For those not familiar with it, The Austen Project is a publishing concept that pairs up bestselling contemporary authors with the works of Jane Austen, with the goal of creating six reimagined versions of the classic novels.
Sense and Sensibility, written by Joanna Trollope, was published in 2013; Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid followed in 2014, and in June 2015, Emma by Alexander McCall Smith was released. Supposedly next will be a Pride and Prejudice reimagining by Curtis Sittenfeld, although it looks as though she may be departing from the formula a bit and publishing a novel with a different name (Eligible, to be released 2016).
I decided to start with Northanger Abbey because it’s fresh in my mind. I’d read the Austen version years ago, and listened to the audiobook while on vacation this summer. (As a result, I associate Northanger Abbey with a hike in the woods in the Canadian Rockies, which is really not a bad association at all!) Last week, I watched the 2007 Masterpiece version of Northanger Abbey, starring Felicity Jones (which is very good – check it out!).
Northanger Abbey is written by Val McDermid, a Scottish-born author best known for writing crime novels. I’d heard her name before, but had never read any of her works, since crime novels aren’t usually my thing. The book gets off to a promising start:
It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely resemble her books.
In this new version of NA, heroine Catherine Morland is now Cat Morland, a 17-year-old with a somewhat sheltered upbringing who’s invited to accompany the family’s wealthy friends, the Allens, not to Bath as in the original, but to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Cat’s a typical teen, living life out loud on Facebook and Twitter, and absolutely devoted to YA fiction, especially Twilight and anything supernatural, scary, and dramatic. Like, for instance, the (made-up) Hebridean Harpies series, which includes hot titles such as Kelpies of Kerrera, Shapeshifters of Shuna, and Banshees of Berneray.
In Edinburgh, Cat soon is befriended by Bella Thorpe, and develops a mad crush on Henry Tilney, her dancing partner at a Highland Ball. In the original, there’s talk of a country walk and an outing in the carriage; here, the young folks go for a hike or for a drive in John Thorpe’s convertible. Eventually, Cat is invited to spend time at the Tilney’s estate of Northanger Abbey, and Cat is completely enamored with the gothic romance of a creaky old mansion and its secrets (although she’s dismayed to discover that the family’s interior decorating mostly runs toward Swedish modernity).
As with the original, Cat’s fiction-influenced flights of fancy lead her to give free rein to her imagination. She gets shivery pleasure from her suspicions that the family is hiding deep, dark secrets… although it’s perhaps a bit surprising that here she imagines not just murder or family members being held captive in secret cells, but that there are vampires afoot!
I was surprised by just how well Northanger Abbey translates into the modern day, with this new edition reading like a particularly larky YA novel. The core elements — female friendship, people using each other for the sake of money and supposed connections, emotional manipulation, and parental interference — all work in a more modern setting. Likewise, the true friendship and romance that Cat finds with the Tilneys make sense here as well, and Val McDermid finds a way to portray the characters in a way that’s true to their origins while coming across as belonging in the contemporary setting. Even the isolation Cat feels at Northanger makes sense — there’s no wifi or cell signal! And if that’s not cause for fear and anxiety, especially for a 17-year-old girl, I don’t know what is.
Yes, Cat’s belief in vampires is quite silly, but in context, given Cat’s youth and her naivete, as well as her passion for supernatural romances, I was willing to accept it as a plot point.
I liked the writing style, although occasionally the texting and teen slang seemed a bit over the top. Then again, who am I to judge how British teens talk these days? The teen dialogue gives the book a fun, upbeat tone for the most part, although I thought I might throw something if Bella used the word “totes” one more time. (“But I bet you’re so busy having a totes lush time…”)
[Minor spoiler ahead!]
The only thing that seemed like too big a departure for me comes toward the end of the book. In the original, General Tilney abruptly kicks Catherine out of Northanger when he discovers that she’s not an heiress after all. I’d anticipated something similar here, as he constantly asks Cat about her connection to the Allens — so why wouldn’t finding out that her family isn’t wealthy and that she doesn’t have money connections have the same impact in this version? But no — what sets the General off in the new NA is gossip provided by John Thorpe, who whispers to the General that Cat is a lesbian, and rather than being a potential match for Henry, she’s actually interested in Eleanor. Okay, fine, the General is an uptight and old-fashioned dude, but throwing this into the mix seems a bit out of place/out of the blue. Given the narrative up to this point as well as the source material, having it still be all about the money would have been a better fit, in my humble opinion.
[End of spoilers]
Overall, I thought this reimagining of Northanger Abbey was quite fun. Would this work on its own for readers who haven’t read or aren’t familiar with the original? That I’m not sure of. It’s cute and quirky, but some of the plot developments might strike a reader as quite odd without knowing the framework provided by Jane Austen.
But for anyone who knows the original Northanger Abbey, this new tale is a fun, fluffy, diversion. I certainly had a good time with it, and I think it’s worth checking out!
Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Val McDermid
Publication date: March 27, 2014
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Fiction (adult/young adult)