Thursday, 19 June 2014

'Northanger Abbey' by Val McDermid (2014)

Synopsis: Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey is a modern-day retelling of the Jane Austen novel of the same title. Catherine "Cat" Morland is a home-schooled vicar's daughter and lives in rural Dorset. To fuel her active imagination she delights in reading. She especially favours ghost stories and vampire tales. Cat is also longing for some romance and excitement in her life. When rich family friends Andrew and Susie Allen then invite Cat to come with them to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival she couldn't be more thrilled. Cat is introduced to the theatre and the arts, goes shopping for new clothes, and makes regular trips to the Book Festival on Charlotte Square. She also meets some very interesting new people like Susie Allen's long-lost school friend Martha Thorpe and her three teenage daughters - the oldest of these daughters is called Bella and is roughly the same age as Cat. Bella and Cat bond over their shared taste in fiction and Bella attempts to set Cat up with her older brother Johnny (who went to Oxford with Cat's older brother James). When Susie Allen signs Cat up for lessons in Scottish country dancing she also meets a young man called Henry Tilney. Henry is a handsome, charming, mysterious and pale-skinned young lawyer. Cat spends a great deal of time with Henry and his sister Ellie and she becomes very attached to them. The Tilneys then invite Cat to spend a couple of weeks at their family home Northanger Abbey, which is a medieval Gothic abbey in the Scottish Borders. Cat's imagination has been stirred by the books she's been reading and, after some playful teasing from Henry, she begins to suspect that Northanger Abbey hides dark, mysterious secrets. When Cat discovers the truth, her life and her attitude towards fiction are completely changed.


Val McDermid is best known for writing gritty crime-thriller novels but her Northanger Abbey is the second novel of the Austen Project. This is an ongoing project to have six different authors write modern-day retellings of all of Jane Austen's six novels. I chose not to read Joanna Trollope's take on Sense and Sensibility because the reviews that I read for it were fairly mediocre. However, since the reviews that I read for McDermid's Northanger Abbey were more positive I decided to give it a try. Also, Northanger Abbey is one of my favourite Jane Austen novels :) I absolutely love Northanger Abbey and it's a criminally underrated book! Sadly it's one of Austen's lesser-known novels. It's nowhere near as famous and popular as the Jane Austen "big three" (Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Sense and Sensibility) and it has very few adaptations. This is such a shame! Yes, the book lacks the intricate plotting and polished prose of those books but it's still a wonderful novel! The book is a delightful comedy-of-manners and a hilarious parody of the Gothic romance novels that were popular in Austen's time. Catherine Morland isn't one of my absolute favourite Austen heroines but I'm still very fond of her and I adore Henry Tilney. Darcy, Knightley and Wentworth are all wonderful in their own different ways but Henry is unquestionably my favourite Austen hero. He loves to read novels. His best friend is his sister. He's a highly moral clergyman but he still has a slight bad boy edge: he's witty and sarcastic, he pokes fun at people, and there's a hint of mystery about him. He forgives Catherine for her very silly theory yet he still fiercely defends her to his father. He's willing to talk about traditionally feminine things (like women's fashion, sewing and romance novels) and never shows the slightest hint of embarrassment when he does. I see Henry as the male equivalent of Elizabeth Bennet and I'm actually the proud owner of an "I ♥ Tilney" badge that I bought from the Jane Austen Centre :D Northanger Abbey is in my Jane Austen top three and even before I read Val McDermid's retelling of it I felt it could work brilliantly in a modern-day setting. Earlier this year I even wrote a blog post where I said that I wanted a Pemberley Digital adaptation of the book.

There's been more than enough rambling in this post and I really need to review the actual book. Well, my feelings about this book are really quite mixed. Overall I did find McDermid's take on Northanger Abbey to be a fairly light and enjoyable read but sadly the book is nowhere near as good as it could have been. I'll start with the positives. I do genuinely believe that McDermid's decision to change the setting of the book from Bath to Edinburgh was a stroke of genius. I've had the great fortune of being able to visit both Bath and Edinburgh twice. They're both rich in Georgian architecture and are truly beautiful cities but Edinburgh is the much more vibrant of the two and it's one of my favourite cities in the world. Bath isn't as culturally significant as it was in Austen's time whereas Edinburgh is a capital city, a university town, and a major tourist destination. By changing the setting of the book to Edinburgh, for the very first time I was able to get more of a sense of just how bustling and exciting Bath must have seemed in Austen's time. There's another reason why the Scottish setting of McDermid's book works so well. The hit web series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries updated the Regency balls of Pride and Prejudice into weddings, nights out at a local bar and parties - which is completely fine - but in this book the balls of Austen's Northanger Abbey are turned into ceilidhs! I really can't get over just how perfect the Edinburgh setting is!

There are some other logical updates in this book too. Instead of being obsessed with Gothic fiction, Cat is now a fan of Twilight and vampire novels. Cat doesn't have to rely on local gossip to find out more information about Henry. She simply searches him on Google and has a Facebook stalking session. The letters that are exchanged in Austen's book become texts, Tweets, Facebook messages and emails. General Tilney is a Falklands War hero and Frederick Tilney is a soldier on leave from Afghanistan.

McDermid's book has a lot going for it and many of its updates made a lot of sense, and yet there were many other updates in this book that had me scratching my head. Most of the "teen speech" between Bella and Cat is very awkwardly-written and unconvincing. I can't really see a modern-day Henry Tilney as a lawyer, and the age gap between him and Cat is too big in this book. It's fine in Austen's original setting but in our time would a qualified barrister in his early 20s really fall for a 17 year old girl? I think it would have been much better if McDermid had changed Henry's age to 19 and made him still at university. General Tilney's motive for kicking Cat out of his house is very odd and not at all true to the spirit of the book - both Austen's book and this one. Finally, I just didn't find McDermid's Cat to be as likeable as Austen's. In Austen's Northanger Abbey I find Catherine's over-imaginative fantasies amusing and endearing but in this book they got on my nerves more often than not. Yes, Cat is very imaginative and has had a very sheltered upbringing but her parents are clearly sensible people and she still had access to the internet and social media. Also, very early on in the book Cat dismisses believers of the Old Testament as "crazies" and yet she seems to sincerely believe in vampires! That really bothered me!

I certainly didn't enjoy McDermid's book as much as Austen's original or the ITV 2007 adaptation. The decision to set the story in Edinburgh was genius and I still found the book to be mildly enjoyable and fun, but the story wasn't as good as I wanted it to be so in that sense the book was a disappointment. I'm glad I read this book but it's not one that I could ever see myself reading again. I don't know if I'm going to read all of the other Austen Project books but I am planning to give Alexander McCall Smith's Emma a read. Emma is another one of my favourite Austen books and I've been meaning to read something by McCall Smith for a while (as some of my friends are fans of his). McCall Smith's Emma is due to be published in 2015 which is the 200th anniversary of Austen's book.

Rating: 3/5

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