‘Northanger Abbey’ reimagined: could this stately family pile really be home to Twilight-style vampires? *

Perhaps the least popular of Austen’s six completed novels, ‘Northanger Abbey’ is, nonetheless, a clever and entertaining parody of contemporary Gothic and Romantic novels. This makes seasoned crime writer Val McDermid an interesting choice to ‘update’ the novel, since she is more used to writing about blood and death than genteel families enjoying ‘the season’ in Bath (translation: husband hunting for nice middle-class girls).

I love McDermid’s crime books so I was quite excited about this addition to the Austen Project, though also slightly anxious – no one wants a favourite author to disappoint. ** I wondered whether the parody might be dispatched with and someone killed after all, but it wasn’t to be.

What’s it about?

It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not more closely resemble her books.

Our wannabe heroine, 17 year old Catherine Morland, becomes simply ‘Cat’ and is made a home-schooled vicar’s daughter to explain her astonishing naivety. Whisked off to Edinburgh festival by neighbours and family friends, Cat is initially dazzled by the horribly transparent, small-minded, fortune hunter ‘Bella’ Thorpe (and horrified by her obnoxious brother ‘Jonno’, who is keen to fling Cat around in his soft-top motor) but gradually forms a close friendship with the Tilney family. She impresses the patriarch, General Tilney, sufficiently to get herself invited back to the family’s Abbey, where she begins to imagine that they might just be vampires. ‘Cos ‘Twilight’ was a guide to modern vampire life, right? Right?

So, if you’re a fan of the original, the fundamentals are the same but there are a few tweaks. This is a Val McDermid novel so of course, of course, it’s primarily set in Scotland (with lovely Scots bloke Henry easily having masses more reader appeal than cocky English lad Jonno) and has gained one or two lesbian characters.

What hasn’t changed?

The wit. The humour. The criticism levelled at people who dismiss all fiction as rubbish and at people who unthinkingly devour rubbish. Within three pages I felt certain that Austen herself would approve of the spirit of McDermid’s endeavor (while still not exactly revelling in the notion that her careful work was being reworked). Cat still grows up. General Tilney still isn’t a murderer (trust me: this is not a spoiler. I defy you to read this and genuinely think at any point that Cat’s “imaginative” interpretations of the Tilney family are in any way feasible). I enjoyed the story, the characterisations and the often detailed references to Edinburgh. I was amused by the references to the fictional Hebridean Harpies series the girls are all fascinated by and confident that Cat, despite being a bit of a plonker at times, would sail safely to the end of the book, snagging the right guy along the way.

Of course I was confident; this is classic Austen with a very thin dressing of tartan and social media. (Cat is stunned that the General refuses to allow his children to use the Wifi connection at the Abbey.)

Final thoughts

It’s an entertaining read and good fun for Austen fans spotting parallels and deviations. But. But. Sticking so closely to Austen’s original plot means that, even given her multiple justifications (only 17; home-schooled; vicar’s daughter; grew up in sheltered Dorset; etc.) it is simply impossible to be convinced by Cat’s vague attributions of the supernatural to the Tilney family. Even Cat isn’t convinced. And who would be?

Moments such as Cat seeing Henry drinking a long red drink and ‘really hoping it was a Bloody Mary’ jolted me out of the storyline. Well of course it’s a Bloody Mary. Does she really think it’s blood? No. It’s just too ridiculous. And if the reader really thought that Cat genuinely believed these things then we’d have to write her off as too stupid to deserve a sensible aspiring lawyer like Henry. I mean, Cat’s clearly been on Facebook and Twitter for donkey’s years. Regardless of growing up in Dorset, no-one’s that naive.

Still, caveats aside, I really enjoyed reading this and suspect it will be my favourite from the Austen Project. I expect ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ are too close to my heart to be done well, and (whispers) I’m not that keen on Mansfield Park anyway. (Fanny is a bit unbelievably irritating dull, isn’t she?)

Not convinced you want to try this? Then you must try John Crace’s digested read instead. Warning: it’s a bit brutal. To McDermid and her ‘revamp’, I mean. There’re still no murders. Sorry about that.

‘Northanger Abbey’
Val McDermid
The Borough Press, 2014, paperback

*  Um, no. Did you read the original? No? Ah. Well, (spoiler alert,) no one dies.

** My initial thoughts on the whole project can be found below or simply summarised as ambivalent.

The Austen Project – links