Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell

When I read that Val McDermid, writer of many a gory crime novel, was penning the second book in ‘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!’  Joanna Trollope has already done Sense & Sensibility, and Curtis Sittenfield will soon give Pride & Prejudice the treatment.

I haven’t read Northanger Abbey since I was at school, but I’ve read enough about it over the years to be familiar with the main story and characters. It was Austen’s first completed novel, 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 that an overactive imagination can get you into trouble.

I wouldn’t have thought of McDermid to rework this book, and according to an interview in The Guardian 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.”

The result though is rather fab, and I think McDermid must have had fun writing this book. She has stayed truthful to the plot, transposing it to a 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 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 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, Northanger Abbey 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 their place, and although she does refer to existing novels, McDermid has made up her own modern Gothic series – the Hebridean Harpies.  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.’

There’s a whole series including Shapeshifters of Shuna, Killer Kelpies of Kerrera and Maenads on Mingulay to name just a few.  For me, this amount of alliteration jarred.  McDermid could have used some of her own psychological thrillers instead of making these up, I suspect she would think that too big-headed, but in various other places some of her Scottish contemporaries do get mentions.

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 even though she knows that real life rarely lives up to the fantasy one in books, 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 and Henry’s older brother Frederick in the mix too, Cat has a lot of fence-mending to do.

Austen’s concerns about the marriage market transpose perfectly to modern relationships and dating. Social networking was certainly alive and well back in her day, for how else could partners be selected. I’d wager that gossip in Austen’s times went almost as fast as texting, sorry, txtg.

I love that the publishers are simultaneously bringing out reprints of Austen’s original novels with introductions by the reworking authors.  The covers have the same images, less the modern additions, which is rather cool.

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

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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.

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