-- from “Poor Emma” by Reginald Hill, a long and convoluted 44-page story, found in his collection THERE ARE NO GHOSTS IN THE SOVIET UNION (1988).
Our heroine has not lost her taste for making plans and projects, in fact here she brings more of them to fruition than in Jane Austen’s novel. Nor has she lost her talent for coming off with the best of things, for being mistress of all she surveys. However, people around her suffer for it. After all, Reginald Hill is a crime novelist.
Reginald Hill has a good enough command of the Austen manner for this
pastiche, but of course his matter may offend; the friend I shared this
tale with was absolutely outraged. No, this is not the Emma we know
and love... but who can say what changes marriage may bring to any person?
Perhaps unfortunate changes? Indeed, poor Emma!
When frugal George Knightley squanders an estate, when John Knightley
becomes the brother with the more amiable temper, when Frank Churchill
objects to a scheme because "it smacks too much of
subterfuge", the reader's ribs feel the nudge of the author's elbow. Hill's Emma at forty-one is more ruthlessly bent on getting her own way than ever. This Emma is a fairly successful creation, if Hill's point is that the shattering self-discoveries of twenty-one year-old Emma had made no lasting change in her behavior or thinking.
In places though, Poor Emma, displays the sloppy treatment of character typical of the published Austen sequel. Emma behaves, at times, more like Scarlett O'Hara than JA's creation. And Emma committing adultery, Mrs. Weston becoming a religious recluse, Mr. Knightley totally deteriorating - well, maybe it's all part of Hill's nudge, nudge, wink, wink approach.
Poor Emma begins well. Indeed, the first two sentences are brilliant. At the end of the first page, the reader seems to be in for a high treat. By the third page, though, Mr. Knightley has started to neglect the Donwell estate and has taken up racing. By the ninth page, our dear George (as I call him in my amiable fits) has become a spendthrift, corpulent, hard-drinking, womanizing politician. And Emma is glad he has a mistress, because it keeps him out of her bed. She is not so glad that Knightley's expensive new habits are financed at the risk of Hartfield and Donwell Abbey. The story largely revolves around the financial problems and conflicts of both sets of Knightleys. The problems are eventually resolved by, get this, a murder!
In spite of Mr. Knightley growing out of recognition, this is a fun
read. I've probably read about eight or ten of the published
works inspired by Jane Austen's characters., and I thought "Poor Emma"
one of the better crafted. It contains actual wit, and I caught only
one anachronism and one discrepancy from the original (other than change
of character). It's collected in a volume with four other stories
and a novella by Hill. The book takes it title from the novella,
Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.
George Knightly has grown bored with running Donwell Abbey and has become
a Member of Parliament. He's grown fat and careless, has taken a
house in town to be near the government and has a mistress. Emma
is not displeased with this since she cannot stand to be wifely to her
John Knightly loses his fortune in a mismanaged trust and, at Emma's suggestion, moves his brood into Donwell Abbey. George, meanwhile, continues to squander both the income of Donwell and the future of Hartfield.
Mr. Weston has died and, in her grief, Mrs. Weston has turned to religion, going off the perceived deep end into papism and turned Mr. Weston's study into a shrine. Jane Churchill has died of consumption and when, Frank returns to Highbury, he finds Hartfield more welcoming than the incense filled Randalls. He goes to stay with Knightlys.
When Emma learns of her husband's enormous debts and the likelihood that she'll lose everything, she seduces Frank who (it is hinted) murders Knightly by choking him to death with a piece of veal pie. He comes back expecting to marry Emma, but she can't imagine why she would want to marry again, now that she has Hartfield back and is carrying the heir to Donwell.
Well... I just gave you the entire story. But it is fun. If you run into it, read it.
Mr. Knightley tires of living at Hartfield and begins to eat and drink and neglect his property at Donwell. He takes a seat in Parliament and keeps a house and a mistress there and amasses a huge debt that puts even Hartfield in danger.
Mr. Weston dies and Mrs. Weston (Poor Miss Taylor) turns to religion in her grief. She converts to Catholicism and turns Randalls into a shrine.
Mr. John Knightley loses all his money and, through Emma's machinations (a move that she learns to regret), takes over the management of Donwell Abbey and moves his very large family there.
Mr. Frank Churchill wastes away all his considerable fortune and returns to Highbury to watch over what is left of his inheritance at Randalls.
Mr. Woodhouse suffers, and recovers, from several seizures.
Reginald Hill, with much wit, unfolds this amusing tale. The story begins:
Emma Knightley, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to untie some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly forty-one years in the world with little to distress or vex her. Except her husband.
None of the characters are much like Jane Austen created them, but it does not appear to me that Mr. Hill intended them to be. He does change them in a most humourous manner, however. I must say that the change in Emma is quite plausible, though I would hate to think that Mr. Knightley would become a debaucher.
In the end, Emma is the only one who does not deserve the appellation of "Poor".
Should you encounter the book, There Are No Ghosts In the Soviet Union, I would recommend reading this story. If you do not read it expecting a serious continuation of Jane Austen's book, you may get a few chuckles and have a fun read.