Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

northangerWhen I read that Val McDermid, writer of many a gory crime novel, was following Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility by penning the second book of The Austen Project, publisher Harper Collins’s series of modern updatings of Jane Austen by bestselling authors, I thought – Val McDermid?  Doing Austen?  Northanger Abbey? – and then, ‘I’d like to read that!’   I’d never have thought of McDermid to rework this book, and according to an interview in The Guardian given back in 2012, neither did she:

“I was genuinely gobsmacked when I got the call,” said the award-winning Scottish crime writer. “I thought, me and Jane Austen? That’s such a f***ing natural pairing. But I’m absolutely delighted by the idea.”

I haven’t read Northanger Abbey since I was at school, but I have read enough about it over the years to be familiar with the main themes. It was Austen’s first completed novel, finished in her early twenties I believe. It is a satire on Gothic novels and a comedy of manners about the young heroine’s emergence into adulthood and thus into the marriage market, together with the fun element of an over-active imagination that will get her into trouble.

Comparing my Austen memories with McDermid’s reworking I must say, the result is rather fab.  McDermid must have had tremendous fun writing this book.  She has stayed truthful to the plot, transposing it to a modern setting that works and the result is a frothy teen romance with just enough edge to thrill…

Seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland, a home-educated vicar’s daughter, gets taken by family friends the Allens to the Edinburgh Festival.  She’ll be a companion to Susie Allen and have a summer to remember. Once there she meets the Thorpe family and immediately becomes friends with Bella who, it turns out, has fallen for Cat’s brother James, who is studying law at Newcastle. Bella’s brother, the boorish Johnny soon has designs on Cat, but her heart is already set elsewhere having met the mysterious and handsome Henry Tilney at a dance class in preparation for the Highland Ball.

Introduced to Henry’s sister Eleanor, Cat is invited to the Tilney family pile, the titular Northanger Abbey located in the Scottish Borders; she accepts. General Tilney is still grief-stricken at the loss of his wife, and is often closeted away doing top-secret government work, making Cat think there’s something creepy going on in the Abbey…

In the original Bella and Cat spend ages talking about Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolfo amongst other Gothic novels of the time.  McDermid is writing for the Twilight generation, so vampire novels take the place of the Gothic ones.  Although she does often refer to novels by her Scottish contemporaries in the text, McDermid has also made up her own modern Gothic series – The Hebridean Harpies.  Here, Bella is berating Cat for being late for their meeting at the Book Festival café…

‘Where have you been?’ Bella’s voice was plaintive. ‘I’ve been waiting, like, forever.’ …
…’It’s your fault because you got me into Morag Fraser. I’d never even heard of the Hebridean Harpies series till you dragged me along to her event. And now I am totally hooked. I was reading Vampires on Vatersay till one in the morning. I just had to finish it. And then I started Banshees of Berneray at breakfast and I could hardly drag myself away from it to come and meet you.’

The series includes Shapeshifters of Shuna, Killer Kelpies of Kerrera and Maenads on Mingulay, to name just a few.  For me, this amount of alliteration jarred, but I liked the idea, and definitely liked the swapping of arch-Gothic for trashy vampires.

Bella and Cat become ‘bgfs’ (best girlfriends for the non-texters amongst us).  At first Cat can’t see Bella for the shallow, gold-digger that she is – everyone else except James does though. Henry tells her, ‘It must be lovely inside your head, always attributing your good-hearted motives to everybody else.’  Cat is just so suggestible and she lets Henry wind her up something rotten on the journey to Northanger Abbey …

 ‘And then, once the door falls open, you tiptoe down the wide stone stairs which are lit by an unearthly scarlet light. You hear a crunching underfoot and realise you are trampling dry bones underneath. But something drives you on and you emerge into a vast underground cave where a decadent troupe of vampires are feasting on the body of a white-skinned young woman. Who bears a terrifying resemblance to . . .’

‘To who?’ Cat was caught up in it now. Somehow, Henry had plugged into her own strange and secret fantasies.

‘To whom, don’t you mean?’

She gave his arm a gentle punch. ‘To wit, to whom – it doesn’t matter. Who does the victim look like?’

‘Bella Thorpe,’ he intoned, then burst into a cackle of laughter.

Real life rarely lives up to the fantasy one in books though – it takes Cat a long time to realise that, which gives us more fun. This obsession is repeatedly on the brink of ruining things with the Tilneys, and with the spurned Johnny, a jealous Bella and Henry’s older brother Frederick in the mix, Cat has a lot of fence-mending to do.

It was a pleasant surprise to see the original’s concerns about the marriage market transpose perfectly to modern relationships and dating.  If you think about it, social networking was certainly alive and well back in Austen’s day, for how else could partners be selected. I’d wager that Regency gossip went almost as fast as texting, sorry, txtg.

northanger 2A nice touch by the publishers is the tie-in reprints being simultaneously published of Austen’s original novels with introductions by the authors doing the reworking.  The covers have the same basic images, less the modern additions, which is rather cool.

I thoroughly enjoyed McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, and I would urge you to push it into the hands of any teenaged girls you know to see what they think, even my picky daughter was a bit interested!

The Austen Project continues with Curtis Sittenfield updating of Pride & Prejudice.  As someone who read and enjoyed the Pride & Prejudice & Zombies mash-up a few years ago, I find myself rather looking forward another different version.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and still has problems getting her thumbs to work for txtg.

Val McDermid, Northanger Abbey (The Borough Press, London, March 2014) 978-0007504244, 352 pp., hardback.

Interested in Austen?  Read our review of Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn here.

3 Comments

  1. Read Shiny New Books contributor Victoria Hoyle’s rather different review of Northanger Abbey here. It’s an excellent critique of the book, but it wasn’t for her…

    We are coming at it from different angles though. I have a 13yr old daughter who is getting into teen/chicklit. I’ve actually read a few of those books, and I felt that McDermid had achieved a result that teenaged girls would enjoy (and better written too).

  2. …nearly snorted my wine across the keyboard at ‘Vampires on Vatersay’! This actually looks quite fun – and I think Northanger is a hoot anyway. Don’t know if I’d spend my money on the re-write though.

    1. That was rather contrived wasn’t it. However the rest of the book worked really well if treated as novel for teenaged girls.

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