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When I read about the plan to re-imagine Jane Austen's novels through contemporary, bestselling authors I wasn't entirely sure this was a good thing. Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope? Really? But then, of course, my eyes lit upon the magic author's name, Alexander McCall Smith! Not only had been asked to be involved, but the book he was going to work on was my most favourite Austen book, Emma. What could possibly go wrong?

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: This is bound to stir up emotions in fans of Austen and Alexander McCall Smith alike. I'm glad I read it, but I'm not exactly sure I like it!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: November 2014
Publisher: The Borough Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780007553853

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I think Emma, the original, prompts mixed feelings as it is. I had a conversation with a friend about it the other day and she said that she just couldn't bear Emma because Emma herself is so awful. I laughed and said it was because she's so awful that I love her! My problem with the AMS version of Emma was that I didn't really like her until, well, the last couple of chapters. Until then she wasn't quite the Emma that I needed her to be. I could understand the character that AMS had created, but I felt that, somehow, she came over as more mean than naive, and more foolish than witty. Even though Emma (the original) is very silly and says things without thinking them through, and tries to manipulate people and situations she is, overall, very much loved and that shines through. I lose my patience with original Emma, but I always love her. Here I felt she came over as rather too spoilt for me to even like very much, and not as witty as I'd hoped she'd be.

I think it is a difficult novel to bring into our current world in many ways. Although women today experience glass ceilings and inequalities remain, the situation is rather different to than of Austen's time. A lot of Emma is about class and social positions. Emma has money, she comes from a well-to-do family, and she has a responsibility in her village thanks to her class. It's difficult to replicate this in today's society, which I think works in a rather different way. I felt that there were aspects of this that didn't transfer very well in AMS' version of Emma. Harriet Smith, rather than obviously being of a lower class than Emma due to her family background and financial position is, seemingly, less acceptable this time around because she's actually pretty stupid and boring. This is also true of the original Harriet Smith, but rather more import is placed upon her background then than can happen here because the fact that she doesn't know who her father is isn't shocking in today's world. The same problem crops up with Miss Bates and Emma's benevolence towards Miss Bates and her mother. The lady of the manor taking care of her subjects doesn't really happen nowadays, or at least, I'm not aware of it happening here in my typical suburban English town!

I'm afraid that I also had some issues with Miss Taylor. Although I understood her character, and the way AMS was using her, I'm afraid I didn't like her very much either! She was quite hard and cold, it seemed, when I had always imagined Miss Taylor as rather gentle and tender. The saving grace, for me, was Mr Woodhouse. Here, wonderfully, AMS has transferred the essence of the original Mr Woodhouse and created a wonderful, modern equivalent. His worries and concerns, about vitamins and food and germs, were all perfectly done, and I found myself wishing for more of him and rather less of Miss Taylor. Mr Woodhouse is marvellous and by far my favourite in the book. I didn't fall in love with George Knightley, which was disappointing (I always preferred him to Mr Darcy!). He didn't appear enough for my liking, and what was there was a little too thin for me to believe in Emma's final turnabout of feelings towards him. I did, however, enjoy Miss Bates and Mrs Bates, who were well done, and of course Jane, Mr Elton and Frank Churchill. I liked the way they were portrayed in the story and the weavings of their plots into Emma's story.

If you know Emma well, you will recognise where the book follows the original and where it differs. I had wondered with a re-imagining how close it would stay to the original and, in this case, it was quite faithful. Perhaps it would have been more interesting to have something completely different, although then it wouldn't have been Emma, and perhaps would have ended up being something a lot more like Longbourn by Jo Baker which I loved, by the way, and you should definitely try! I think the problem, for me, was that it wasn't enough like the Emma that I love to satisfy, and nor was it enough like AMS, whose writing I adore, to satisfy in that department either. There were moments, there were flashes, when a character would have a thought or make a comment and I recognised the AMS I know so well, but then other moments just felt a little uncomfortable somehow, and the writing didn't feel quite so comfortable as it usually does. The part that I really and truly loved came right at the very end, in the final paragraph when he writes about happiness, and love, which are surely two of his two best topics to write about. It's like one of the wrap-up moments in an Isabel Dalhousie novel, or a thoughtful cup of redbush tea moment with Mma Ramotswe. It did, at least, leave me on a sigh.

In the end, I suspect that many AMS fans will buy a copy to have more of his wonderful words to read (they are there, just not quite as abundantly as in a Mma Ramotswe novel) and Austen fans will buy a copy because there are no more Austen books to be had and even if they hate it, it gives them something new to talk about!

Take a look at Longbourn by Jo Baker which is unsual, funny, moving and wonderfully imagined.

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Buy Emma by Alexander McCall Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Emma by Alexander McCall Smith at


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