My adoration of Austen has kept me away for the most part from spin-offs and "sequels" and retellings. I'd rather let the original stand on its own. But the Austen Project's concept of modern retellings intrigued me. If any of Austen's books would work in a modern version, it would be Emma.
So this summer, I reread Austen's Emma for the umpteenth time and also tried Alexander McCall Smith's modern version. I loved the original as much as ever. Unsurprisingly, I can't quite say the same about Smith's version. Here are some of my thoughts:
- Almost the entire first half of novel was devoted to background - things that happened before the narration of Austen's Emma even starts. Smith gave plausible backstories for all of the characters that made sense with Austen's original characterizations, but also worked in the 21st century.
- Spending the first half of the book on background resulted in the second half (the events actually from Austen's Emma) being really rushed and not as fully developed as they could have been.
- I rather disagree with his characterization of Miss Taylor. She seemed to be a very different person in Smith's book than in Austen's.
- I loved Emma. Even though she was just as meddlesome, her vivacity was contagious. I would have loved to have been friends with her (if she would keep her nose out of my business, that is).
- I'm not sure the whole Knightley-Emma romance makes sense in the 21st century. Maybe it would if more time had been given to developing their relationship, but it just seemed very unlikely to happen in modern times.
- No spoilers here, but Smith changed the ending just a little bit. That was pretty bold, in my opinion.
- I may have enjoyed Smith's version more if I hadn't just read Austen's original. Every detail was too fresh in my brain, and I was able to be hyper-critical of the little things. And while the little changes didn't bother me too much, I probably wouldn't even have noticed them if I hadn't just finished Austen's. Just something to keep in mind if you choose to read this version.