Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

emma mccall smithNot with a bang but a whimper…


I wouldn’t have thought it possible for any of these Austen Project books to reach lower depths than Joanna Trollope’s Sense and 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. (Go ahead – say you told me so!) 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.

Helpful note for authors 1: You cannot make a historical thing relevant to today if it isn’t.

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 Instead he has been replaced by Miss Taylor – now a cross between Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee – as the sole influence in the revolting Emma’s upbringing.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.

Nanny McPhee...or Miss Taylor?
Nanny McPhee…or Miss Taylor?

Helpful note for authors 2: Make at least one character likeable/believable.

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, not to mention Mr Woodhouse’s entire life story. 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…

Helpful note for authors 3: If a joke isn’t very funny first time, it won’t get funnier with repetition.

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.

Helpful note for authors 4: If you have to spell out your point, you’ve failed to make it.

Would I recommend this? Only to someone I really didn’t like…

* * * * * * *

Alexander McCall Smith
Alexander McCall Smith

PS I will be going on to re-read the other Austens over the next year or so, but 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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

33 thoughts on “Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

  1. So, FictionFan, how did you really feel about this project? No need to hold back on our accounts… 😉 – Seriously, I am sorry to hear this was so disappointing. I like McCall Smith’s work so much that I had hopes for it. This just reinforces my belief that characters and stories really are best from the original author. Full stop.


    • Yes, after Val McDermid’s entry, I was hopeful McCall Smith might pull it off, but sadly not. I do agree that the whole thing seems like a bad idea, but even so I’ve been disappointed at just how badly done the books have been. I’m guessing the authors have been specifically told to repeat the stories without much change, but it really doesn’t work at all – it only did in Northanger Abbey because the original themes are still relevant today.


    • Very! I think you should! Seriously, though, if they’d changed the location or plot and stuck with the characterisation, it would have had more chance of working than just churning out the originals in badly updated language and throwing in a sex scene or two to show how ‘modern’ they are. 😆 Yes, I’m still looking for a billionaire – though when I started my search, a millionaire would have done…

      Liked by 1 person

    • I got offered the first couple through Amazon Vine and couldn’t resist. And then because the McDermid one was quite fun, I got carried away and bought this one. Ah well, I’ve finally learned my lesson… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ok, it’s a great rip. I would not read this one in any case, even though I have enjoyed the Ladie’s Detective Agency series……


  3. Oh dear, it sounds like I’ll be giving this one a miss! I think the Austen Project is a strange idea anyway: rewriting a world-renowned classic author’s works in order to somehow ‘pay tribute’ to her? Some Austen sequels are okay, but I think rewriting the actual books is a bad idea!


    • Yes, it’s a shame, but I really couldn’t recommend this one to anyone. I don’t understand why the Austen Project has done this – most follow-on novels just take the basics of the characters or location and then spin their own plot, and that can be quite fun. But to try to stick to stories that just don’t work in the modern day seems crazy.


  4. Yucketh! *laughs* Well, at least, you won’t recommend this one to the professor…right? (He does have a nice hat.)

    You know, I forgot about the character Mr. Elton. I really couldn’t stand him at all.


  5. Love this review 🙂 I think I actually have a medical condition related to A-M-S as I feel prickly, uncomfortable and psychologically disturbed when in the presence of his books. Quite difficult when I have to physically sell these to people.Ha!
    Seriously though, I still fail to see the appeal of his whimsical witterings and your excellent review has merely reinforced this! Probably won’t be reading this one…


    • Haha! Thanks, Raven! I quite enjoyed the first two or three of his Mma Ramotswe books, but found they got very repetitive. But honestly they’re great literature in comparison to this one! I might have to have a whole separate category in my book burning list just for this… 😉


  6. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They sound like they’re getting worse and worse! It’s always extra frustrating when you see the potential of a story, and then completely lack the follow-through. It *is* possible to update these stories and make them relevant (actually, Pemberley Digital’s webseries version of both P&P and Emma – “The Lizzie Bennett Diaries” and “Emma Approved” – does a decent job of this), but just taking the same story and putting it in 2014 without any adjustments for culture or characters is really just pointless.

    Emma always annoys me anyway; I’ve never had a main character I so consistently want to shake; so it’s great to know that I can give this one a miss without feeling guilty!


    • Yep, this one actually made Sense and Sensibility look quite good! I’ve been really disappointed in the series – Val McDermid’s the only one who made any real effort to put the story into a modern context, although it was always going to be easier to do that with Northanger Abbey. But some follow-on novels can be good fun, which is why I keep trying them. No more Austen Project ones for me though!


  7. I’ve just finished reading Val McDermid’s ‘Northanger Abbey’. I agree with you that it’s good. Val gets into her characters well and manages to modernise them fairly, although some Jane Austen mindsets are superimposed a little too heavily on to the Facebook scene. The end was a bit rushed too, imo. I’m about to write a review on blog.


    • Yes, I think Northanger Abbey is probably the one that best transfers to modern day – the other two have been really pretty bad. I agree the ending of Northanger Abbey fell away a bit, but I enjoyed all the stuff about the Edinburgh Book Festival. I’ll look forward to reading your review… 🙂


  8. I can’t believe you’re abandoning this project, I for one implore you to continue because I love the reviews so very much! I have laughed my self silly with nearly every line that you’ve written for this one. I particularly like the Harriet being so thick it’s amazing she learnt to breathe. In all seriousness your notes to authors don’t just relate to the Austen project and a number of authors should have these posted where they can see them at all times. A brilliant review although I do get the feeling you didn’t enjoy the ride.


    • HahaHA! It’s almost worth suffering through the books to get the chance to get rid of some spleen in the reviews…almost, but not quite! Somehow this one actually made me feel a bit nostalgic for the Joanna Trollope one… if he’d told that railway station joke one more time, I’d have had to throw the Kindle at the wall…


      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.