HarperCollins' "Austen Project," an attempt to update Jane Austen to the 21st century is not doing particularly well. So far I've tried Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Val McDermid's take on Northanger Abbey, and now Alexander McCall Smith's rendition of Emma.
They just don't pull it off. McCall Smith's novel really ought to be called "Mr. Woodhouse," rather than "Emma." Certainly the best drawn and most fully realized character in McCall Smith's version is Mr. Woodhouse, who is now fixated on viruses and global warming instead of drafts and chicken thieves. Jane Fairfax doesn't even show up until two-thirds of the way through, Mr. Elton barely registers, and both George Knightley and Frank Churchill seem to be afterthoughts.
I've enjoyed most of McCall Smith's own books, and he usually has a deft touch with his characters. But this time he seems to be just going through the motions. Austen famously observed that in Emma she was choosing a heroine whom no one would like but herself; yet her Emma, for all her faults, is at heart well-intentioned and honest. When she does wrong, she repents; more importantly, she tries to learn from her mistakes, and studies to do better. McCall Smith tells us that his Emma has good qualities, but what he shows us is not very convincing.
There are still three more Austen retellings to come: Pride and Prejudice retold by Curtis Sittenfeld, is due out later this year. Authors for Mansfield Park and Persuasion have yet to be announced. Perhaps one of these will succeed where their predecessors have failed. I am not holding my breath.
Click HERE for a brief interview with Alexander McCall Smith talking about Emma.
Click HERE to read a review from the UK Guardian.
Click HERE to read a review from the US Book Tribune.
Click HERE to read a review from the UK Telegraph.
Click HERE to read a review from the Washington Post.