Monday, March 23, 2015

Jane Austen, Alexander McCall Smith, and Bertie

I recently read two of Alexander McCall Smith's latest books...I can barely keep up on each of the series that he writes -- he's probably one of the only authors to whom the phrase "why can't they write as fast as I can read?" does not apply.

In any case, Volume 9 of the Scotland Street series, entitled Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (Random House Canada, 2015) follows the same structure of the previous books in this series. This series is first written as a newspaper column (in the Scotsman) and then compiled into the latest book. This go round, Bertie, the eternal 6 yr old, is having a birthday party. Finally! And his mother Irene once again tries to stifle all the boyish fun of it. But...she has won a trip to Dubai in a slogan-writing contest. Guess what might happen? McCall Smith is getting more and more creative about getting rid of Irene!

It also follows all the other characters who readers have become fond of reading about in the previous books -- Angus and Domenica, Matthew and Elspeth (and triplets), Big Lou, Cyril, Bruce and more. If you're a fan of this series you will, as a matter of course, read this book, if only to find out how Bertie gets along (I think he's everyone's favourite). If you haven't yet encountered this set of characters you will most likely be able to follow along anyhow, but the joys of all the backstory won't be there. Give the first one (44 Scotland Street) a go to see how it all began.

18633333Then I was on to a more unusual entry into McCall Smith's oeuvre. As part of a project to rewrite all of Jane Austen's works into more modern settings (I'm not asking why, just going with it...) he was asked to do a rewrite of Emma (Random House Canada, c2014)It's received mixed reviews, but I thought it was fairly good.

This could be because my expectations were low; not only do I find Austen's Emma a little dull, I'm also a bit suspicious of McCall Smith's standalone novels (I never find them as good as the series). So I was okay with him playing with this story.

He really does stick close to the original, which works in the sense of recognizing characters and seeing how they translate to modern-day England. But it doesn't work as well in the sense of era -- sometimes Emma feels like she is living in the 60s, but then she'll do something like pull out her cellphone. It's a bit unsettling!

In any case, she's a rich country girl who doesn't have much to do with herself, despite taking a course in interior design. So she ends up meddling with everyone's lives, and there are some pretty modern misunderstandings. Harriet is actually a fairly interesting side character in this take on the story, and her circumstances were the most fun to read about -- she lives in a school with a decidedly odd matron...

But of course, we all know how this one turns out, and McCall Smith does not vary the conclusion -- I do think that would be going too far! At least his Mr. Knightly is a little more young and sprightly...but still way, way too bossy for my tastes.

Have you read any of these Jane Austen Project rewrites? Would you? What do you think about an author 'rewriting' someone else's story?


  1. I've heard of the rewrites several time, and I'm a huge Austen fan, so it's strange that I've never actually really looked into them or added them to the wish-list. Maybe it's the universe telling me to stay away!

    I've recently read a really good Austen spin-off: Longbourn by Jo Baker.

    1. It doesn't look like the project has been fully finished at this point. No P&P, though there are so many hundreds of P&P knockoffs we hardly need another! ;)

      The best spinoff I've read is Mary Street's "The Confession of Fitzwilliam Darcy". Though I watched the BBC version of "Death Comes to Pemberly" and really loved it, more than I enjoyed the book, actually.

  2. Melwyk, thank you for your thoughtful and well-written reviews of these books. I didn't know that Alexander McCall Smith was venturing into Austen rewrites! I have only read (many of) The No. 1 Ladies' Detective series of books, not this author's other works.

    1. I find many people prefer one series over all the others -- I like them all but I know people who only read the Isabel Dalhousie or the Scotland Street and not any of the others. I prefer all the series to his standalones though.

  3. I think Peter Robinson summed it up perfectly when he was interviewing AMS at Harbourfront last year: "Um, did Emma need rewriting?"

    1. I agree! The notion that the books need re-writing is really distasteful to me. I revisit Jane Austen's books every few years and find in them whole new areas of relevance each time. Unexpected humour, a very subtle (but also engaged) sense of world events just beyond village life, and sentences to die for.


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