Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Books – Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith

AKA: In which I rant at length about Jane Austen.

After reviewing the modernised Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, I’ve been excitedly waiting for the next installation of the Austen Project. For those less obsessed with Jane Austen than me, the Austen Project, is a new series, in which six novelists each take one of Austen’s novels, and rewrite a modernised version set in today’s world. As a massive fan of Jane Austen’s novels and a massive fan of adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, you can understand why I’m excited by this project – and also why I’m a bit disappointed   

The latest release is Alexander McCall Smith’s rewriting of Emma. I was especially curious to read this as I’ve really liked the other modern adaptations of Emma that I’ve come across – the 1995 film Clueless and the recent youtube vlog adaptation Emma Approved. Both of these were, for me, somewhat more successful that McCall Smith’s adaptation. Don’t get me wrong - I did enjoy the modern retelling of Emma. It’s probably impossible for me to read or watch anything related to Jane Austen without enjoying it at least a bit. And the novel is certainly an easy read. As with Sense and Sensibility, I read it pretty much in one sitting. Mr Woodhouse is done perfectly. I love that Philip Elton gets arrested for drunk driving. I like the hints that Emma befriends Harriet partly because she’s physically attracted to her. It was a bit random, but it was deliciously random, even if it seemed to lead nowhere. There was a lot in this book that I loved; I figure I should make that clear before I launch into what I thought let it down.

As with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, the first thing is to do with logistics and modernisation. The strange thing about the Austen project is that these are modern adaptations of Jane Austen books – and yet the authors seem so unwilling to modernise things. Why, for example, is Miss Anne Taylor still Emma’s governess? As McCall Smith happily admits within the book, people don’t have governesses nowadays. Mr Woodhouse ‘did not know anybody who had had a governess’, and has to search for one in an ‘old-fashioned’ country magazine. Surely if, as a writer, you have to justify your anachronisms by explaining them away as ‘old-fashioned’, that should ring alarm bells. What annoys me isn’t just the fact that having a governess feels thoroughly unmodern, but that it could have been so easily fixed. Rather than being her governess, Anne Taylor could be instead Emma’s school teacher, her neighbour, her godmother, even a tutor that she seems a few times a week. If McCall Smith really wanted her living with the Woodhouses, it wouldn’t be impossible that the Woodhouses let out one of these eleven bedrooms to a PhD student or something. There are so many ways this issue could have been sorted out.

I have a similar problem with Miss Taylor’s engagement to James Weston. They get engaged within two weeks. Two weeks. Two weeks. There is just no way whatsoever that, in the twenty-first century, Miss Taylor could get engaged to a man she’s been going out with for two weeks, and that none of her friends, especially Emma, wouldn’t turn around and say, what, are you mad? If they’d been together six months, even three months, if would have been quick but believable. Two weeks is just preposterous. This too would be easy to fix; McCall Smith could simply make Emma set Mr Weston and Miss Taylor up several months or a year prior to the summer in which the book’s mainly set. They could then get engaged and/or move in together at the start of the main plot.

As I found in Sense and Sensibility, there’s also the issue of money. I think I’ve said this before, but the fact remains: if the aim of writing the Austen Project is to make Jane Austen more accessible to more people, then it’s not quite working, for reading about the exceedingly rich today is just as alienating as reading about the gentry in the early nineteen-century. I sort of understand why Emma has to be fairly rich, because it’s part of the plot and her character that she’s a snob. Yet why Mr Weston still has to have a house with eight bedrooms, and why Mr Elton and Mr Knightley still own masses of property, is beyond me.

This issue of money and class another problem in Harriet, Robert Martin, and Philip Elton. For one thing I’m convinced that a modern day Elton would openly admit to himself that he’s mainly interested in Emma for her house and ‘dowry’, nor that a modern Emma would turn her nose up at Robert simply because his parents own a B&B. I’m much more convinced by what’s been down in Clueless or Emma Approved, where Emma disapproves of Robert because he’s “uncool”. Here Emma’s snobbery feels forced.

Likewise, Emma’s desire to set Harriet up with a rich man in order to look after her is completely unconvincing. There is no way that an independent twenty-two year old girl who doesn’t want to get married and is about to start up her own business, would say this to her friend:

It’s quite hard for us these days… Girls. Women. We have to work. Guys have always had to do that, I suppose, but now it applies to us too. Unless one’s, well, unless one’s lucky… One can let men pay the bills... You can still find men who are prepared to look after women. There are still a few women who don’t have to work… You could say that it’s an exchange. Men might have the money. Women exchange their… their friendship for practical support. They look after the men emotionally. They cook for them and so on. In return, men worry about the bills. Don’t you think that sounds like a fair exchange?

To be honest I hope that no twenty-two year old girl would ever say that. Sure, some people want to be stay at home mums, but surely no one thinks about it like that. Emma’s not describing two people falling in love and one of them deciding to stay at home to look after the kids. She’s talking about an ‘exchange’. I sat there and seethed. Apparently McCall Smith has forgotten that between Jane Austen’s original novels and the present day, something called feminism happened.

The problem with all of this is that McCall Smith’s Emma still feels like a regency novel. It’s not a modern take on a classic plot and characters; it’s Jane Austen with cars and potential bisexuality. A modern Emma wouldn’t ‘pop round’ to give out invitations to a dinner party; she’d send them out on facebook, at least to the younger people. In fact, she probably wouldn’t have a dinner party (which McCall Smith knows, because he makes Miss Bates mention that ‘so few people hold dinner parties these days’). Likewise, a modern Emma wouldn’t obsess over how to invite Harriet and Philip Elton to her house for tea at the same time. They’re all of the same age; she’d just organise for a group of them to go to the pub.

Some aspects of the plot were changed, certainly. I quite liked what was done with Harriet at the end, even if more could have been made of it. I thought the modernisation of Frank and Jane’s plot worked fairly well, although it could have been done more simply and clearly. I just wish the minor elements of plot had been updated too. I understand, of course, that the Austen Project seeks to keep the important family and inter-family relations of the original novel, that looser adaptations such as Clueless and Emma Approved tend to lose. Still, I’m sure there are ways of doing this in a twenty-first century way.

And beyond the logistics, I have another problem with McCall Smith’s Emma. At times it felt… lazy. Even when Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey don’t work, you can feel in every page a deep love of Jane Austen. I didn’t feel that at all in Emma.

There were a few things that just made no sense. Emma studies design at the University of Bath. As someone currently attending Bath Spa University, I know very well that the University of Bath doesn’t do a design course, because it only does science-related subjects. Emma could have studied at Bath Spa, of course, but the fact that McCall Smith didn’t bother with the two minute google it would have taken to find this out seems just lazy. Similarly, it makes no sense that Miss Bates forget to mention than Jane went to Cambridge when she’s normally so keep to show off about her.

A lot of the novel felt rushed. Take the characterisation. Mr Woodhouse is perfect. He worries about the microbes in John Knightley’s long unwashed hair, doesn’t understand similes, and is scared his Londoner grandkids are going to forget to pronounce their h’s and t’s. It’s great stuff – and yet I couldn’t help feeling as I read the book that Mr Woodhouse was McCall Smith’s favourite character from the original, and so he’d decided to neglect everyone else.

The other characters all felt a little skimmed over. I liked what was done with Mrs Goddard (and her cake), but she is completely McCalls creation, not one stitch Austen’s. Anne Taylor too has become McCalls character and bears little real resemblance to the original. Harriet Smith was done reasonably well, I suppose, but when it came to Philp Elton, Frank, Jane, George Knightley, even Emma – I don’t think I’d have got sense of who these people were if I didn’t know the original. Knightley is barely in the book. He appears four or five times, and we get no sense of his relationship with Emma, before or after they apparently fall in love. It doesn’t ever feel like her and George are friends. I wanted them to get together because they do in the original, not because of anything McCall Smith wrote. Even at the end of the book it seemed to me that Emma was more attracted to Harriet than she was to George.

I think the absence of characterisation is partly an issue of dialogue. All of the characters, John Knightly and Mr Woodhouse excepted, speak in exactly the same voice, and that voice is not a twenty-first century one. For example:

Emma: ‘I shall put myself at one head of the table… As hostess, if you don’t object’

Emma: ‘Where does one find a friend like that, I wonder?’

Philip Elton: ‘It’s a very civilised practice that seems to be dying out these days. I’m very much in favour of dinner parties… But you’re right, Emma. I should hold a dinner party, and I shall do so soon. And I hope – I fervently hope – that you will head the list of invitees.’

George Knightley: ‘I must stretch my legs… There is always a danger of cramp.’

Harriet: ‘Oh, I couldn’t have borne that… I would not wish Philip to see me in the nude’

Harriet: ‘I didn’t know you drew… May I take a look?’

These are just not twenty-first century sentences. People nowadays just don’t talk like that, especially people in their twenties or early thirties. Harriet is twenty years old. She wouldn’t say ‘may I take a look?’ She’d say, ‘can I have a look?’ Likewise, I don’t believe that any twenty-two year old today uses ‘one’ as Emma does, except in a jokey way. I sort of understand that Emma’s supposed to be posh, but Harriet’s not, and yet she talks in the same formal, stilted way. So does George Knightley, and so does Philip Elton, who at one point uses the word ‘alas’ in casual conversation. Admittedly I use the word ‘alas’ sometimes, but that’s because I read far too much nineteenth century literature, and it normally results in people giving me weird looks - because its not the way people now talk.

I think perhaps the Austen Project as a whole has a problem with style. These books are modernised in setting but not in style. The fact is that we write books in a different way today than in the 1790s or 1810s, and that’s okay. Now I’m not demanding that the next Austen Project novel is told from multiple unreliable first person narrators or that it’s in stream of consciousness. But the novel was in its infancy when Jane Austen was writing. I absolutely and utterly love her novels, but there are things that worked in her day but just don’t now. It was one thing for Jane Austen to start a book with a brief history of the family lineage up until today, but that’s not what we do now. Perhaps because of cinema, we tend to write more in scenes than removed overviews that zoom in on dialogue. The problem I’ve found with all the Austen Project books, especially Emma, is that it still reads like a regency novel. It’s Jane Austen with cars.

I’ll admit that I’m a little divided on this though; on the one hand I really admire that all three of the Austen Project novelists so far have tried to emanate Austen’s writing style as well as her plots – but it does stop the modernisation. I think it just about worked in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey because, while the narrator spoke like someone out of the nineteenth century, the characters didn’t. Here, where everybody talked like they’d stepped right out of the original Jane Austen, it all fell flat. McCall Smith’s Emma is a fun read, but it lacks the necessary alterations to really bring Austen’s brilliant novel into the twenty-first century.

I’m sorry about the ridiculous length of this rant. I’m genuinely impressed if anyone has actually reached the end.

Greatest strength: Without a doubt the portrayal of Mr Woodhouse.

Greatest weakness: I suppose the rest of the characterisation. I could have to an extent forgiven the book the anachronisms (as I did in Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey), if I’d felt convinced by his portrayal of the characters.  

Let’s finish on a quote: “We need to marry her off,” he muttered.
Miss Taylor frowned. “I didn’t think people spoke in those terms anymore.”

No, Miss Taylor – nor did I.

Next week: We shall be having an exciting guest review of H. G. Well’s, The War of the Worlds, written not by myself but by Chris King

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