Friday, 11 November 2016

Northanger Abbey (The Austen Project no. 2) by Val McDermid

Publication date: 15th April 2014
Published by:  Grove press
Genre: Contemporary Romance (YA)

My Synopsis

Cat Morland is a 17-year-old home-schooled vicar's daughter from the Piddle Valley in Dorset on the South West Coast of England.  Cat has lived a sheltered life and spends much of her time reading vampire romance and other moderately scary books for teenagers.  She receives the chance to leave the confines of the Piddle Valley for the first time by her neighbours, the Allens, a childless couple who are friends of her parents, when they invite her to attend the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with them.

In Edinburgh, Cat becomes acquainted and makes friends with Bella Thorpe and Ellie Tilney, girls her own age.  She experiences romance for the first time when she develops strong feelings for Ellie's older brother, Henry, while being pursued by Bella's crass and annoying older brother, Johnny.

As the Fringe is about to draw to a close, she receives an unexpected invitation to join Ellie at her home in Northanger Abbey.  As well as seeing this as an opportunity to spend more time with her new friend - and more to the point her new friend's brother, Cat also likes the idea of visiting a real gothic abbey of the type she loves to read about in her novels.  She begins to draw parallels between the characters of her much loved books and the lifestyle of the Tilney family; but do the facts really resemble those in fiction?

My Review

Val McDemid has followed the plot of Jane Austen's original to the letter, even lifting certain passages and conversations from it throughout.  It has been brought into the 21st century, however, in that horses become cars, carriages become buses, hand-written letters become texts and emails, etc. The setting has changed as most of the story takes place in Edinburgh, rather than Bath.  Scenarios have also been adapted, e.g. Henry is a trainee barrister instead of a clergyman.

In my view, this modern version reads better than the original for two reasons.
  1. Making it about a teenager's obsession with YA fantasy novels such as Twilight and having the main character's imagination run away with her as a result works better than the original, which is a parody of early gothic romance - one that did not work well for me.
  2. The original Catherine Morland is very naive.  She comes across as an annoying simpleton and the original Henry Tilney sometimes comes across condescending towards her. (Presumably this was Austen having a pop at gothic romance novelists and how they portrayed their characters in her eyes.).  McDermid has revised the character of Cat to naive but not simple-minded, and when her version of Henry makes the condescending remarks, he does so ironically.
What the modern version has not achieved is a well-developed romance between the 'hero' (Henry) and the 'heroine' (Cat).  It is very clear from the start that the original character of Henry Tilney is attracted to Catherine, and that attraction soon develops into love.  He is cautious and subtle in his execution, but he is definitely wooing her throughout the story.  Despite coming across rather patriarchal, he manages to demonstrate charm, a good sense of humour and an ability to be flirtatious in his pursuit of her.  The modern character lacks all of these qualities and the exchanges between them come across as nothing more than a teenage girl 'crushing' on an older guy who is simply making time for his sister's friend.  This modern Henry, as a character, is also problematic because he is 26 going on 46. (Only an older British upper-class man would wear raspberry corduory trousers!)  Also, his aversion to teenage slang is granddad-like.  I felt there was a missed opportunity to play this out as a parody for comedy value (i.e. if this had been acknowledged and Cat had compared him to Twilight's Edward Cullen, who has the unaging body of a 17-year old with the experience and wisdom of being around for over a century).  If there had been romantic exchanges between them I suspect it would have come across borderline creepy.  There is just nothing alluring about Henry, so it's hard to see why the 17 year-old Cat would find him so.  When he finally does expresses his true feelings, it is not convincing. The conflict of the plot was (and had to be) revised to bring it into the 21st century, but it just did not work for me.

This book is an average read.  In fairness to McDermid, she was restricted by the original source material, which is, lets say, not Austen's best work; the plot is insipid and Catherine is irritating.  McDermid has done a good job of improving it.

More Austen Project reviews

Sense & Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no. 1) 

Emma by Alexander McCall Smith (no. 3) 

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (no. 4)

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