Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid


How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

7 thoughts on “Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

  1. Elizabeth says:

    No, I never have. McCall Smith’s rewrite of Emma was particularly terrible. I did like the movie Clueless, however. The Bollywood Pride and Prejudice was fun, though not for the plot. Maybe I’ll try this one.

    • barbara says:

      Thanks for the warning, re emma. I loved the Bollywood P&P–so much fun, as you say!

      • Nichael Cramer says:

        I have to admit that I rather enjoyed McCall Smith’s adaptation of “Emma”. (But, to be fair, I have to admit I can’t decide whether this was because I enjoyed the book in itself, or because I’m so much a fan of McCall Smith.)

        As an aside:
        When this adaptation of “Emma” came out, it was advertised as the first in the serious of similar adaptations by various modern writers. Does anyone know if any of these other books ever came out?

  2. Nichael Cramer says:

    Do folks know the British television series “Lost in Austen”. This doesn’t fit Barbara’s criterion of a “read”, but I thought it was amazing well done.

    The quick summary doesn’t do it justice –and I admit sounds a bit silly (21st cent. bank clerk and Janeite Amanda Price finds herself swapped with Elizabeth Bennet. “Hilarity ensues” as Amanda’s actions inadvertently cause significant plot-changes in her favorite novel.) But I come back to it often.

    For me, the major difference is that “Lost in Austen” just _feels_ like it was written by someone who not only loves Austen’s works, knows them inside out but–most importantly– really cares about remaining true to the spirit[*].

    [I suppose the opposite extreme here would be works like P&P&Zombies books. I admit that I’ve only read a couple chapters, but it’s hard not to feel the writers did little more than thumb through a Cliff’s Notes summary of P&P and then stuck the characters into an already-written zombie plot.]

    Be that as it may, the series is on Netflix. If you’ve not seen it, I commend it to your attention.

    [* A couple quick favorite plot-points: First the shock on the faces of the Misses Bingley when they find out that Amanda “has twenty-eight thousand pounds a year”; and. second, we finally learn Mr Bennet’s first name.]

    • barbara says:

      I enjoyed the Lost in Austen series a lot. I didn’t make it through much of P&P&Z and agree with your assessment. The only good bits were what they quoted from P&P.

  3. Nichael Cramer says:

    As an aside:

    Concerning her addiction to her Gothic Novels, has anyone else here read Catherine Moreland’s favorite “”Mysteries of Udolpho” (by Ann Radcliffe) This is the real thing.

    It’s enough to make Cathy and Heathcliff seem like a plodding suburban couple. Chock full of remote gloomy castles, “Psychological Terror”; characters named Ludovico, Count Morano, Emily and the loyal dog Manchonne; maidens imprisoned by brigands; orphans caught in “plights”; mysterious relationships between shadowy major characters; forcibly lost inheritances; wastrel sons squandering huge fortunes; etc; etc.

    OK, we’re not talking Proust here. But if you ever find yourself in need of 600 page chapter-a-night guilty pleasure, you might want to consider it.

    • barbara says:

      Gosh, I feel as though I’ve read it, having encountered so many references to it, but I actually haven’t. Thanks for the recommendation!

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