Perhaps no other Jane Austen novel lends itself so well to modern interpretation as Emma. Considered by many to be Austen’s magnum opus, Emma features a heroine who, though “handsome, clever, and rich,” is judgmental, arrogant, presumptuous, and, at times, callous. She is deeply flawed, and her faults are less forgivable than, say, Elizabeth Bennet’s. It is these very flaws, though, that make Emma a relatable heroine for modern audiences: She is multilayered, and her self-assured attitude is less of an anomaly today than it would have been in the early 19th century.
A prime example of this is Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless (1995), which transposes Emma into the world of privileged Beverly Hills high school students. Cher Horowitz (Alicia Silverstone), with her long blond hair and impeccable wardrobe, is easily cast as the updated version of a character who, even Jane Austen admitted, “no one but myself will much like.” Heckerling devised ingenious ways of modernizing key plot points, and the microcosm of high school allows Emma to reign supreme in a way that otherwise would not have made sense in today’s (largely) classless society.
More recently, a web series entitled Emma Approved turned Emma into a twentysomething life coach/matchmaker/event planner who runs her own company and records her day-to-day activities for the benefit of the admiring multitudes. The character fits perfectly into the 21st-century landscape of vainglorious self-representation: Of course Emma would have a vlog.
Now we have Alexander McCall Smith’s attempt at modernizing Emma. Smith, a prolific author best known for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, might have been worthy of the challenge. However, as is so often the case with Austen adaptations and sequels, the result is disappointing.
The book begins charmingly enough. Mr. Woodhouse’s pantophobia is reimagined as being the result of Cold War fear-mongering and an overly protective mother. Other details are less well thought out. How is it, for example, that so many orphans exist in a 21st-century English village? In the early 19th century, myriad maladies and poor medical care meant that it was not uncommon for children to lose one or both parents at a young age. When the same number of characters are parentless in the 21st century, it seems more like laziness on the part of the author. As Lady Bracknell says to Mr. Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent . . . may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
Where Smith fails is in his attempt to simply rewrite Austen’s Emma. He follows the same basic plot and even keeps the same location—a large estate in the English countryside—changing details only when necessary for the time shift (Emma drives a Mini Cooper rather than a horse and carriage). The focus is on the modernization gimmick, and as a stand-alone novel, it makes almost no sense. The characters are underdeveloped, the situations are forced, the prose lacks passion, and Smith spends so long on exposition that almost no action occurs until the very end.
Mr. Knightley, one of Austen’s finest characters (and who, unlike Emma, everyone must like), is inexplicably absent for most of the novel. In fact, he does not even speak until halfway through. The ultimate coming-together of Emma and Knightley—which should, at least in retrospect, seem a perfect resolution—is here no more than an afterthought. Smith offers more hints of Emma’s possible homosexual longing for her pretty young friend Harriet than of her growing tenderness for Knightley. And as problematic as a lesbian Emma would be, I was strangely intrigued by the idea, because then at least this novel would have something original to offer. As it is, why introduce the issue at all?
Conversely, Smith spends pages setting up the relationship between Emma’s sister Izzy and Knightley’s brother John—only to have those characters disappear completely from the plot. A reader not familiar with the source material would doubtless be at a loss as to why they exist at all. (In Jane Austen’s version, the marriage of those two characters creates an excuse for the unusually close friendship that exists between Knightley and Emma. Today, women and men need no such excuse.)