Emma: A Modern Retelling

Emma: A Modern Retelling

by Alexander McCall Smith
Emma: A Modern Retelling

Emma: A Modern Retelling

by Alexander McCall Smith



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The best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series deftly escorts Jane Austen’s beloved, meddlesome heroine into the twenty-first century in this delightfully inventive retelling.

"[McCall Smith] takes Jane’s characters and invites them warmly into our world.” —The Washington Post

The summer after university, Emma Woodhouse returns home to live with her widowed father and launch her interior design business. Apart from cultivating grand career plans and managing her father’s hypochondria, Emma busies herself with the two things she does best: matchmaking and offering advice on everything from texting etiquette to first date destinations.

Happily, this summer presents abundant opportunities for both, as old and new friends are drawn into the sphere of Emma’s counsel: George Knightley, her principled brother-in-law; Frank Churchill, the attractive stepson of her former governess; Harriet Smith, a naïve but enchanting young teacher’s assistant at the local language school; and the perfect (and perfectly vexing) Jane Fairfax. Carriages have been replaced by Mini Coopers and cups of tea by cappuccinos, but Alexander McCall Smith’s sparkling satire and cozy sensibility are the perfect match for Jane Austen’s beloved tale.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804197960
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/07/2015
Sold by: Random House
Format: eBook
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 277,524
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

ALEXANDER McCALL SMITH is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and was a law professor at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland.


Edinburgh, Scotland

Date of Birth:

August 24, 1948

Place of Birth:


Read an Excerpt

Chapter 5

“Dearly beloved,” began the vicar. “We are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation . . .” The echoing opening of the Wedding Service, couched in the Cranmerian prose of the Book of Common Prayer, could not but move every one of the one hundred guests attending the wedding of Isabella Woodhouse to John Knightley. Emma listened to each word, and was impressed by the sheer solemnity of what she heard: “. . . which is an honourable estate . . . and first miracle he wrought, in Cana of Galilee . . . and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly . . .” The resonant language brought home to her the significance of the occasion. This was her Isabella, her sister, taking such an irrevocable and adult step, leaving the security of her childhood home and venturing out as a married woman, as Mrs. Knightley. It was hard for her to accept that this was actually happening; it was all so sudden, and so dramatic—almost an elopement, but not quite.
She looked about her at the congregation almost filling the small Norman church in Highbury. The Knightley family was led by George, and was well represented by an assortment of cousins, even if somewhat distant ones; there were fewer Woodhouses—not because various relatives had been passed over, but because they were a smaller family. Then there were people from the village: Miss Bates, an unmarried woman in her fifties who occupied, on a fixed rent, a cottage in the village, and who lived a narrow life in severely reduced circumstances; James Weston, a widower whose Georgian house of eight bedrooms was barely a mile from Hartfield, and who had always been a good friend to Mr. Woodhouse; Mr. Perry, an exponent of alternative medicine, regarded as a charlatan by some (but not by Mr. Woodhouse), and his wife, an illustrator of educational textbooks; and a number of friends whom Isabella had known at Gresham’s: Rosie Slazenger, Timmy Cottesloe, Kitty Fairweather. Emma knew them too, although she was a few years younger; Mr. Woodhouse had heard their names before and had met some of them from time to time, but could never tell which one was which.
Mr. Woodhouse had reconciled himself to Isabella’s choice. His attempt to marry her off had succeeded, of course, but not in the way he had imagined. He had wanted her to find a husband in order to protect her, and she had done just that, with alacrity and determination, although not alighting upon quite the sort of husband he had envisaged for her. Still, it could have been worse; and the most important consideration, he knew, was her happiness. John Knightley made her happy. She adored him, and as far as Mr. Woodhouse could make out, this adoration was fully reciprocated. And he accepted that the fact that he had a tattoo was far less important than the fact that they were both happy. His tattoo, moreover, was a relatively discreet one, and not something that people would necessarily notice, although it was a pity, Mr. Woodhouse felt, that the best man should choose to mention it in his speech.
Immediately after the wedding she informed him that she was three months pregnant, and that she was expecting twins. Emma, who was sixteen at the time, greeted this news with delight, but proclaimed, quite spontaneously, “Not for me! I’m never going to get myself pregnant! Yuck!”
She addressed this to Miss Taylor, who was surprised by the vehemence of her reaction. “But it’s a wonderful thing to have children,” she said. “You love children—I’ve seen you with those little girls in the village shop.”
“Children, yes,” said Emma. “But pregnancy, no. All that . . .” She assumed an expression of disgust. “All that fumbling.”
Miss Taylor smiled. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” she said. “That’ll take care of itself. The important thing is to meet a young man whom you love. Once that happens, and I hope it does, then everything else—fumbling, and so on—will seem quite natural.”
Emma shook her head vigorously. No, Miss Taylor did not understand; how could she—at her age? “I don’t ever want to get married,” she announced. “Never. Never. Not in a thousand years.”
Miss Taylor was tolerant. “Millennia come round so quickly, Emma.” She smiled again. “I’ve already experienced one in my lifetime. And you may think that of marriage now, you know, but one’s views do change.”
“Mine won’t,” said Emma, with conviction. She was certain; she knew what lay ahead of her: she would continue to be pretty, clever, and rich. That did not include getting married: pretty, clever, and rich people did not have to bother with such things.
“Oh well,” said Miss Taylor. “There are other lifestyles. There is a great deal to be said for being single.” And she thought: Exactly what? Not having to worry about another person; not having to accommodate a partner’s wishes; not having to tolerate the slow, gravitational decline of the flesh into middle age and beyond, into that territory of sleepless nights and infirmity; not having to listen to familiar views on the same things, time after time? Not having to have to, in short. And yet, she thought, if I had to choose between being a governess and having a man . . .

Emma, having pronounced, now looked thoughtful. “Of course, I quite see how lots of other people want to get married. I can see how it’s fine for them. In fact . . .”
Miss Taylor waited. “Yes?”
“It’s probably rather fun to help other people find the right person. Yes, I think it must be.” An idea had entered her mind. It was unbidden, but it excited her, and had to be expressed. “You, for example, Miss Taylor . . . What about you and James Weston?”
This was not an area into which Miss Taylor felt they should stray. She was, after all, Emma’s governess, and there were boundaries to be observed, no matter how easy and familiar their relationship had been. “Leave me out of it,” she said sharply. “Cadit quaestio.”
Cadit quaestio,” muttered Emma, under her breath. “Sed quaestio manet.” She had asked her Latin teacher at school for a suitable rebuttal to cadit quaestio, and she had said that one might retort: But the question still remains, and that could be rendered sed quaestio manet. That was to put it simply, she explained. Simpliciter. Emma loved Latin because it gave her a sort of power. At school she had tossed a Latin phrase at a boy who had been staring at her in a disconcerting way, and he had been crushed—there was only one word for it: crushed.

Reading Group Guide

This guide is designed to enhance your reading group’s focus on some of the main concepts in this book and to enable readers to explore and share different perspectives. It was written for those who have read both Jane Austen’s Emma and Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma. Feel free to wander in your discussions, and use this as a guideline only.

1. Why do you think Alexander McCall Smith decided to revisit Emma, of all of Jane Austen’s novels?

2. Describe Emma’s character in this version. How does it differ from that of Austen’s Emma? In what ways is she “modernized”?

3. What is Emma’s position in life? How does this shape her worldview?

4. Describe George Knightley’s connection to the Woodhouse family. In what ways does he serve as a foil to Emma? How does that focus the bond between the two of them?

5. What is the relationship between Miss Taylor and Emma? How does this differ from the way it is depicted in Austen’s version?

6. Describe Harriet Smith. Why is Emma so interested in her?

7. How does Philip Elton fit into Emma’s life? In what ways are Emma and Philip alike? Why does Emma reject Philip?

8. A pivotal moment in Austen’s Emma was the shaming of Miss Bates. How has McCall Smith handled the Victorian idea of rank in this contemporary context?

9. What role does Frank Churchill play in the story? What do you think of the way he treats Jane Fairfax?

10. Why doesn’t Emma like Jane Fairfax? Is this fair to Jane?

11. What elements of Austen’s work have become more apparent through McCall Smith’s deft handling of the text? What nuances of Austen’s sense of humor and sense of morality has McCall Smith captured the best?

12. Which character has changed the most, from Austen to McCall Smith?

13. Who is the most amusing character in our contemporary story?

14. Austen seems to find Emma a little ridiculous. Why would she be unsympathetic to her own character? Does McCall Smith soften this? How?

15. Emma’s matchmaking has some serious consequences. How does her meddling go awry? How does she make amends for her meddling? Which things are not able to be fixed?

16. What is the most modernized feature of McCall Smith’s Emma?

17. Which parts of the story are new and how does McCall Smith use them without changing the general timbre of the story?

18. What, in the end, does Emma learn? How is it that she finds happiness?

19. Discuss your favorite change between the original and the retold story of Emma.

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