Another day, another seemingly pointless modernization of a beloved classic to announce. Author Alexander McCall Smith has agreed to pen an updated version of Jane Austen's Emma as part of The Austen Project, The Guardian reported today. McCall Smith, whose No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series follows a female private eye in Botswana, will join Val McDermid (Northanger Abbey out next Spring), American Curtis Sittenfeld (Pride &Prejudice, out next Fall) and Joanna Trollope, whose Sense & Sensibility version 2.0 will be released October 29.
The Austen Project, organized by HarperCollins, has been developing over the last two years, starting with the announcement of Trollope's Sense & Sensibility in 2011. The project lines up with the 200th anniversary of the Pride & Prejudice's publication this year.
According to The Guardian, in this latest version of Emma, "Mr. Woodhouse has an obsession with vitamin pills, Jane Fairfax plays the tenor saxophone and Frank Churchill has been living in Australia." (In the original Mr. Woodhouse is a hypochondriac, Jane Fairfax is a talented orphan who sings and plays piano and Australia was still a penal colony mostly devoid of love interests.)
Those aren't the only modern adjustments McCall Smith plans to make. "One of the issues, of course, is the erotic tension that pervades the original novel Emma. That is there in large measure and will remain there in my version. And Freud will be looking over my shoulder as I write," he said.
McDermid's Northanger Abbey, which was announced last summer, takes that work's gothic novel-obsessed heroine to the Edinburgh book festival, while Trollope described her reworking of Pride and Prejudice as a "conversation" with the original, and more of a tribute than an emulation, when it was announced in 2011. Trollope, whose novels usually tell the stories of relationships and emotions, is perhaps best suited to handle Austen. And we can't disagree with her comment in the Sunday Times yesterday that modern fantasy novels like Twilight fail to give young readers the same moral guidance as Austen's works and other classics. But just when this starts to seem okay, you notice the headphones on the cover of the new Sense & Sensibility and modernizations seem like a bad idea all over again.
And if you're sitting there thinking 'well, at least they've left Mansfield Park and Persuasion alone,' think again. The Austen Project will announce writers for those adaptations later this year. Sorry.
(Main photo: Gweneth Paltrow as Emma, via AP Photo.)