Tuesday, August 25, 2015

In which I eat my words (alternatively titled) Emma: a modern retelling

I am a book snob. There, I've said it. I love to throw out that I love Jane Austen. I casually mention my reading choice of Les Miserables or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Don't get me wrong, I love these books; I am not such a snob that I just read them for the sake of being able to say that I did; no, I really do enjoy the classics. But sometimes I don't give other books a fair chance. Anything labeled "teen?" Don't even try. A science fiction? Puh-lease. A romance novel? I don't read romance novels ....What about Jane Austen? You uncultured swine her novels are satirical social critiques.... right? 

I do not say all these opinions out loud, by the way. I am a kind person who knows when to be silent on the subject of reading material. (I hope.) 

So there is one thing that I dismiss very quickly: modern retellings and/or spinoffs. This is from experience, because I did try several of those types of novels and I was greatly disappointed. So I could take a hint, learn from past experience. I steered clear. Until I saw Alexander McCall Smith's Emma as I was shelving books at the library. (I work there, by the way, I don't just randomly shelve people's library books...) Emma?! I thought, of all the gall! There already is an Emma and she's very famous and the title is taken. Is the copyright worn off? After a certain amount of time is that just a given or something? So I took a closer look, and lo and behold, McCall knew there was an Emma and he was doing a modern retelling of it. 

This struck me as a novelty. I have tried several Pride and Prejudice spin offs, with less than spectacular results. But Emma? My favorite Jane Austen novel? I don't know, maybe I'll just read the flap.... the first chapter.... well, I guess I'll check it out, I can always return it unfinished if it is really dreadful.....

And now the post title makes sense, eh? Because I shall eat my words. Not all spin-offs are not for me. Modern retellings always make me a little nervous. But McCall kept Austen's characters true to her vision while making them modern and fun and his as well. He had the wit and dry humor that characterizes Austen (though not exactly of the same kind, because who could be Jane?) and as the New York Times review on the back cover states "[McCall Smith] evoke[s] a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension."

Harriet is there in all her pretty, naive, and scatter-brained glory. Mr. Woodhouse, the loving hypochondriac I have always found extremely amusing, given my father over-worries about germs and danger (his favorite term might be "careful!"), was there too. Emma was deeply flawed, as always, evoking a "badly done, Emma" from both Knightley and the reader. But she is so lovable. I have always felt amiable toward Emma, even when she was making the worst mistakes.

I think McCall really hits the nail on the head when he writes the brilliant nanny Miss Taylor to say, "There's a big difference between a mistake, which is all about harm that you didn't intend, and a misdeed, which is harm that you did intend. A big difference.' Emma listened. 'Your mistake,' continued Miss Taylor, 'has been to interfere in the lives of others.'" (348).

Emma makes not one, but many mistakes, and it all comes to a head at the picnic. But all is not lost, as our heroine gets a happy ending with her Knightley, as she must in any self-respecting version of Emma. 

"I've never been very good at expressing my feelings; other people are so much better at that. But I want you to know that I've been in love with you, Emma, for a long time. I just have. Not a day, not a single day has gone past but that I've thought about you" (359)..... Swoon. Give me Mr. Knightley, past or present, and I will be a happy camper.

McCall Smith has a message here, one found in the original Emma, but he really tries to get the point across: "Emma was happy. She realised that happiness is something that springs from the generous treatment of others, and that until one makes that connection, happiness may prove elusive" (361).

This is such an obvious but hard truth to put into practice. Generous treatment of others, not for your benefit, not necessarily because their behavior warrants it, but because they are people and deserve respect just for that fact alone. 

Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul,  and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39). 

I don't know if others have experienced this, but sometimes I hear something, or see something, or think of something and then it seems to show up everywhere. I heard this message in McCall's Emma, I read a nonfiction book by Jen Hatmaker called For the Love in which she says, numerous times, "love God, love people." And now I am getting love in my third book in a row, Do Try to Speak as We Do: "It would never occur to me to say 'I love you.' And why not is what I wonder.... My mother says, 'I feel you say love with actions, not words'" (103).

Like, okay God, I get it! Love, love, love, love, love!.... Because that is really the Gospel, isn't it? That is the Good News. And it's so hard to grasp sometimes, so hard to give.


Wow, I did not mean for this post to go this way, but I think it works. To recap: I ate my book-snobby words and loved McCall's Emma. In case anyone hasn't picked up on this yet, I love flawed heroines with my whole being, and LOVE has been drilled into my head with my past couple readings and I am pondering it a lot lately (and hopefully putting it into practice. I have been trying to consciously make an effort at loving lately). That is what is new with me. Oh, and my senior year of high school has started, so there's that (yikes!).

Hopefully there will be a review of Do Try to Speak as We Do up sooner rather than later on this little blog. In the meantime, check out these two posts that I will link below to get an idea of what I thought of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, because I was just thinking "yes, yes, yes! That is what I thought" the whole way through both posts.

Until next time.... "Love God, love people."


  1. I haven't read this, but I'll keep my eye out for it at the library now.

    And thanks for those links about GSAW -- they were very thought-provoking! I feel like I'm just going to pick it up from the library one day on a whim after it's not "popular" anymore.

    1. Oh, and I love your new header!!!

    2. I think if you like Emma at all, you will enjoy McCall's Emma. If you do pick it up, you'll have to tell me what you think! I was iffy on Go Set a Watchman, but I think it's worth a read. Definitely indulge your whim and pick it up sooner or later, when you have the time.

      And thanks for the comment on the new header! I am not very tech savvy, so it's always nice to know that people enjoy the change when it took some doing to get it up the way I wanted it!

  2. I am a fellow lover of Jane Austen, and stumbled across this review of yours. I think it sounds delightful, and I will have to kee an eye out for this book and give it a try! I'll add it to my ever increasing to-read list. ;)