“You have shown that you can dance, and you know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper.”
“Brother and sister! no, indeed.”
[Emma, vol. III, ch. II, Chapman, p.331 ]
Juliet Archer in her Author’s Note to The Importance of Being Emma, quotes this passage as the inspiration for her rollicking take on Jane Austen’s Emma. If you like imagining your Knightley as a to-die-for, sex-obsessed hero, or in the words of Emma at fourteen, “Mark Knightley: twenty-five, tall, dark, and handsome, and known among my older sister’s crowd as the Sex God” [p. 1] – then this book is a must-read, a perfect end of summer “choc-lit”* confection.
Emma Woodhouse, rich, lovely and clever, is back home at twenty-three, fully armed with an MBA from Harvard, to take on the role of Marketing Director at Highbury Foods, the family business, a “supplier of non-perishable delicacies to upmarket homes and hotels.” She is young and naive, and who should appear but Mark Knightley,** home from India temporarily to help with HIS family business, Donwell Organics, and the perfect “mentor” to guide Emma in the realities of the business world. They have not seen each other for years, and Emma is still smarting at Knightley’s discovery of her teenage crush – she is determined to keep her distance and not fall prey to the Knightley charm.
Knightley on the other hand is stunned to find his “Mouse” as he calls her with “long legs silhouetted against the window, lines and curves in perfect proportion. Short beige skirt stretched taut across more curves – nicely rounded, a pert promise of pleasure. Matching jacket with side vents, no doubt designed to draw the male eye to the symmetry below” [p. 10] – then promptly criticizes her for overuse of make-up and the plot is set for 398 pages of misunderstandings, concealed emotions, and an inordinate amount of sexual tension. This is Emma in the 21st century, as the series is aptly named, and for those of you eternally frustrated by Austen’s not giving her readers nearly enough of the inner-musings of her heroes – indeed the Darcy in the 1995 P&P is so gripping because for the first time we are privy to his emotional state – and who of you has not yearned for much more to YOUR imagined Knightley – a more ardent lover, a fully-expressed proposal scene…? Well, it’s ALL here folks! – Knightley it seems is wholly driven by sex, and everyone is happy to oblige – except of course Emma, who really has her heart set on the yet-to-be-met Flynn Churchill.
Told in a first-person narrative, with alternating Emma / Mark chapters, we see the same events from their individual perspectives. This approach increases the intensity of the action, allows for much humor, and of course puts the mind of the hero front and center. Knightley, as I’ve always believed Austen portrays him, subtle though it be, is really an emotional mess – here he is confused by his feelings for Emma, no longer brotherly, his every sighting of her expressed in such strong sexual terms – all making for one awkward encounter after another. No spoilers here, just suffice it to say that Ms. Archer creates a few fairly explicit sex scenes…nicely done I might add…
And thankfully, all the usual suspects are present – Henry Woodhouse, head of the business and a chronic hypochondriac; Philip Elton, CFO [yikes!] with his “Gusty” ever obnoxious; Harriet, a bit of a dim but lovely bulb with a bizarre fashion sense as a personal assistant; Rob Martin in trade of course; John and Izzy Knightley; George Knightley, the father, still alive and running Donwell Organics, but off traveling the world with his young and demanding selfish wife; The Westons; Jane Fairfax, beautiful and aloof and the source of much of Emma’s jealousy; Mary “Batty” Bates endlessly chatting away; Flynn Churchill, a chef of all things! but still two-faced and a tad sleazy; a few other characters thrown in to round out the modern picture [hint: Knightley has a girlfriend]; and Emma, still “clueless” to all the relationship mix-ups around her and still thinking SHE is pulling all the strings.
One knows of course how the book ends – it was after all written nearly 200 years ago! – so it must be Archer’s endearing re-creation of the story and characters with a super-modern spin that keeps one turning the pages – Austen purists may blanch at seeing their Knightley sex-crazed and at times cruel [“it was badly done indeed!” turns into two pages of a blistering, swear-filled argument], but the heart of the story is still here, and it is an enjoyable romp to search for Archer’s re-imagining the many side stories into a modern-day England – seeing the hero and heroine come to terms with their conflicting emotions, their many tense and often humorous misreads of each other, [and do I dare mention quite a hot Knightley!] to make this indeed a great fun read – you just need to suspend your Regency sensibilities before entering!
* Choc-Lit – “Where heroes are like chocolate – irresistible!” The Importance of Being Emma is the first in the series by Juliet Archer, “Jane Austen in the 21st Century”. Her take on Persuasion is up next [click here for an excerpt of Persuade Me]. See the Choc-Lit website and the author’s website at www.julietarcher.com for more information and other related links.
**Ms. Archer has changed several names: Mr. Knightley is now “Mark”, as father George is still in the picture; Flynn Churchill sounds a bit more modern, etc. She discusses this in a posted comment on Austenblog [see comment #12]. For this reader, the name “Mark” brought to mind the actor Mark Strong who played Knightley in the Kate Beckinsdale “Emma”… [Strong does indeed get better with age, and this film adaptation of “Emma” has grown on me more and more after a number of re-viewings…]
4 out of 5 Full Inkwells
The Importance of Being Emma
by Juliet Archer
Harpenden, UK: Choc-Lit, 2008
Posted By Deb