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Oh, those dear little women

Alexander McCall Smith, I’m told, is a delightful writer. But you wouldn’t know it from his rambling, unfocused and kind of dumb piece about Jane Austen in the UK’s Daily Mail.

It’s another of those “why Jane Austen is relevant even though she wrote centuries ago” pieces. McCall Smith dutifully identifies some of the usual suspects – we crave order! We want meaningful romantic relationships! – and then adds, cringe-inducingly, that Austen offers “a very sobering lesson for males. Men may think that they are in control of their destiny (the fools!) but they are not – women are.”

Umm – what? This sounds a bit like one of the patronizing comments my grandfather used to make, about how, even though men were (rightly!) in charge of money, career and all major life decisions, those little housewives, God bless ‘em, were the true kingpins but sweetly allowed their husbands, the big saps, to think they were in charge. Gag. Me. With. A. Spoon. And then put me in charge of the money and the career, please.

I’d argue that Austen thinks we’re all, regardless of gender, in control of our own destinies – at least insofar as that destiny involves the moral choices we make about what kind of life we want to live and how we treat others. To quote a much-maligned heroine celebrating her bicentennial this year, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.”

McCall Smith’s obtuseness wouldn’t much matter, except that he’s about to release a new version of Emma, the latest installment in HarperCollins’ “Austen Project.” The Austen Project, as you may recall, is ultimately to consist of six modern reimaginings of Austen’s books, each one undertaken by a different popular yet critically well-regarded contemporary novelist.

So far, the results have not been good. Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, slavishly faithful to the original, proved that Austen’s story doesn’t update well to a post-feminist world. Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey gave us a heroine with a Facebook page and a smartphone who nevertheless really believes her new friends may be vampires. (Seriously. I swear I’m not making it up.)

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Pride and Prejudice, originally promised for right around now, has been delayed until next summer, and there's still no word on who's undertaking Mansfield Park or Persuasion. But McCall Smith’s Emma comes out in the UK next week and the US in April. Here’s hoping it’s better than its predecessors – but the early signs aren’t good.

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