Given the novel’s gothic overtones, I’d like to have seen Neil Gaiman’s take on Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Failing that, Tartan Noir proceduralist Val McDermid wasn’t a bad choice to author the second book in the Austen Project, modern renderings by best-selling authors of Austen’s six novels. (Joanna Trollope’s Sense & Sensibility was first; Emma by Alexander McCall Smith is next.)
Though published posthumously, Northanger Abbey was Austen’s first novel, completed when she was about 23. Sparely written and more frankly comic than her other works, it reads as an extension of Austen’s juvenilia – parodies that she’d read aloud for her family’s amusement.
You tend to forget how young Austen’s heroines are. At 17, Catherine Morland was of prime age in Georgian times to be wooed and wed. In 2014, Cat Morland is considering what she’ll do when she finishes school. McDermid’s reworking, like Trollope’s, is a good deal preoccupied with social media and abounds with airhead slang, though the novels aren’t marketed as young adult fiction. Nor is it probable that McDermid (or Trollope, or McCall Smith) has a strong following among readers under 30 (or even under 40) for whom the nano-dramas of life enacted online are familiar enough to make compelling fiction.
McDermid’s tweaking of archaic plot conventions mostly comes across not as playful but as a chore. True, the shift of the novel’s social centre from the season at Bath to the Edinburgh Festival is clever, and parody finds a clean target in the congruence between the gothic novel craze of Austen’s time and today’s supernatural romances. But if McDermid had any inclination to FWC (fan-fiction code for “fuck with canon”) – to recast the protagonists as, say, middle-aged virgins – the Austen Project brief seems to have held her back.
Not known to shy away from lesbian raunch, McDermid keeps to Northanger Abbey’s hetero, pants-on template. Only in the final chapter does she bring a suspicion of something not-quite-straight. All ends as it ought: misunderstandings resolved and lovers bound for matrimony. But an epilogue reviewing the characters’ fortunes, five years on, hints at how things might have gone differently. To a young woman married off by Austen as an afterthought, McDermid grants other possibilities: “Of her romantic life, she never spoke, perhaps with good reason.” As arch as Austen. FL
Borough Press, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 5, 2014 as "Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid". Subscribe here.