Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
The Austen Project, The Borough Press, March 2014
352 pages, paperback proof
Kindly sent by the publisher
I've never read Val McDermid before, and I heartily wish now that my first encounter hadn't been with Northanger Abbey. If there was ever a book that wasn't for me, it's this one. I eagerly snapped up a review copy because I was quite curious about The Austen Project- which has commissioned six bestselling authors to reimagine Austen's novels in contemporary settings - and because I enjoy following Val on Twitter. I'm not a huge crime fan; Austen is far more my cup of tea. So what better way to initiate myself into the clan of McDermid fans? Any other way, probably. I read 170 pages and then decided to set it aside. I still wanted to write about it though, to explore why it didn't work for me.
I read Northanger Abbey quite a long time ago now, as part of a university course on Romanticism and the Gothic, but I still remember the lineaments of the plot. Seventeen year old Catherine Morland is the daughter of a clergyman and desperate for the kind of adventure she has read about in gothic romances. When she accompanies her wealthy neighbours the Allens to Bath she is thrust into society and makes the acquaintance of the Thorpe and Tilney families. Romantic rivalries and mishaps ensue as John Thorpe and Henry Tilney vie for Catherine's attention, while her brother James becomes engaged to Isabella Thorpe. Eventually Catherine is invited to the Tilney's country pile, Northanger Abbey, where her overactive imagination cooks up a horrible secret to rival anything in a novel by Mrs Radcliffe. It all ends happily of course, but only once Catherine has learnt to distinguish fiction from reality, and grown into her native wit and generosity.
Val McDermid has taken this plot - names, ages and almost all particulars - and simply transposed it into the early 21st century. Cat Morland is still seventeen, still the daughter of a Church of England vicar, with 'a gift for sermons that were not quite entertaining but not quite boring either', and she is still an afficianado of gothic fiction. Anne Radcliffe has been usurped by Stephanie Meyer but the effect is the same: Cat is ever hopeful that the world is more sinister and adventuresome that her experience would suggest and 'serenely convinced that she would be a heroine' sooner or later. The wealthy Allens scoop her out of obscurity and carry her off to Edinburgh during the festival, the best approximation of 18th century Bath in the season to be had, and the Thorpe/Tilney rivalry duly unfolds as laid out in Austen's original.
McDermid has quite a lot of fun updating her teenage heroine and companions. Rather than standing about like a wallflower at the Highland Ball, Cat checks Facebook on her phone; Bella Thorpe nominates Cat as her 'bff' and in the next breath exclaims 'Totes amazeballs', apparently without irony. But McDermid never inhabits any of them convincingly. Now and then the persona of a hardened detective peeks through when Bella calls Cat her ''mate' and Cat calls James her 'bro', and you see right through the patina of teen. The interactions between them feel stagey as though Cat and co only know how to be bratty or naive teenagers because they watched Made in Chelsea.
The writing is swift and punchy, perhaps best described as unelaborate, and akin to that of the novels that Cat loves so dearly. But the dialogue sometimes borders on miserable, as in a particularly cringey conversation between Cat, Henry and Ellie Tilney on a walk up to Arthur's Seat.
'I've been reading the Hebridean Harpies books and somehow, being here in this landscape makes the books even more alive to me,' Cat said. She case a sideways look at Henry. 'I don't suppose you read novels like that, do you?'
'Why would you think that?'
'Because they're not highbrow enough for someone like you?'
'I hate literary snobbery, Cat. Anyone who can't take pleasure in a good story well told is the worse off for it. I've read all of Morag Fraser's novels... They're real page-turners, and they're genuinely scary. I know some blokes think they're soppy girls' books but that's because they've never actually sat down and read one.'
'He's not lying, Cat,' Ellie said. 'When the last one arrived in the post at Northanger, I was out with friends, and he opened the parcel. I got back that evening to find him curled up in his chair, totally gripped. I had to wait till he'd finished before I could read my own book.'
'I'm a vile thief,' Henry admitted.
The biggest problem for me though is that the plot of Northanger Abbey just doesn't work in 21st century Edinburgh. The misunderstandings and missed appointments that keep Catherine from Henry Tilney in the original are the kinds of problems we don't have so much anymore, what with mobile phones, texts, Facebook. The days when people had to hang around social hotspots hoping to bump into each other are pretty much over; even if you don't have their number you can friend them on Facebook and track their status updates. McDermid has to make some particularly lame excuses as to why Cat doesn't take advantage of technology in moments of crisis. When John Thorpe tricks her into standing up the Tilneys and Cat realises her mistake she has to consciously decide to stew on it all day rather than immediately explain herself with a quick text.
But there was no nuance in a text and Cat knew better than to try and explain the complicated misunderstanding in that abbreviated form. All she could hope for was that an opportunity would present itself when she could explain the horrible saga to Ellie face to face.
It's definitely true that texts lack nuance but if I ran this logic past my 17 year old cousin I'm pretty sure what she would say. Face to face explanations are not her cup of tea; why confront a situation when you could avoid it with the considered use of social media?
The plot demands these kinds of contortions or everything would be sorted out in a jiffy. Time and again as she trundles through the motions of Austen's plot McDermid has to justify an 18th century feature of someone's character or an action taken with an equally unlikely explanation. Cat's general lack of social intelligence is because she has been home-schooled; her willingness to abnegate herself to Henry's will is because 'it should be remembered that she had been raised in a house where the notion of wifely obedience was honoured verbally at least'.
Then there are the 18th century social mores that are just plain weird in a modern context. I'm pretty sure that most people these days would wonder why a lawyer in his mid-20s like Henry Tilney was pursuing a sheltered 17 year old. It's definitely questionable behaviour, if not actually reprehensible. Similarly most mothers would be less than delighted if their 18 year old daughter announced (like Bella Thorpe) that they were getting married to a young man they had only met a handful of times. These things go unremarked in McDermid's version, as though we can pretend that the only difference between 1814 and 2014 is a spot of tweeting and 'totes amazeballs'.
It seems to me that the really meaty question at the heart of The Austen Project is whether or not 200 year old novels are still relevant to our radically different society. We know what the 18th century Catherine Morland got up to in Bath, but what would a 21st century Cat Morland do in Edinburgh? Almost certainly not the same things, in the same ways, with the same thoughts and mental processes. I think this new version of Northanger Abbey fails to address the question of differences in favour of something sweet and light that suggests everything from then has an equivalence or equivalent now. This might be true on the level of material things - Bath can be evoked by the Edinburgh Festival, a barouche can be replaced with a sports car - but what about the way friends are made, the way people meet and fall in love, the way families communicate? Not so straightforward. I know from skimming the final 150 pages that McDermid's Northanger ends much like Austen's. There is a quirky twist that I won't spoil and that made me smile, but it wasn't enough to rehabilitate the book for me.
I know that I might be in a minority, being so unimpressed, so don't take my word on it; try it for yourself. This could be one of those unfortunate clashes of book and reader. Unlike Cat and Henry, Northanger and I simply weren't made for each other. If you go over to the wonderful Shiny New Books site launched this week you can find Annabel, whose opinions I trust and am usually in harmony with, giving a completely opposite point of view.