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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2014
I wouldn't have thought it possible for any of these Austen Project books to reach lower depths than Joanna Trollope's Sense & Sensibility, but I fear this one does. After Val McDermid's surprisingly enjoyable take on Northanger Abbey, I hoped the series might be capable of redemption - I was wrong. There are some MILD SPOILERS ahead...

The first few pages are quite fun with lots of little jokes about class and McCall Smith's hometown of Edinburgh. But it's a false dawn - very quickly the book descends into a miserable and poorly written attempt to make Austen's observations about class relevant to today's society.

The characterisation is dreadful. Emma may have been unlikeable in the original, but one can see why she got away with it. Firstly, she is superficially pleasant and, secondly, she is socially superior to everyone she meets and they are conditioned by society to respect her. In this version, she's simply a nasty, selfish, small-minded piece of work, to whom no-one in the real world would give the time of day. Her main belief seems to be that women should set out to catch a rich husband so that they don't need to work - slightly different from Austen's women who had no opportunity to work. Harriet, not the brightest candle in the chandelier in the original, is so thick in this one that it's amazing she remembers to breathe. Mr Woodhouse, our selfish hypochondriac, is probably closest to the original, but I fear it doesn't work in this one, since he is far from elderly and perfectly fit, meaning that he's just annoying and repetitive, with no possibility of gaining sympathy from the reader.

Knightley's barely in the book until near the end - McCall Smith obviously has his own reservations about the 'grooming' aspects of the original, so has simply removed him from Emma's upbringing and reduced the age difference by several years. Instead he has been replaced by Miss Taylor - now a cross between Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee - as the sole influence in the revolting Emma's upbringing. Not a recommendation to hire her to look after your own sprogs, if you want them to turn out...human. Frank and Jane, also hardly in it really, are awful - silly little people trying to make each other jealous for no good reason.

I've mentioned that several of the characters are hardly in the book. This is because McCall Smith has decided to fill the first quarter of the book with descriptions of Emma's upbringing and childhood. We get Isabella's courtship with John Knightley, tons and tons of stuff about Miss Taylor, mainly so McCall Smith can continue his quips about Edinburgh, and the whole history of Emma's education at school and university. What does this add to the story? Well, tedium, primarily. When Harriet and Mr Elton finally appear their whole story is dealt with in three or four meetings, culminating in what really comes close to an assault on Emma by a drunken Mr Elton. Should I mention the nude Harriet scene and the lesbian overtones? Nope, can't bring myself to. But Mr Elton does provide an opportunity for McCall Smith to make what is clearly his favourite joke, that he drives a BMW Something-Something. I say favourite joke, because he repeats it an amazing nine times. Mind you, he repeats the joke about the English language students asking the way to the railway station an astonishing 22 times...

Although only half the length of the original, the book feels twice as long. Each little bit of story is surrounded by pages and pages of repeated descriptions of Emma's selfishness or Harriet's stupidity or Mr Woodhouse's obsession with germs. And in case we fall into the Harriet spectrum of intelligence, McCall Smith spells out his conclusions about Emma's character all the way through, so we can be sure to keep up.

"It had been an important summer for Emma, as it had been the summer during which moral insight came to her - something that may happen to all of us, if it happens at all, at very different stages of our lives."

If an author has to spell out his point, then he's failed to make it.

Would I recommend this? Only to someone I really didn't like...

PS I've now read three of these but from here on the Austen Project will have to limp along without me. If they really had to do this, they could have done it so much better, by truly transplanting the stories to the modern day and looking at some of the real issues for women in today's society instead of pretending that we still face the same ones as Austen's heroines. With the exception of McDermid, who admittedly had an easier task with the much lighter Northanger Abbey, this has done nothing to enhance the reputations of the authors involved to date - both of whom perform significantly better when writing their own stories in their own style.
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on 18 November 2014
ALEXANDER McCall Smith is a brave man. A very brave man. How else can you explain his willingness, indeed his eagerness, to meddle with Emma, one of the most cherished of Jane Austen's novels?

It's true that Mr McCall Smith left the country almost immediately after his modern retelling of Emma hit the bookshops, but I'm told his decision to publish and be absent wasn't an indication of doubt on his part as to the novel's critical reception but was actually because he needed to embark on a promised US book tour.

He was nevertheless prepared to risk his considerable reputation on what can only be seen as a high-stakes venture.

Millions of readers around the world regard Miss Austen's novels with a reverence usually reserved for the works of Shakespeare, and woe betide anyone who thinks they could make a better job of them.

To even try to do so, whether you disguise it as a "modern retelling" or not, would have been viewed by many of Miss Austen's characters as an unforgivable impertinence.

Yet (and this is an important yet), Mr McCall Smith succeeds. Admirably.

Miss Austen, having perished at the age of 41, isn't here to tell us what she thinks of this modern version of Emma, but I would venture to suggest that she'd love it.

She would almost certainly be a fan of Alexander McCall Smith anyway, not least because of his love of the English language, the dexterity of his prose, and the playfulness with which he writes - all qualities for which she was feted herself.

Her bookshelves, like mine, would be filling with his works, including the nine volumes so far in the 44 Scotland Street series and the other McCall Smith franchises that make him one of the most prolific authors alive.

But most of all, she would admire the way in which he's taken her basic plot, settings and characters and breathed a new, 21st Century life into them.

Although prized for her prose, she might even feel just a little envious of Mr McCall Smith's more polished, more reader-friendly, narrative style, benefiting as it does from the 200 years of literary progress since she last had the chance to put pen to paper.

He clearly shares the reverence associated with everything Austen, allowing his modern retelling to be at once an homage to the original while standing alone as an original work in its own right.

Mr McCall Smith described himself on the recent Meet The Author programme with the BBC's Nick Higham as a writer of social comedies, and Emma is a supreme example of his ability.

It is exquisitely written and imbued with the wit that we associate with Jane Austen - full this time with modern references that are every bit as funny as those that delighted the original Emma's readers 200 years ago.

He writes of someone who enunciates her words "as if she were speaking with gloves on" – a thought that Miss Austen would have been proud of – and has a wonderful theory about garlic and vampires that's too delightful to give away here, tempting though it is.

Miss Taylor, his modern version of the governess, seems almost to be a mouthpiece for Miss Austen herself with a stream of wit and a precision of language that's certainly worthy of her.

Our use of language has changed in two centuries, and so has our sense of humour, but Miss Austen would undoubtedly be amused and enthused by Mr McCall Smith's references to "project husbands" that appeal to women who believe they can marry a man and change him, and to the "metaphysical gyms" that people intend to go to but never do.

There are insights too, as incisive as any on Miss Austen's characters in those 200 intervening years; one of the finest being that Emma treats Harriet as "the next best thing to having a doll, whose life could be organised, who could be dressed up and made to do things to enliven an otherwise uneventful life".

That's Emma in a nutshell, and Miss Austen, were she alive, would probably be kicking herself that she hadn't thought of it.

This will no doubt be viewed as heresy by die-hard Austen fans, but I enjoyed Alexander Mcall Smith's novel rather more than the original.

It has all the qualities with none of the drawbacks and brings a fresh sense of humour to what was, and remains, a highly entertaining plot.

Anyone who enjoyed the original is very likely to enjoy the modern retelling, too. But anyone who simply picks it up and reads it, even if entirely unaware of the original, will be in for a treat.

This is vintage Alexander Mcall Smith, the man with the Midas typewriter, and couldn't be more highly recommended.
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VINE VOICEon 3 December 2011
Having read both Pride and Prejudice and Emma previously, I admit I have been a little surprised by Northanger Abbey. Firstly, the so-called heroine is as thick as a short plank! She is nothing like Elizabeth Bennet, the eponymous Austen heroine, who was intelligent, independent, opinionated and principled. Catherine Morland, by comparison, is a mere shadow of Austen's usual female characters, with their appeal to both contemporary and modern audiences coming from the fact they were so different to the usual fare served up in this sort of novel. She is, as already said, thick, easily led astray by other people and by her own imagination. The book begins with an long description of her whilst she comes across as a pretty girl - she is not really accomplished in any way at all, and hence not particularly memorable.

The other surprise I found was how satirical Austen's writing can be - satirical but verging on cynicism. Her tongue was clearly firmly in her cheek when she wrote Northanger Abbey, which to be honest appeals to my sense of wit and my own view of the world. I just didn't expect it of Austen though, who is given the reputation of being a 19th century chick lit writer. This label is clearly disingenuous, as she actually has a lot of witty and pertinent observations to make about the world through her characters. The authorial style of this book appeals to me also, reminding me a little of Anthony Trollope. Austen is not as accomplished a writer, though her style is very readable, or as good at creating rounded characters, but the use of authorial observations about the story/characters involved which were used at times here are reminiscent of him.

So the characters are basically thick and young (Henry apart, who was the character I most enjoyed) and heroine is rather gormless. Catherine spends much of the book totally oblivious to the fact that people could be anything other than what they seem and she invariably takes their words as truth over their actions. She is far too easily manipulated to be very likeable, but I suppose there wouldn't have been a story without this characteristic.

The book is really not much more than a novella, and the plot fairly thin, certainly by comparison with the likes of Pride and Prejudice. However, some of the themes it touches on are just as interesting. The affect of trashy novels on the character of young, impressionable people is beautifully displayed here. The references throughout to the popular Gothic novels of the time, most notably the Mysteries of Udolpho, as skillfully used and enjoyable, whether or not you like that literary genre. Catherine ends up greatly humiliated because she lets her own imagination run wild, fuelled by her diet of gothic novels, and is an interesting juxtaposition to the usual opinion of academia that reading and literature are always a good thing.

The theme of marriage, particularly for young girls, is also interestingly explored. The novel to a degree exposes the ulterior motive of a lot of the upper middle classes at the time with regards to marriage - money. The treatment Catherine receives at the hands of so called friends because they mistakenly believe her to be an heiress, is a strong indictment of the attitudes developing at the time that for a girl to be marriagble she must be wealthy. Whilst this is explored more deeply and satisfactorily in other 19th century literature, it is an interesting theme at play here.

Overall, Northanger Abbey was an enjoyable enough read, not really a challenge to the brain but her easy, fluent style is nevertheless enjoyable. However, it does show that this is one of her earliest novels and for people new to her work I would definatly recommend you start with Pride and Prejudice rather than this.
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on 26 March 2011
Though there is some debate around the exact date Austen wrote this book, we can be pretty sure it is her first novel. And it does feel like a first attempt. This is by no means a bad thing, it just means it's simpler, less intricate than her better known novels.

We meet Catherine Morland at the tender age of 17, and see her entering society for the first time as she is invited to join the wealthy, childless Allens to Bath. Austen accentuates Catherines inexperience and innocence by making it clear that this is her very first experience of society, a far cry from her sheltered, isolated, happy, country upbringing. Catherine's innocence and simplicity is, however, deceptive. I believe that Austen has been extremely clever in creating this character, as she is an almost perfect picture of what every woman was at that age, thus creating an immediate bond between the reader and the heroine. She is awkward at the same time as being clever and spirited, she can be clumsy and immature at the same time as showing remarkable firmness and moral standard. Her imagination carries her away on fanciful tangents, yet she is gratifyingly shameful when real life catches up with her. I feel like all women would love Catherine because they will recognise a themselves in her.

This is a story of growing up and all the painful embaressments that can sometimes involve. It is a story of learning how to distinguish your friends from your enemies, and it is of course a story of love. I guess that the only thing that sits uncomfortably with me is that Catherine's story begins with her leaving her father's house and ends with her entering the house of her husband. You can say the same for all of Austen's books, but in Northanger Abby it's more pronounced, because it is much shorter and because there is less emphasis on romance than her other books. We see little of Catherine's feelings for Mr. Tilney that hint to anything stronger than a crush and she is married to him less than a year after she meets him. Compared to the slow-developing, intense love of Elizabeth Bennett or the enduring love of Anne Elliott, both older heroines than Catherine, this seems rather rushed and superficial, and perhaps a bit too easy. Besides, both Elizabeth and Anne reject the hero at first, showing their independence and their resolution to live happily as an individual, rather than unhappy as a wife. We never see this spirit in Catherine.

But make no mistake, I enjoyed this book, with the horrid siblings Isabella and John Thorpe, the one-tracked mind of Mrs. Allen, the stormy, intimidating and mysterious General Tilney and Catherine's well meaning, simple mother. Maybe it is not quite of Pride & Prejudice calliber, but it is a lovely little book none the less
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on 26 December 2010
I bought this item as "unabridged", but I know the novel very well and am very sure that certain passages are missing. Unfortunately, some of these passages are great favourites of mine, so I was very disappointed on finding they were simply left out. For example, the highly entertaining passage relating Mary's complaints about "her mother-in-law's way with the children" and Mrs. Musgrove's complaints about "her daughter-in-law's way with the children" is left out - I can only wonder why exactly this very amusing chapter is missing. Another missing passage is the description of the Admiral's driving (when they take Anne home after her long walk with the Musgroves) - so better don't look forward to his wife's entertaining exclamations, there is no "My dear, we will certainly take that pole!"

However, the novel is read in a very good style - it is very easy to forget that only one voice is speaking.
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on 24 August 2013
This is now my third Jane Austen-novel in a row, and it's without a doubt the one I have the most ambiguous feelings about. The culprit so to speak is the novel's heroine, Fanny Price. If fictional characters could be canonized, surely she would be first in line? She is (at times annoyingly so) the very embodiment of perfection in womanhood, or at least according to the standards of the early 19th century. Fanny is intelligent (without trying to be 'clever'), demure, empathic, shy, understanding, patient, soft-spoken (if and when she speaks at all), caring, and so on ad nauseam... Even the slightest glimmer of a less than perfect feeling (such as jealousy towards Mary Crawford) is enough to have Fanny scold and castigate herself for such unworthy feelings, there is not a thing she wants for herself or feels worthy of, and when her foster-father Sir Thomas arranges for a fire to be lit in Fanny's room she is close upon swooning with gratitude.

Is it perhaps a shade too much? Can such a woman exist and be credibly portrayed in a work of fiction? Or is much of my feeling in this regard due to the distance in time and morals since this novel was written? I'm not sure, what I do know for a fact is that Fanny did sometimes get on my nerves. Perversely perhaps, I found the 'bad' characters in the book ever so much more to my liking! Aunt Norris is surely the epitome of 'the malicious female relative', the only one I can think of that comes close is Mrs. Proudie in Trollope's Barsetshire-novels (it would be a feast if she and aunt Norris could have had tea together and discuss Fanny), and Mary Crawford herself I felt to be a more interesting character than Fanny, if only because she comes across as more credible if not likeable (at the very least she seems to belong to the human species).

I would have Fanny as my housekeeper any day of the week, but I'm not sure I would have her as a wife (provided she would have me for a husband, which I'm doubtful of, given Fanny's standards). Be that as it may, I would be no means suggest or advise not to read this novel! On the contrary, by all means do so to find out for yourself, and because it is despite the above (or precisely because of the above) a very fascinating novel.
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on 12 June 2016
OK, it's an early one and the superb irony isn't as yet refined by subtlety (we don't need to be told quite so often and explicitly that Mrs Allen is an utter pillock and Isabelle Thorpe a tremendous flirt), but you can see the raw talent gathering its strength and dazzle, especially in the first section set in Bath. Catherine Morland is an impressionable middle class teen, who these days would be partying in Ibiza, and who learns quickly from experience what rotters people can be, though the lessons are presented in the breathlessly formulaic idiom of a schoolgirl - "Catherine missed Miss Tilney at the Pump Rooms, so then she made haste after her, and then she burst into the sitting room" etc. Phew, calm down Jane, old chum, take it a chapter at a time. The second section at the Abbey isn't nearly as good and misses its target - the Gothic novel - by many a country mile but the impulse to satirise is spot-on, so no red ink from me there. But the crowning glory is the creation of a character I have just spent the afternoon stuck with at a suburban barbecue - the tremendous John Thorpe, banging on about the superiority of his mode of transport (it's a Volvo these days apparently), inventing fantastical stories to inflate his own importance (ahem), and showing off in the most juvenile manner possible - and he still can't pull a girl. Good job that's nothing like you or me, eh male readers. As a PS I will add JA went on to become one of the best novelists ever. Yep, ever.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 18 July 2014
Country vicar's daughter, seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a naive and attractive young girl who hugely enjoys reading gothic novels, is invited to the town of Bath by her wealthy neighbours the Allens. At Bath Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe, a flighty and duplicitous young woman, and her equally duplicitous brother, John. Catherine also meets a very agreeable young gentleman, Henry Tilney, and his sister, Eleanor, both of whom she is keen to become better acquainted with - however, Catherine's hopes for friendship with the Tilneys is initially thwarted by John Thorpe, who is envious of Catherine's partiality to the well-mannered and affable Henry. However, despite John Thorpe's efforts to come between Catherine and the Tilneys, she is invited to stay with Henry and Eleanor at their home, Northanger Abbey, and Catherine is excited about the prospect of staying in what she imagines to be a mysterious Gothic building. At Northanger Abbey, which is not quite as she imagined, she compensates for her disappointment by allowing herself to fantasize wildly about the fate of Mrs Tilney, who died nine years earlier. Was her death a natural one? Or was she imprisoned in her chamber and then murdered by her husband the General? And what effect does Catherine's over-active imagination have on her nascent relationship with the more grounded Henry?

In 'Northanger Abbey', which is essentially a parody of Gothic fiction, Jane Austen cleverly shows the reader how the materialism and superficiality of fashionable Bath society and the company of those who cannot properly distinguish between fantasy and reality, actually place Catherine in greater potential danger than any mystery she might encounter at Northanger Abbey. Although I have read and reread Jane Austen's novels many times over the years, 'Northanger Abbey', though enjoyable as a light satire and certainly deserving of at least a four star rating, is not my favourite of her novels - Austen's biographer, Claire Tomalin, has commented that this novel, with its more obvious comedic content and its many literary allusions was intended as a lighthearted parody and one that would have been particularly enjoyed by her parents and siblings - however, satire aside, one of the main purposes of this review is to talk about the lovely new Vintage Classic editions of Jane Austen's classics. This particular novel has an especially attractive cover designed by artist and illustrator Leanne Shapton, with inner flaps to the cover to make the book feel more substantial, is also attractively decorated on the inside and has a brief, but interesting introduction by P.D. James. Very pleasant to handle and entertaining to read - if you are looking for a paperback copy of this novel, and do not require a comprehensive introduction and notes, I can certainly recommend this new edition.

4 Stars.
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I always find this novel an enjoyable read, and it is very funny. To make some things a bit clearer for those coming to this for the first time I should point out that novel writing and reading such books was looked down upon by many, and it was considered that on no account should women really read such literature, as due to their brain formation they could be overcome and not be able to tell the difference between what they read, and the reality around them. Despite this though, women did read, and the popular genre at the time was gothic romances, which is parodied herein. I know that some people go on about the looking for a husband and so on with Austen’s books, but you do have to remember that getting married was a norm, and for those who were middling class and above a marriage was important, as it could elevate your social standing and perhaps bring wealth into the family. Some people pooh pooh this today, but for billions around the world this is still the case. Indeed, marrying for love is a rather modern concept, and most people could not afford to do so.

Here then we meet Catherine Morland and in the opening chapter we see how she grew up and the story thus starts when she is seventeen. The Morland family is large, there are ten children plus mum and dad, but they are relatively comfortable and in no great hardship. Indeed, as we read that Mrs Morland is healthy as well as her children, we are reminded that the rate of deaths in childbirth, of both mothers and infants was high at the time.

As Catherine is taken to Bath by adult friends of the family, so we see her being introduced and making friends with people nearer her own age, and even finding romance. As with all of Austen’s works there are many layers inside the actual story, so although this does parody and in cases satirise gothic novels and the form, there is of course a lot more to take in here. With her keen wit and sharp observation, we can see things here that are still relevant today, such as clothes and fashions, first love, and the rowdiness of teens in general, plus a certain amount of naivety. The actual place of the title, Northanger Abbey isn’t seen until the second half of this book, where we see Catherine getting a bit too much carried away with the idea of being some sort of gothic heroine, as she imagines things that are not true, and looks for secrets.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is very much an enjoyable read, but you do need to understand and fully comprehend what you are reading to get the utmost from this book, and indeed any of Jane Austen’s works. These were written for an audience which was relatively small at the time, and thus those who could read were usually quite well educated and were able to understand more subtleties and nuances than usually appear in books these days.
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on 4 January 2010
Wow, I can't believe I actually managed to finish this book! It's definitely not a page turner and I struggled my way through it because it's so boring. I think of it as the literary equivalent of a soap opera - nothing of interest happens and instead the book seems to revolve around gossip and social commentary. The characters, including the heroine, feel shallow and under-developed and as a result I didn't like nor dislike a single character; the simple truth was that I didn't care what happened to any of them. Perhaps if they had driven their carriage over a cliff on the way to the abbey, I'd have enjoyed it more. I particularly disliked the bits where the author spoke directly to the reader because it pulled me out of the story with her pretentious and self-serving comments about how there's nothing wrong with reading novels as opposed to biographies or history books.

I was also really disappointed with the ending. After struggling my way through my book, I kind of expected a bit more of a bang and drawn-out declaration of love, rather than the one page I found. In all, the book felt both hurried and forced and I skim-read quite a few pages simply because they were full of waffle that bored me and added nothing to the story. The only other Jane Austen book I've read is Pride and Prejudice and I enjoyed that slightly more. I personally think Jane Austen might be overrated as an author...

So in a nutshell, if you want to read a 'classic', I'd skip this book and pick something else!
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