Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, book review: A dark, daring adaptation - complete with social media and vampires

What is the point of re-writing the same old Regency stories? Val McDermid's adaptation shows us

Barry Forshaw
Friday 21 March 2014 01:00 GMT

If you have the slightest interest in the novels of Jane Austen, here is a question you are quite likely to have been asked – or even have asked yourself: "What's the point of all these newly rewritten versions of Austen novels by other writers?" Either modernisations (as in the case of the Austen Project) or "mash-ups" in which Lizzie Bennet and Co encounter various supernatural entities.

But whether you are someone who enjoys contemporary riffs on Emma and Persuasion, or your blood boils at the audacity of tampering with novels that are so central to the canon of English literature, it is perhaps time for a little realism to be injected into the debate.

Many of the naysayers who object to updated versions of Austen (such as Val McDermid's new take on Northanger Abbey) are not being strictly honest, unless they can put their hand on their heart and say they loathed the Andrew Davies television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

The latter for many is almost as much of a sacred object as the original text – but people have forgotten that Davies' approach to the classics has been radical, and much criticised – not least for his injecting of modern psychology into his adaptations and (most famously) ladling on an eroticism of which there was only the barest hint in the original novels: the iconic image of Colin Firth (with that wet shirt clinging to his torso) may have stimulated female libidos, but Jane Austen was able to address only the romantic side of Elizabeth Bennet's attraction to Mr Darcy; the physical side was strictly off limits, and the only Victorian novelist to seriously deal with sex, Thomas Hardy, had bishops burning his books as pornography. So let's have no hypocrisy here: if you enjoyed the television Pride and Prejudice, you've already accepted a reinvention of Jane Austen.

The reason, however, why some may have problems with Val McDermid's gloss on Austen's early novel – which was a parody of the Gothic literature of the day – is precisely the one that readers have already expressed with the first entry in the Austen Project, Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility: how does a modern novelist transfer the very different mores of the Regency era to the present day?

Women's lives in that era, almost as proscribed as women in theocratic countries today, had a host of restrictions – and marrying the right man (which, as PD James pointed out, is essentially what all Jane Austen's novels are about) is not necessarily the raison d'être of life for young women in the 21st century. In fact, it is the curbs that are placed on the expression of emotion in Austen that are the essence of the books (under that imperishable dialogue and wit).

So how to find an equivalent for such things in a modern setting? Trollope was criticised for adding drugs and internet trolls, and it will be interesting to see if Val McDermid's newly Celtic Northanger Abbey gains favour. She makes Austen's naive Catherine Moreland the naive Cat Moreland, a young woman obsessed with the erotic vampires of Twilight in the same way that her prototype read breathlessly about the sinister castles created by Ann Radcliffe. Though, there is an interesting mystery about McDermid's book not directly related to the rejigged Austen concept.

Cat is 17-years-old, and chafes at her cocooned existence in rural Dorset with her clergyman father. She finds real life dull, and like her Austen template finds escape in mysterious literature: not for her, however, Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Rudolfo but contemporary flesh-creepers such as the Twilight films with their deferred sex and (in a clever joke) Pride and Prejudice and Zombies; her reading has her searching for the dark and menacing in everyday life. Like many of her generation, she is adept at all social media (posting selfies on Facebook), but remaining painfully unworldly.

When neighbours invite her to join them at the Edinburgh Festival for the summer, she encounters the lively Bella Thorpe and the latter's unsympathetic brother Johnny, who makes an unwelcome play for her. But then she is charmed by the attractive Scot Henry Tilney and joins him at the rambling country house of the title, run with an iron fist by Henry's ex-soldier father. And it's at this point when (Austen fans will remember) the original Catherine began to suspect foul play at Northanger Abbey. McDermid's modernised version, however, strikes off into slightly different territory – not to be revealed here.

And now we come to the $64,000 question: what audience was McDermid aiming at with her version of Northanger Abbey? She is comfortably among the very finest practitioners of crime fiction in the UK and is steeped in vigorous literary values, with a grasp of psychology that is second to none. Readers might be forgiven for expecting her version of a book that many consider to be a piece of juvenilia by Austen – even with its sinister wanderings among minatory country piles – to play to McDermid's strengths, freighting in new levels of menace and suspense for the ingenuous heroine.

But while the book is darker than Austen's original, its strategies are very much those of the teenage/young adult novel in which exposition is crystal clear and straightforward characterisation is built into every line of dialogue; we know exactly where we are at any point in this book, and for the younger female reader, a vivid experience (with some nicely sardonic observations about modern society) is guaranteed.

This middle-aged reader was expecting something knottier, but after a certain adjustment of mindset, it's easy to immerse oneself into the world of Cat Moreland. Perhaps the biggest mystery here is why the publishers have not aimed this fairly and squarely at the young adult market – or should the encomium from JK Rowling on the jacket have tipped the wink to older readers that they were not the target audience?

Barry Forshaw's latest book is 'British Gothic Cinema' (Palgrave Macmillan)

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