Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid is the second in The Austen Project series of novels which are modern retellings by contemporary authors of Jane Austen’s classics. Perhaps it’s because I didn’t have the baggage of my knowledge and love of the original as I had with the first, I much preferred this second outing to Joanna Trollope’s updating of Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s original story of Northanger Abbey tells the story of a sheltered young girl whose love of gothic novels leads her to make some very strange assumptions about the family of the young man she meets while visiting Bath. During the novel she learns to separate fiction from reality and to develop a better understanding of human motivations.
What I liked
The updating. I felt McDermid did a much better job than Trollope of bringing Austen’s characters into the 21st century. They felt modern and fresh and their motivations seemed in line with a modern teenager or young person. I could easily imagine sitting down to coffee with Cat and Ellie to discuss the latest novel. And as evidenced by John Thorpe and Frederick Tilney, men who are too full of self-importance to consider the wishes of the women they are with are obnoxious in any century.
As well as the characters, McDermid has done sterling work in updating the setting. Transforming Bath into Edinburgh mid Festival worked incredibly well. In their respective eras, both cities represent a cultural hotspot and a chance for our sheltered heroine to move into a wider world and social circle. The Festival also allows McDermid to bring in events like dance lessons and a ball without their seeming too much out of place.
Cultural and social media integration. This was something that was also better done in Northanger Abbey than in Sense and Sensibility. Social media such as Facebook, email, texts and Twitter are an integral part of our characters’ lives and are used to drive the plot on in many cases. The updating of the gothic novels much beloved by Austen’s heroine to Twilight and other contemporary vampire novels also works very well.
The narration. Narration for Northanger Abbey is done by Jane Collingwood and was excellent. Being a Scot I did appreciate her attempt at a Scots accent for the Scottish characters in the novel. In particular she brings across Cat’s good nature and John Thorpe’s horribleness perfectly. Here’s a sample:
What I didn’t like
Bella’s “voice”. The way this character spoke really irritated me. I’m referring to her word choice “totes,” “BFF”, not the narration. On the other hand, the character is supposed to be superficial so maybe McDermid’s done her job too well.
Motivations. In Austen’s original I assume money was a strong motivating factor in the relationship choices made by the characters. In McDermid’s updating, at some points it seems finances are a contributing factor, and at other times not. it just didn’t seem clear.
All in all I really enjoyed Northanger Abbey and gave it four stars out of five.