Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen completed, although it wasn’t published until after her death in 1817. Her previous Juvenilia works had been largely satirical pieces on sensibility and historical novels, and had been written for the private amusement of her family, so it comes as no surprise that Northanger Abbey was written to parody the popular Gothic works of the time, to provide more lampooning entertainment for her well-read household while at the same time defending fiction in all its incarnations as a valid and important facet of literature.
Now, it’s been almost 200 years since Northanger Abbey was published, and what better way to reimagine the classic for modern readers than to tie into the current trend for teenage supernatural thrillers. Crime fiction writer Val McDermid is the second author to take on an adaptation of Austen’s work for The Austen Project, following Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense and Sensibility, and she has taken the well-conceived decision to aim it towards the more highbrow teenage reader.
Catherine Morland, or Cat as she is known in the 21st century, is a 17 year old home-schooled innocent, delighted and excited in equal measure to be taken to the endless possibilities of the bustling Edinburgh Festival from a sleepy Dorset hamlet, as company for her well-off neighbours, the Allens. McDermid perfectly captures the green sophistication felt by teenagers who feel they know all the ways of the world from books and television, and the subsequent intimidation masked by over-confidence resulting from suddenly feeling like the only fish out of water.
Cat’s guardian Susie Allen – in Austen’s version Mrs Allen is never given a first name, but Susie may be a clever nod to the book’s original title, Susan – runs into an old school friend who happens to have a daughter Cat’s age. Bella Thorpe is a London girl and Cat is immediately taken by her self-possession and trendy clothes. They quickly bond over a shared love of tales of ghouls and spectres, and soon find themselves becoming fast friends, arranging to meet for a book signing later that day.
The fictional Habidrean Harpies series that bonds Cat and her new acquaintance are ghost stories with an ordinary girl just like them at their heart, and are not unlike the hugely popular Twilight franchise. Twilight, along with the countless number of similar thrillers it has spawned since its inception, has suffered backlash by literary snobs keen to diminish its somewhat silly premise and the poor writing skills of its author. Like the fondly sympathetic defending of the silly premises of the Gothic novels of Austen’s time, McDermid, through Cat, gently vindicates the presence of such works as promoting creativity and wonder. Cat is further encouraged by the support of handsome, charismatic Henry, who, even as a worldly lawyer confesses to reading and enjoying the tales of supernatural misadventure.
Cat meets Henry at a ceilidh class, organised so that she may learn some Highland flings for an upcoming traditional class. A nice meet-cute for the burgeoning couple, it also helps in sticking to the source material and provides a clever way of explaining the endless organised group dancing that was so prevalent in Austen’s time but has given way to other forms of entertainment in our time. Cat quickly falls for Henry’s charms, and those of his younger sister Ellie, and the feeling is mutual, the two recognizing Cat’s innate intelligence and innate social charms simmering beneath her youthful naivety.
Meeting the Tilney’s also causes Cat to recognize the failings of the increasingly vain and manipulative Bella, who has designs on Cat’s elder brother, and whose own boorish elder brother John expresses an immediate interest in Cat. A great deal of deliberate miscommunication and the kind of anxiety felt only by the young, freshly released out in the world leads to a thrilled and grateful Cat accepting an invitation by Henry and Ellie to their vast, mysterious, family seat – Northanger Abbey.
Cat’s imagination begins to run wild with the possibilities of exploring such a large and very old house, and a niggling suspicion that her curiously fresh-faced, attractive companions and their equally handsome but gruff father may be vampires furthers her heart-pounding excitement.
In keeping with Austen’s themes, McDermid attempts to bestow warnings of misreading first impressions and of letting your flights of fancy run away with you. It’s an effective take on the original, and succeeds in updating the work by taking it in the teen novel direction. Like in Trollop’s Sense and Sensibility the use of language, particularly text speak, lets it down at times, but McDermid does make the characters believable and quite often the wry dialogue raises a knowing smile.
Coming from a crime novel background, McDermid seems an odd choice for a retelling of an Austen work, but there’s an air of mystery attached to Cat’s musings and a considered line in plot, that while taken and really very faithful to the original, is supplemented by the author’s own narrative skills. While it is best read by young adults with similar temperaments to the novel’s heroine, any Austen lover will certainly get a kick out of this version, and would be hard pressed not to concede that it’s the direction to take in remaining as faithful to the heart of the original.
The Dublin Writers Festival is in full swing, and last Saturday Joanna Trollope was part of an event called Reimagining Jane Austen. Along with Jo Baker, writer of Longbourn, a telling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants, Trollope discussed the recent spate of Austen tributes, from Death Comes to Pemberley to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Such publications only serve to show that Austen’s work lives on and continues to inspire, and the Austen Project, now with the accomplished and thoroughly enjoyable Northanger Abbey, is sure to bring Austen’s work to a whole new generation.
-Aoife B. Burke
First published in The Tuam Herald on 21st May 2014