enough to rewrite Jane Austen in such a way as to make the novel reflect the crude face of our age. You could put in strong language; you could introduce overt sexual activity; you could give everybody a mobile phone and a set of ear-buds; you could make them as rude and as abrupt as we tend to be today. I chose not to do any of that because I think we read Austen precisely because bwe don’t want any of that. What people want from a contemporary version of a Jane Austen novel is, I suspect, more Austen humour; more Austen romantic speculation.
Writing Emma was for me one of the most enjoyable experiences of my literary life. I wrote it in two months, and at the end I felt bereft. I had enjoyed myself so much in the company of Emma and her friends and family, that I laid aside my pen with a sigh of regret. For two months I had lived, I thought, in a better place. Escapism? Unrealistic? Of course it was—but it was such unmitigated pleasure, such unforgettable fun.