Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

Review published on May 28, 2014.Reviewed by Susannah Perkins

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

Many have been highly sceptical about The Austen Project. This reader had her doubts. However. Northanger Abbey as imagined by Val McDermid turned out to be terrific fun. The original was Jane Austen’s first completed novel but is often dismissed as being ‘odd’. Northanger Abbey is the most hilarious of Austen’s novels in many ways but it is far more a novel of ‘ideas’ than a novel of events; the plot is not the main point. Its main focus is the power of books on the mind and emotions. Perhaps because the plot was secondary, Val McDermid is able to transplant the action fairly effectively into the twenty-first century.

Of course, none of this is new, Austen has been done, done and redone. People are forever trying to find new and inventive ways of telling her stories – there have been the sublime (Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bridge Jones, Clueless, Longbourn, Lost in Austen) but then also the ridiculous (Death Comes to Pemberley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies). There is something about Austen that has provoked discussion, contemplation and imagination for two huned years. Perhaps because the simple marriage plot has changed so markedly since they were first written, we respond to Austen’s work differently. Do we therefore need to have the stories reworked for a new generation to carry their messages forward? Or is it more an act of laziness – I have noticed that children shy away from The Secret Garden for The Toilet of Doom, do adults require the classics to be simplified too?

Just like her Regency namesake, Cat Morland is seventeen and has grown up in middle of nowhere. McDermid emphasises Cat’s unworldliness by making her a homeschooled vicar’s daughter, surely the most naive demographic in modern society. Rather than having an obsession with Gothic fiction, Cat is a huge Twilight fan. It has always been my belief that literary fashions are circular – just as Pamela is like Fifty Shades of Grey, so Twilight mirrors the Gothic romances – it is no accident that many of the classics were reissued with Twilight-esque front covers. To be fair, with its emphasis on conservative dating and turgid prose, Twilight does stand in nicely for dodgy Gothic horror. It is the highlight of Cat’s hitherto uneventful existence to be whisked up to Edinburgh to keep the rich Susie Allan company while her husband ‘does’ the Festival.

I thought it was genius to move the action from Bath to Edinburgh – both cities are heavily influenced by the Georgian era but the excitement surrounding the Edinburgh festival provides a marvellous modern equivalent for the Regency social whirl of Bath. Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the world and the Festival is one of my favourite times of the year – the true residents sigh heavily as the city changes beyond recognition and they all wait for it to be over but for me, it is always amazing. I could completely understand why Cat Morland found it so exciting. Equally, with her Twilight obsession, Edinburgh makes a superb setting for Gothic melodrama.

Cat is dragged hither and thither by her wealthy ‘patroness’ (family friend), outfitted with new clothes and receives a thorough cultural education via the Fringe, featuring regular trips to the Book Festival on Charlotte Square (a personal favourite of my own). Another reason why McDermid’s decision to take Cat to Scotland works wonderfully is of course the ceilidh. Regency dance moves have rather fallen by the wayside – The Lizzie Bennet Diaries set Lizzie and Darcy’s first encounter at a wedding but other than that there are few modern social occasions that involve compulsory dancing – other than Scottish country dancing. At a dance lesson, Cat meets the rather dashing young lawyer, Henry Tilney.

Henry Tilney has always been rather the Cinderella of Austen’s heroes. This is partly because he is from ‘the weird book’ but also Henry does not help himself. He is openly sarcastic, often patronising and makes fun of Catherine’s naiveté which sets the feminist reader’s teeth on edge since it is hardly Catherine’s fault that she is naive. Still, I always liked Henry in a rather guilty way – he was funny, he read a lot of books and he forgave Catherine for her fairly ludicrous conspiracy theories whilst also defending her to his father. I will always like Captain Wentworth best (then Darcy second) but Henry Tilney still comes in towards the top. McDermid’s re-imagining smooths off some of Henry’s sharper edges while keeping his sense of humour, making it love at first sight for young Cat. Still rather than having to rely on the global omniscience to find out his particulars and annual income, Cat can simply Google and have an old-fashioned Facebook stalk to find out more.

During her time in Edinburgh, Cat also meets the Thorpe family, rapidly becoming ‘BFF’s with the flirtatious Bella Thorpe who has more than a passing interest in Cat’s brother James. Notes and letters exchanged in Austen’s version become Tweets, Facebook messages and emails; so many authors lack the courage to incorporate modern technology but McDermid managed it wonderfully. I was impressed by how Cat signs off a text written in haste with ‘cxx’ – who amongst us has never mistyped in a hurry? And of course, numbers can be copied down incorrectly when confusion is necessary and when Cat finally journeys to Northanger Abbey, it is naturally a signal black hole. One character who was surprisingly intact after two hundred years was Bella’s brother Johnny Thorpe. Rather than owning a barouche, he has a dangerously fast car but other than that he is unchanged. And disturbingly recognisable. His aggressive pursuit of Cat, his daredevil driving and general City Boy loathsomeness make this one man not to come across on a dark night.

This is not a true ‘re-imagining’, in fact it is a re-telling. The course of events is perfectly predictable for all who have read the original or even seen the decent ITV 2007 adaptation … still, I heartily enjoyed this. I think that the key to enjoying The Austen Project is to look at it with an open mind. This is a celebration of what we love about Austen, a brave attempt to take what she taught us into a new age. Just as once there was Gothic fiction, now we have Twilight – there will always be new silly trends, but there will also always be Austen there to remind us to keep a firm reality check.

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