Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Emma (The Austen Project #3), by Alexander McCall Smith (author), Susan Lyons (narrator)

Recorded Books, April 2015 (original publication November 2014)

Retellings of the works of Jane Austen aren't exactly a new idea, but I really like what Smith has done with Emma. He's moved it to the 21st century, but otherwise left its setting unchanged, the small and close-knit English town of Highbury. The changes are only the changes of moving forward two centuries, uncomplicated by a move to, to use one example, Hollywood.

Mr. Woodhouse had repaired the declining family fortunes with a successful career as an engineer before his inventions resulted in patents that made further engagement with the potentially unhealthy outside world unnecessary. He retired to his family's estate of Hatfield to raise his two daughters--first with his wife, and then alone after her death. Miss Taylor is engaged as their governess, of course, and we see more of this period of their lives than in Austin's original.

Emma attends University of Bath and takes a degree in interior design. Harriet was raised by her mother's friend Mrs. Goddard, who runs an "English as a second language" school for foreign students. Robert Martin's family runs a small hotel. Isabella, Emma's sister, marries motorcycle-riding professional photographer John Knightley, younger brother of George, master of Donwell Abbey.

But of course these are not the important differences. What I found most interesting is that, without changing the essential story at all, Smith has overall a gentleman kinder take on the characters. Harriet is a pretty, sweet airhead, but she's not utterly helpless and has more agency. George Knightley, who in both versions chides Emma for her snobbishness, does not in this version also tell her that Harriet is barely good enough for Robert Martin, never mind Rev. Elton. The Churchill, who raised James Weston's son, and indeed Frank Churchill himself, are altogether less selfish and manipulative, and more natural in their concerns.

Even Emma and her father are presented more kindly.

Yet all this softening does not wipe out the flaws of these characters. They remain very human--and perhaps a bit more believable, rather than less.

Not everyone will agree with me on that, of course, but I think this version of Emma is well worth reading.

Recommended.

I bought this audiobook.