Emma comes to Norfolk

Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish writer. Picture by Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures World Rights

Alexander McCall Smith, Scottish writer. Picture by Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures World Rights - Credit: Alex Hewitt/Writer Pictures

The large, loud and colourful Mma Ramotswe who runs the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana appears far removed from Jane Austen’s matchmaker Emma, who is the epitome of an English country lady, but for master storyteller Alexander McCall Smith, there are certain similarities.

Both of them reside, he says, in “a world in which no great developments happen, but nonetheless is a wonderful theatre for human nature. And it’s about humour. I love social comedy and I think Jane Austen is screamingly funny”.

Modern audiences, who may or may not have appreciated the subtleties of Austen’s prose, are sure to share McCall Smith’s enjoyment of her work with his retelling. He is known for his mischievous and witty sense of humour in his charming and uplifting long-running series such as Corduroy Mansions, 44 Scotland Street, The Sunday Philosophy Club and, of course, the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.

Known as Sandy, McCall Smith is one of a number of authors taking part in the Austen Project – Joanna Trollope has given us a new Sense and Sensibility and crime writer Val McDermid has updated Northanger Abbey. The publisher has asked various people to write a new version of each of the six novels. “It took me about 30 seconds of profound thought to say yes!” Sandy says of the invitation. “It’s such a wonderful novel. It’s a great treat to be able to do a new version. And I couldn’t resist having a bit of fun with the characters.”

Emma now drives a Mini Cooper and has studied interior design at the University of Bath. Her father Mr Woodhouse is paranoid about infection so is never far from a hand sanitizer. Frank Churchill has been living in Australia, and Mr Elton drives a BMW “something-something”. All this and the story takes place in Norfolk.

“The original Emma was set in a place that has now been swallowed up by London,” Sandy says. “I wanted to have the sense of the English countryside, but you have a bit of a battle to find it. Norfolk still has a nice rural feel.”

The Woodhouse family live not far from Holt, there are visits to Cambridge and to Aldeburgh (where Benjamin Britten is seen buying meat at the butchers), and Mr Elton has a declining property portfolio comprising two blocks of flats in Norwich and Ipswich.

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“Obviously nobody can improve on Jane Austen,” says Sandy. “But [her books] contain such universal themes,” and we can delight in the familiarity of the story. As children we say, ‘read that book again’. I think adults have that in them as well – it’s rather like hearing a good joke over and over again.”

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