Interview with Juliet Archer ~ Author of ‘The Importance of Being Emma’

Today we welcome author Juliet Archer, author of The Importance of Being Emma, [Choc-Lit, 2008].  Ms. Archer, who says she is a 19th-century mind in a 21st-century body [though she adds that some days it is the other way around!] joins us today from London to talk about her very humorous modernization of Jane Austen’s Emma.  [Click here for my review of the book].  We are also offering a free book giveaway direct from the publisher, the winner drawn from all comments posted by September 25th [see below for full details]

book cover importance of being emma



Hello Juliet ~ thank you for joining us here at Jane Austen in Vermont!  I enjoyed your spin on Austen’s ‘Emma’ very much, and look forward to others in this series of “Jane Austen in the 21st Century.”

JA [note the initials!]:  Hi Deb, thank you for the opportunity to ‘talk’ to you and your blog readers.

Deb:  To start, just tell us briefly what YOUR Emma is about. 

JA:  I’ve lifted the plot and characters of Austen’s original and plonked (a technical term!) them very much into the 21st century. Cue mobile phones, emails, jobs and liberated attitudes to social and sexual interaction! 

Deb:  So many Austen “fans” are drawn to the historical period of the Regency, and like their sequels, etc. to be so set as well.  What inspired you to do a re-telling of ‘Emma’ in our modern-day world?  And why do you think lovers of Austen will enjoy reading your book?

JA:  Modernising Jane Austen is not an original idea – for example, Melissa Nathan wrote versions of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion almost ten years ago. Then we have Helen Fielding imagining Bridget Jones as a modern-day Lizzy Bennet; and even Stephenie Meyer has admitted that Bella and Edward’s early relationship in Twilight was influenced by Pride and Prejudice.  In effect, Austen’s novels seem to provide an elegant template for most romantic fiction and chick lit, whether consciously or unconsciously. So, if you like, there are lots of ‘unofficial’ as well as ‘official’ modern versions out there already. I’ve just kept more closely to the originals!

I have several reasons for retelling these novels through 21st-century eyes. First, I’m learning from the master of my chosen genre. As Claire Harman notes in Jane’s Fame, a wonderful account of the Austen phenomenon, ‘It seems almost redundant to itemize aspects of Austen’s appeal; there are the brilliantly constructed plots, the romance, the comedy.’  Second, what started as a bit of an experiment has become compulsive fun: who will I tamper with next – delectable Darcy or calculating Crawford?  Third, a 21st-century context gives me an opportunity to explore some aspects of the originals that Austen couldn’t, or wouldn’t, develop – particularly the male point of view. And finally I hope to appeal to those – like my own daughter – who adore the dramatisations of Austen’s work yet can’t get into the books themselves. 

If you’re an Austen lover, then my versions have an extra dimension – looking for the parallels with the originals and, I hope, appreciating the differences. For example, the Box Hill incident in Emma: I couldn’t see this working as a picnic these days, so I’ve changed the setting – but, I hope, kept to the spirit of the original. And I wanted to give Emma’s outburst to Miss Bates the context of a rare moment of self-awareness, so I added something to the original. 

Interestingly, I’ve met with far more support than resistance from Austen lovers. When one of my publisher’s reps gave a copy of The Importance of Being Emma to the manager of a local Waterstone’s store (a leading UK book chain), she threw up her hands in horror and exclaimed, ‘Who would want to tamper with Jane Austen?’  After reading the book, however, she became a staunch fan, gave it a glowing staff recommendation and arranged for me to do a talk at the local literary festival.

 Deb: Comparisons will be made with the movie “Clueless” – how is your story different? 

JA:  I love that movie! But the high school setting and teenage culture are a step too far for a middle-aged author like me, and I wanted to stick as closely to Austen’s settings as possible. 

So my story takes place mainly in the village of Highbury, Surrey, England, and my characters are nearer in age to the originals. Donwell Abbey with its farming interests has evolved into Donwell Organics, while the Woodhouses also have a family business, Highbury Foods. As Knightley observes, however, in spite of various precautions Henry ‘never ate anything labelled “Highbury Foods”; he said his digestion was far too delicate.’ 

Deb:  You make Knightley quite “hot” and obviously very interested in sex!– what in Austen’s ‘Emma’ made you want to expand on this aspect of Knightley’s character?

JA:  If we turn this question round, it becomes ‘How do I make Austen’s Knightley fit into a modern world?’ Don’t get me wrong, I love the original Knightley just the way he is. But ‘a 37-year-old farmer leading a solitary existence, until he realises he loves the nubile 21-year-old next door’ just didn’t translate convincingly to the 21st century! And what appeal would there be in the modern equivalent of Knightley’s immortal line ‘God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover’?! 

So my Knightley had to have a makeover. I cut the age difference, to make sure he wasn’t old enough (technically) to be Emma’s father. Gave him a stunning girlfriend who’s looking to settle down. And kept him well away from Highbury while Emma was growing up. But the most enjoyable part was filling in the gaps that Austen left in our understanding of Knightley. Austen provided a starting point, an end point and a few little clues along the way – the rest was up to me! 

And, remember, in my version we meet Knightley when he’s thousands of miles away from his girlfriend and confronted by this gorgeous young girl he used to call ‘Mouse’! Is it surprising that his mind, er, wanders? 

Deb:  I mention this in my review, but just again explain why you changed the names of some of the main characters? 

JA:  As I modernise Austen’s novels, I change characters’ names only with good reason. The most obvious change in The Importance of Being Emma is Knightley. I don’t know any men in their mid-30s called George – they are either much older or much younger. I certainly like the name, especially when it is attached to a certain Mr Clooney! 

So I reserved ‘George’ for Mr Knightley Senior; in my version I felt he had to be alive, since enough parents in the original Emmahave expired as it is – and I include Henry Woodhouse in this! Then I looked round for a similar, solid-sounding name of one syllable for his son and – for personal reasons – chose ‘Mark’. Same with Frank – in the UK, at least, it no longer has a contemporary feel, so I went for ‘Flynn’ Churchill, with its shades of Irish blarney! 

In Persuade Me (my version of Persuasion), I’ve changed Anne and Frederick to Anna and Rick, again for a more contemporary feel. Similarly, Anne’s sister Mary (an unusual name these days in the UK) has become Mona – for obvious reasons. 

Deb:  You tell the story in alternating chapters from Emma’s and then Mark Knightley’s point of view – it certainly helps us to know exactly what is going on in Knightley’s mind as well as the she says / he says that can be quite funny with all the gender miss-readings of any given encounter! – why this format?  Advantages and disadvantages? 

JA:  Not all of Austen’s novels lend themselves to this format, but in my version of Emma I wanted to heighten the sense of misunderstanding and conflict between the two main characters. The alternating 1st person points of view are intended to assist this and, as you say, to provide a comic touch. It also means that we see the secondary characters through the eyes of Emma and Mark and, of course, their views are usually diametrically opposed. 

Advantages? I can explore the main characters’ innermost thoughts in a much more intense and, at times, humorous way. Disadvantages? It’s limited to what two characters are experiencing. Interestingly, Stephenie Meyer chose the 1st person for her Twilight series; it’s told from Bella’s point of view, although I understand she’s now written a version of the first book from Edward’s point of view. At least I’m giving the reader two for the price of one!

I’ve also written my second novel, Persuade Me, through the eyes of the main characters Anna and Rick, but here I’ve chosen the 3rd person throughout. This has enabled me to introduce other perspectives occasionally – to create humour, such as the musings of Sir Walter Elliot, 8th baronet, or a different slant on one of the main characters, such as Sophie Croft puzzling over her brother’s behaviour.

Deb: Thank you Juliet for joining us today and sharing your insights ~  stay-tuned for Part 2!


Join us for Part 2 of this interview with Juliet Archer tomorrow ~ she will talk more on the backstory of writing her Emma and her thoughts on what Austen might say about her book.

Book Giveaway:  Juliet has most graciously offered to answer any questions you might have for her – all queries and comments posted between today and midnight September 25, 2009 will be entered into a drawing for the free book giveaway, courtesy of Choc-Lit.  All are eligible to enter.

[Posted by Deb] 

‘Bright Star’ ~ “perfectly chaste and insanely sexy”

bright_star movie poster


… so says A.O. Scott of “Bright Star”,  Jane Campion’s biopic love story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne.  See his review in today’s New York Times [which has more references to Jane Austen than if it was about one of HER novels!]

Check your local listings – it opens in Manhattan on Wednesday! [it opens at the Roxy in Burlington on October 2nd!]