Monday, March 16, 2015


Not since 1989 has “Mini” adorned the boot of the Austin line of cars, a passion of Herbert Austin, born 1866 in Buckinghamshire, England. Austin emigrated to Australia at age 16 to join an uncle in an engineering firm, but returned to England ten years later. It’s hard not to imagine allusions to this tidbit of history – hinted at as well by the homophone, perhaps – when Emma drives into Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma: A Modern Retelling in her Mini Cooper, and Frank Churchill’s oft-discussed visit is from Australia where he lives with this aunt and uncle.

And could McCall Smith’s relocation of the story from Austen’s Surrey in the South East of England to the slightly further North, Norfolk, be occasioned by his desire to invoke Noël Coward in a passing reference? After all, Amanda, in Coward’s Private Lives, says “Very flat, Norfolk”, to indicate a certain dullness of the area, thereby setting off lively commentaries about it being undulating, actually, and no one would say that who had to harvest wheat there, and so on.

And what about Austen’s Mrs. Elton, with her constant boasting of the “barouche-landau” and her “caro sposa”? McCall Smith can only be applauded for responding with his “cadit quaestio,” coming out of the mouth of Emma as a young girl, taught by her governess.

Such is the mindset one gets into, and is encouraged to stay in right to the final pages, as the putative Alexander McCall Smith quips: “We cannot argue with Edinburgh,” referring to Emma’s always–correct and sensible former governess, Miss Taylor. This metonymy allows McCall Smith to write what he knows: although born in then-Rhodesia, he got his Ph.D. in Edinburgh and is Emeritus Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh.

Jane Austen was herself a master of word play, double meanings and allusions. She was highly literate and well–read, with a rich vocabulary. So when the modern Mr. Woodhouse, picking up anxiety in the womb as his mother endures the Cuban Missile Crisis in A Modern Retelling, becomes a “valetudinarian,” the scene is set. “To dispatch one’s friends to a dictionary from time to time is one of the more sophisticated pleasures of life, but it is one that must be indulged in sparingly: to do it too often may result in accusations of having swallowed one’s own dictionary, which is not a compliment, whichever way one looks at it.”

Just as McCall Smith can transport us to Botswana for his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, to Edinburgh for his series featuring Isabel Dalhousie, and to Germany in my personal favourite, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, so too can he transport us to Jane Austen’s early 19th Century England. His commentary is similarly ironic and witty. He caricatures such things as Austen’s bedroom count in the estates of Highbury as a way of denoting hierarchy –– and therefore seeming worthiness of the inhabitants –– and stays true enough to the characters to make them seem familiar to Austen fans, while imbuing them with characteristics that make them seem like our neighbours and colleagues as well.

Who in the early 21st Century hasn’t observed those who focus on social media and website development as an excuse for not getting down to work? Emma languishes about her father’s house after graduating from a design program and points to these activities as initiatives on her way to starting her own business.

Mr. Perry is still a quack doctor but now he dispenses health foods and supplements. The Miss and Mrs. Bates are still in reduced circumstances, but now they are victims of a Lloyds reinsurance scheme –– or are they?

Emma: A Modern Retelling is a spirited romp through Jane Austen’s world, retaining enough Austen-like sensibilities and sharp commentary to make his a credible retelling. The interview when Miss Taylor applies to Mr. Woodhouse for the governess position is brilliantly done. But there are also enough differences to spark curiosity as to how it will end. Or perhaps, more accurately, it raises curiosity as to how McCall Smith will interpret the ending of Austen’s Emma.

Jane Austen’s novels and manuscript works focus on the trials and tribulations of a privileged class and provide a window into the life of her times at the beginning of the 19th Century. They also provide veiled political commentary about the antics caused by strict class structures, the fate of young women whose families can’t afford to leave them well-off, and the “pride and prejudice” involved in social relationships. The role of marriage is to create strategic alliances more often than it is to bring together lovers intent on sharing their lives.

When she writes Emma, her forth novel and the last one published before her death, Austen says, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." We watch this attractive, rich young woman manipulate people, often with very hurtful results. Keeping her from truly sociopathic tendencies is her ability to reflect on all the unintended consequences and feel remorse –– for at least a short time. Emma’s own unease about her behaviour functions as a device to draw our attention to the depths of her character flaws. As Austen’s Emma ends, with all its happy, romantic couplings, a question lingers: Has Emma accepted George Westley just to ensure that no one else gets him?

McCall Smith obviously wonders this, too. In the final pages, his narrator –– who has been significantly unreliable at various points throughout the 360 pages –– calls this an important summer for Emma as she gained moral insight, able to see the world as it appears to others, thereby inspiring kindness and attempts to ameliorate suffering.

But Emma has told us herself that she has to be “first” in people’s eyes or she reacts with jealousy and meddles in their lives. In fact, she says her only real sense of accomplishment is when she is acting like God, when people are “clay in her hands." We watch her vacillate between resolutions to reform and renewed plans to change the lives of others. So when she goes from wishing that Mr. Knightly would always remain single so that the life she and her father know can continue on as it has been, to joyfully accepting his proposal of marriage, we can’t help but wonder if relief over her concerns about the future ownership of his estate are really the cause of her joy.

The modern Mr. Woodhouse improves with a retelling. He is as caring and gracious as his 19th Century counterpart but now he reads the Economist and his constant worries go beyond his immediate personal circumstances. He thinks more about climate change than about draughts and the germs in the air of London. In debates with Knightly he muses: “If we can’t find it within ourselves to apologise to the descendants of our victims, then our hands will remain forever dirty.” He has also become slightly more active in his efforts to correct Emma’s behaviour. He actually shouts at her saying, “No. I shall not hear any more of your cruel views. Enough!”

McCall Smith may stay true to the salient features of Austen’s novel, but he adds his own imaginative twists, making A Modern Retelling a fresh new read.

Reginald Sauvages, PhD, is the nom de plume of a local bibliophile (read: bookworm) who goes on building bookshelves and buying paperbacks for the beach so sand doesn’t ruin favourite clothbound books, even while owning an e-reader.

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