Amanda Reads: Emma by Alexander McCall Smith

Oh, Emma. I never do remember quite how much I dislike her until I find myself re-reading the original novel, watching one of the films, or enjoying a modern retelling like this one.

The Austen Project is one of those things that I’m very excited about, but keep forgetting to actually follow. I’ll be honest that the main reason I chose to read Emma first is because the book-as-object of this one is just gorgeous. That makes it all the more ironic that I ended up reading it on my Kindle.

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Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way first, shall we? It’s been a bit since I’ve read Austen’s Emma and my general discomfort with Emma’s behavior means that the details are always slipping through my fingers. Often during my attempts to analyze the ways in which Alexander McCall Smith brought the old classic to a new time, I found myself grasping for parallels and couldn’t always recall them. I might have been better served to reread Emma first, but I honestly don’t think I could stand it. (Have I mentioned Emma is my least favorite of Austen’s novels?)

Within the first few chapters, I remembered why I’ve read Emma the fewest times of all Austen’s novels. Emma herself is a challenging character to like, though I like that she challenges the idea that female main characters’ worth lies in their likability. What was charming in Austen’s novel, though, becomes a bit more concerning when pulled into modern times, or at least becomes a bit more pronounced.

Or was it modern times? I don’t mean to disparage the author, who does a great many interesting things with his chosen subject matter, but some of the dialogue and the oddities of the characters didn’t seem to gel well with a modern setting. Sometimes, it almost seemed like the novel was unsure of its time period, the mentions of motorcycles and Mini Coopers seeming out of step with the way the characters often speak and behave. Nevertheless, this book contains some really interesting stuff that I’d like to address.

Reading Austen’s novel, one doesn’t really question Emma’s decision to matchmake for Harriet as anything more than her continued naive assumption that she always knows what is best for people. Alexander McCall Smith, however, puts an interesting spin on their relationship by suggesting (not at all covertly, I may add) that Emma’s interest in Harriet stems from sexual attraction to her and a subsequent desire to refuse the depth of self reflection necessary in analyzing that she is attracted to another woman and what that may mean about her sexuality. Emma does occasionally have internal dialogue about the matter, but seems to force it away quickly. I found this to be an interesting take on the situation, and one that is potentially concerning considering the influence that Emma exercises over the compliant Harriet throughout the novel. At one point, in fact, Emma convinces Harriet to pose for a painting in the nude, a scene that has a lot of potential to be problematic and fits in well with Emma’s general tendency to act first and reflect rarely. Thankfully, though she puts Harriet in a vulnerable position here, she does nothing but paint her, keeping things far less problematic than they had the potential to be.

The novel plays with the idea of sexual identity in a few other places, mainly with Frank Churchhill allowing Emma to misconstrue a few of his comments so that she will think him gay and let him flirt harmlessly with her. The author’s ultimate decision, however, to let the pairs pair up in the usual way means that all of this talk, all of these shades of nuance, sort of fade into the background at the end. Emma never really deals with her attraction to Harriet, but ends up with George Knightley in the end, as she always does.

I enjoyed thinking about the angle from which the author chose to examine Emma’s relationship with Harriet and some of the ways he tweaked things to fit them to modern times, but I almost wish he would have kept going with his subversion of the text to take his interpretation to a fuller, more interesting conclusion. I can, of course, certainly understand the many reasons why he did not choose to do so.

All in all, my Goodreads review ended up being 3 stars. Like Austen’s Emma before it, this book had trouble connecting with this reader, but was a really interesting read and an enjoyable study in the possibilities of reading between the lines.

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