I had high expectations of Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey. Seeing as the novel is a rewrite of Jane Austen’s literary classic by the same name, and that Val Mc Dermid is one of Britain’s most successful crime and suspense writers, specialising in “tartan noir” (Scottish crime fiction), I was primed for the combination of Austen’s classic settings and characters with some real spine chilling plot twists and turns courtesy of Ms McDermid.
The original Northanger Abbey follows Catherine Morland, a young woman obsessed with gothic romance fiction, who is thrown into society during her visit to Bath, and later has to confront her rather fanciful imagination during her stay at the old “Northanger Abbey.” Austen’s novel is a clever parody of gothic fiction, a comedy of manners, and an astute observation of a society obsessed with the politics of finding a suitable husband.
McDermid’s rewrite of the novel essentially uses the same plotline as Austen’s original, except that everything has been transported into a contemporary realm. Instead of Bath, McDermid’s Catherine Morland – here known as “Cat” – is asked to attend the Edinburgh festival with her well-heeled neighbours, Susie and Andrew Allen. At seventeen and the daughter of a clergyman, Cat has not yet ventured very far from her home in the “Piddle Valley”, and relishes the opportunity to experience a very different life and society.
At the festival she meets the intriguing Henry Tilney and his sister Ellie, both of whom she feels immediately drawn to. Unfortunately, she also has to contend with her new friend Bella Thorpe, and her boorish brother John, who do their share of sabotaging Cat’s attempts at getting closer to Ellie and, especially, Henry. When Cat is invited to stay at the Tilney estate, Northanger Abbey, her mind runs riot with the possibilities of secrets and intrigue that the old Abbey and the Tilney’s may harbour.
McDermid accessorizes the narrative with contemporary, teenage-specific particulars. So, instead of being obsessed with Gothic fiction, Cat is an avid reader of vampire novels or zombie mysteries, in particular the fictitious series the “Hebridean Harpies”. Social networking through Facebook and Twitter, as well as texts and emails, all form part of the narrative. The conversations are littered with teenage slang, including the annoying overuse of “totes amazing” and “cool”; and the topics of conversation centre around boys, fashion and the Hebridean Harpies.
McDermid – who is well- known for the “Tony Hill” suspense series – was asked by HarperCollins to be part of their “Austen Project”, which is a series of contemporary rewrites of Jane Austen’s novels, including Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, and the upcoming Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld, and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. Since there is no shortage of Jane Austen novel rewrites, the goal of the Austen Project (one presumes) must have been to set it apart from other such adaptations by targeting accomplished and successful writers to infuse the Austen classics with their own brand of writing style and genre.
Unfortunately, in Northanger Abbey, what could have been a very interesting fusion feels more like a slightly confusing exercise of “what if’s”, e.g.: “What if Austen’s Catherine Morland is transported to the twenty-first century? What if the politics of finding a suitable marriage partner become transposed onto our contemporary society? What if Catherine believes that vampires could be real and roving around modern-day Scotland?”
The confusing bit is that McDermid’s usually skillful style, characterisation and plotline has somehow been subsumed by this experiment. What is left may well be a good read for an audience who is demographically close to the main protagonists of the novel (which had me wondering if this is in fact a novel aimed at teenage readers), but does not deliver any new insights or developments into the plot, themes or characters of the original Northanger Abbey. The chills and thrills for which McDermid is known did not really eventuate, and the novel mostly left me wondering about the merits of what has become a very prolific, fashionable and presumably profitable industry found in Jane Austen knock-offs.
Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid, is published by HarperCollins. RRP is $49.99, available now.