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Bravery in the face of the Austen canon
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.