Alexander McCall Smith's 'Emma': A modern retelling of Jane Austen

Alexander McCall Smith is authorof "Emma: A Modern Retelling." Photo credit: Michael Lionstar


A Modern Retelling

By Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon. 368 pp. $25.95

Reviewed By Ellen Dunkel


Alexander McCall Smith and Jane Austen?

"One matter of joy to me," Austen's Emma Woodhouse would say, "and a very considerable one [is] that I made the match myself."

And a delightful match it is, particularly for fans of Austen's Emma.

McCall Smith, the author of dozens of books, including the popular No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, is known for his cozy style of writing, and it's on display in his Emma.

His characters discuss the merits of different types of tea, this time chamomile vs. "ordinary tea." They repeat phrases, as much a matter of style as emphasis. They are brutally honest in their opinions of each other, yet nearly always polite.

McCall Smith's Emma is a modern retelling. So quite a bit of explaining is required. Why, for example, do Emma and her sister need a governess? Why does Miss Anne Taylor remain at their home, Hartfield, even after the girls go to high school, Isabella marries John Knightley and moves to London, and Emma goes on the University of Bath to study interior design?

Simply, their father, Henry Woodhouse - an eccentric scientist who made his fortune on an invention - was widowed young, needed help raising his daughters, and abhors change. He is also a raging hypochondriac who reads voraciously and interprets every scientific study as an indication of danger lurking everywhere.

After Emma's graduation, she returns to Hartfield, intending to open her own decorating business, but winds up doing not much at all. This suits her father just fine: He has money enough to support them and is happy to settle into his comfortable lifestyle with his grown daughter and governess-turned-secretary.

But soon Emma gets bored, so she decides to get to know her neighbors better by throwing an old-fashioned dinner party. She invites her not-quite-brother George Knightley; the hunky yet eternally dull young vicar, Philip Elton; the lonely 50-ish widow James Weston; the orphaned young teaching assistant Harriet Smith; and others.

Much to everyone's surprise, just a few weeks later, Miss Taylor announces she is engaged to Mr. Weston and will be moving out that day. Yes, a modern retelling would have even McCall Smith's prim Miss Taylor living with her fiance before they are married, ripping the Band-Aid off Mr. Woodhouse's hatred of change.

Emma is as surprised as anyone. Until she remembers that she is not. She seated Miss Taylor next to James Weston at the dinner party, therefore, it was she who made the match! She has a gift and a new calling.

And so our story begins.

So why does the story first take off more than 100 pages into a 361-page book?

Cadit quaestio, as McCall Smith's Miss Taylor frequently says when she doesn't want to answer a question. "The question falls away."

Some readers may be put off by some of McCall Smith's characterizations: of Isabella and John as pretty, shallow babymakers, Jane Fairfax as a closeted intellectual who studied music at Cambridge, and Miss Taylor's very Scottish nature. (Mr. Woodhouse attributes every difference in opinion and nature to the fact that she's from Edinburgh.)

There is also the unsettling fact that McCall Smith's Emma admits often that she thinks her protégé, Harriet, is an airhead, best taken in small doses. Emma wants Harriet matched up, but not necessarily permanently. She wants to find a rich man who will fund Harriet's "gap year," so the orphan may travel around the world in luxurious comfort.

Yet McCall Smith's Emma also answers many interesting questions, such as how Miss Taylor went from governess to such an important friend, how Mrs. and Miss Bates became destitute, and what sort of car Emma might drive (a Mini Cooper).

It is one of the best of stacks of sequels, prequels, and retellings of Emma and other Jane Austen books. It is fun, and like most of both Austen's and McCall Smith's books, ties up all loose ends into a happy bow.

So should you read it?

Cadit quaestio.