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Emma: A Modern Retelling

Posted: 01st Jun 2015

Topic: The Importance of Being Emma

When writers modernise a classic, they face all sorts of decisions. What can be changed from the original, and what is sacrosanct? Which modern parallels are plausible, and which could even enhance the story? Who is the target audience – the purists, or a new set of readers, or both?

In 2008, when I was writing my modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma, the decisions were inspired by Amy Heckerling’s film Clueless, which transports the original novel to a Beverley Hills high school – in my view, very successfully.  If that worked, what else could?

Alicia Silverstone Emma Clueless

Having a small family business myself, I saw this as a setting where boundaries between work and personal relationships could easily become blurred, conveying the claustrophobic atmosphere of the village of Highbury. In The Importance of Being Emma, two family businesses take centre stage: Henry Woodhouse heads up Highbury Foods, with Emma as his new marketing director, while the Knightley family runs Donwell Organics.

The opportunity to give Mr Knightley a makeover, while keeping the essentials of his character and position, was irresistible; so I constructed a back story, and allowed the reader into his thoughts and feelings on his return to Highbury. His big-brother style and success in business make him the obvious mentor for Emma, fresh from her MBA at Stanford but without any actual work experience.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

The secondary characters fit conveniently into this setting; for example, at the start of my version, Miss Taylor has been Henry’s PA for many years until her marriage. Highbury Foods also employs Miss Bates, Philip Elton and Harriet Smith, with Augusta Hawkins arriving on the scene as a particularly obnoxious management consultant and Jane Fairfax taking up an internship. It was all great fun!

More recently, Alexander McCall Smith said how much he enjoyed modernising Austen’s classic novel. Across the pond the result, Emma: A Modern Retelling, gets a thumbs-up. Ellen Dunkel observes: ‘It is one of the best of stacks of sequels, prequels, and retellings of Emma and other Jane Austen books.’ In the Washington Post Brigitte Weeks reckons that ‘With his fluent, soothing prose, McCall Smith pulls it off. We like his Emma, a contemporary small-town girl who worries over dinner parties, pours gin and tonics and drives a Mini Cooper – much to the delight of her friend Harriet.’

Romola Garai as Emma

The Guardian’s Viv Groskop begs to differ – ‘If anything, Emma is less likable here than she is in Austen. That is quite a feat’ – while in the Daily Telegraph Elena Seymenliyska argues: ‘There are nods to the 21st century: an email here, a gastropub there. It’s not a patch on the wholesale update  of the film Clueless […] In terms of what makes contrasting the two centuries worthwhile – ethical values, gender politics, moral judgments – this Emma is the same vintage as Austen’s’.

And what do Austen experts think? Fans of Jane occupies the middle ground, with a very comprehensive review recognising the strengths alongside the weaknesses: ‘Some of McCall Smith’s updates really work in honoring the spirit of the original … [such as] what McCall Smith does with Mr Woodhouse, including his obsession with global warming.’

Perhaps it is the decisions made by Austen back in 1815 that work best of all – the way she crafted the story and characters with her customary wit and verve. Doesn’t the worldwide interest in the 200th anniversary of Emma’s publication – whether through celebrating the original, or launching a modern version – speak for itself?

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