Alexander McCall Smith says Emma is “possibly Jane Austen’s most thought-provoking and interesting book”. Photo: Rodger CumminsJane Austen published six novels. Just six. She died before she completed the seventh.
But her death at the age of 41 is proving no hurdle to expanding the literary canon. The crime writer Alexander McCall Smith has been commissioned by HarperCollins to write a 21st-century version of Emma. He is the fourth writer to take part in the Austen Project, a re-working of the English writer’s published novels.
“Not only is Emma one of the finest novels in the English language, but it is possibly Jane Austen’s most thought-provoking and interesting book,” McCall Smith said. He said his task in resurrecting Austen’s 1815 original was “like being asked to eat a box of delicious chocolates”.
Tinkering with literary darlings is risky territory, especially if it is the blundering but loveable matchmaker Emma Woodhouse.
Some of Austen’s dedicated fans may question whether this latest project is more about cashing in on Austen’s popularity than a serious literary enterprise.
But reimaginations of the classics can generate renewed interest in the original works and along the way find a new generation of readers.
Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility is to be published this month and Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey will appear early next year. Curtis Sittenfeld’s rejigged Pride and Prejudice will be published in late 2015.
The Edinburgh-based McCall Smith is better known as the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series featuring the Botswanan private investigator Precious Ramotswe.
Austen has inspired other unofficial spin-offs: P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley and Jo Baker’s reimagining of the life of the Bennet family’s servants in Longbourn.
President of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, Susannah Fullerton said she had no objection to contemporary reworkings of Austen stories and judged each on its merits.
Given that these books did not need to pay strict regard to historical accuracy and remain true to characters they were often better than the sequels, she said.
“I agree with Mr Knightly that Emma is faultless despite all her faults. Alexander McCall Smith has taken on a big task and I wish him all the best. No author can begin to match Jane Austen. Not a hope.”
Elsewhere, the imaginative pairing of contemporary authors to classics has found new readers. Anthony Horowitz was chosen by the Arthur Conan Doyle estate to write a full length Sherlock Holmes novel, which was published in September 2011 as The House of Silk.
Crime writer and poet Sophie Hannah is writing a new Hercule Poirot case with the permission of Agatha Christie’s family, the first writer to do so since Christie’s death in 1976.
Raymond Chandler’s estate has chosen the Irish novelist John Banville to write the Philip Marlowe novel, Black-Eyed Blonde while Sebastian Faulks is venturing into the farcical realm of P.G. Wodehouse with Jeeves and the Wedding Bells.
The death of James Bond’s creator in 1964 has not halted Bond’s fictional adventures. American Jeffrey Deaver received the imprimatur of Ian Fleming’s estate to write Carte Blanche while British author and Bond fan William Boyd’s new novel, Solo, takes the spy franchise to Africa.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.