Last year, HarperCollins launched their Austen Project with the release of Joanna Trollope’s updated version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. The project was clearly born out of a well-thought out marketing strategy to take the hard earned pennies off both the modern writer’s pre-existing fans and Austen lovers whilst introducing her works to people scared of dipping their toes into Romantic era prose. However, the publication of the first in the series didn’t offer the resounding success that the firm were clearly hoping for. The major reaction tended to be that, whilst the novel was fairly well written and very tounge-in-cheek, it was all a bit pointless. Back in March this year, the second modernisation was released: an update of the under-appreciated Northanger Abbey, a novel Austen wrote in her youth, by crime writer Val McDermid. Northanger Abbeyis my favourite Jane Austen novel (not that it means a lot coming from an Austen cynic such as myself) so there was a lot more riding on this than the previous attempt.
Northanger Abbeywas the story of the young and sheltered Catherine Morland who, after indulging in a youth of exciting literature, is introduced to high society with fairly disastrous consequences. The novel offered the usual portrait of a society obsessed with finding the right husband whilst also introducing a comedic element revolving around the relationship between fact and fiction in the minds of young women. The first half fits the mould that became the standard for her later work but the second half is an incredibly witty satire of the much feared Gothic writing that was popular with young people at the time.
In her rewriting of the classic, Val McDermid, seasoned crime writer, makes the inspired decision to transport the action over the Scottish borders and have the Edinburgh festival stand in for the pump room in Bath. Her Catherine becomes Cat who finds the move from sleepy Piddle Valley to the vibrant festival circuit a revelation that she continually shares via her social media accounts. Along the way she meets and falls head over heels for the mysterious lawyer Henry Tilney who has pretty much descended into an amalgamation of every character Hugh Grant played in the 90s and early 00s. With few friends in her home town, Cat is delighted to make the acquaintance of flashy Bella Thorpe but, in order to keep her friend happy, she must put up with her obnoxious, self-obsessed brother Johnny (basically Spencer Matthews from Made in Chelsea).
As in Trollope’s rewriting, the novel stays extremely close to the original and there are moments when McDermid copies scenes word-for-word from Austen’s text. For the most part it feels like she isn’t really bothering to try. There is hardly anything within this update that will keep people aware of Austen’s novel gripped to the tale. There is only one occasion where the author is forced to deviate from the original and, I have to admit, it was a fairly interesting way of dealing with General Tilney’s sudden change of heart.
Aside from this brief moment, there has been no real effort made to update the text and it still fails to fully fit into its new setting. To balance this discomfort, there are copious references to the modern world and the teenage Cat is never without her smart phone and posts selfies to her Facebook account any chance that she gets. This raises problems of its own, however, when problems arise that could easily be solved with a simple text or phone call. McDermid is forced to make odd choices in order to ensure that the novel progresses as it did in the original.
Despite all of these incessant references and in-jokes, there still remains the problem that modern teenage girls don’t have the same worries as they did in Austen’s day. Relationships may still be a core issue but marriage and planning for the future are less vital. The Cat Morland of McDermid’s novel is a stranger to both 19th century society and the society that the author is trying to emulate. The way that she talks and acts just seem slightly alien and even the way she falls for Henry has an incredibly old-fashioned edge to it. She can use the word “totes” as many times as she likes but McDermid has failed to get into the head of a teenage girl in 2014.
Now this isn’t an issue that I’m blaming McDermid for: I just think it’s nearly impossible for an adult author to write completely accurate teenage characters. It was a problem that I found with John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars when I finally jumped on the bandwagon. Now I am loathe to criticise Green because I have adored him since my first viewing of VlogBrothers. However, I found his teenagers just felt unnatural. The best moments in my opinion were the one concerning Hazel’s parents, which is probably because that is the perspective that John Green has.
Without wishing to criticise the skill of Val McDermid too much, I found her attempt to portray teenage girls at best humorously bad and at worst cringey. The relationship between Cat and Bella pretty much descends into the pair talking referring to each other as “girlfriend” which, unless I’m mistaken, has real validity outside of these characters race. You wouldn’t meet this version of Cat, Bella or Elinor in the modern world because they have been lifted from a strange alternate reality where technology advanced but social structures, beliefs and sensibilities stayed in the 19th century.
Considering what a fantastic character Austen’s Catherine was McDermid really ruined her for me. Cat spends most of the first half getting a bitcarried away but it isn’t until the second section that the character really beings to unravel. The contemporary author really struggles to translate the Gothic satire into her modern setting. There would have been adequate opportunity for McDermid to call on her experience with crime fiction to transpose Catherine’s imagined murder mystery into a contemporary setting. Unfortunately, where Catherine Morland devoured Ann Radcliffe’s The Mystery of Udolpho (an excellent if challenging read if I may say so), Cat Morland reads Twilight and other teenage fantasy romance. Clearly McDermid is having her own fun with modern YA fiction but the narrative progression creates problems.
The plot demands that Cat is shown to have become so engrossed with these tales that they take control of her unworldly imagination. We are expected to believe that Cat is so taken with these works that she readily believes that the youthful General Tinley, a Falklands veteran, is in fact a vampire. In fact, that his whole family, including the dreamy Henry, are vampires. Now I could easily handle Catherine Morland letting her imagination run wild in the desolate and Gothic Abbey after reading too much Radcliffe. However, I refuse to believe that anyone, even a teenager in 2014, would happily hypothesise that mysterious people are vampires.
Simply put, McDermid has made the fatal mistake of turning the once naive and trusting Catherine Morland into the unforgivably stupid Cat. I’m so fucking mad.
Northanger Abbeyis a readable novel, sure, but there is the unshakable sense that McDermid simply isn’t trying. These authors are probably too good to really give a damn about copying old novels whilst introducing a few modern ideas to the mix. I read it. I didn’t completely hate it but I just didn’t care. If the point of this project was to push people back into the safe embrace of Jane Austen’s originals then well done to HarperCollins but if not it has been a thoroughly pointless affair.