Northanger Abbey seems to be the Austen novel people like least. Perhaps this is because Catherine Morland is an ordinary girl, naive and not overly bright, so the opportunity for witty conversation is lost. But Austen has some fun with the fad for Gothic novels at the time. One of young Catherine’s misadventures results from her dreaming up a lurid past for her new friends’ family, her imagination influenced by her choice of reading. Austen also creates some broadly comic characters in the greedy and crass Isabella and John Thorpe.
When I learned that Val McDermid was attempting an update, I was intrigued, because McDermid is better known for her chilling thrillers. She places her updated version of the novel in Edinburgh during the festival. This could have been an inspired choice if she had made more use of the setting.
Cat Morland is attending the festival as the guest of her neighbors, the wealthy Allens. She meets Bella Thorpe, who befriends her because she likes Cat’s brother James (although this is not of course obvious to Cat). Bella’s brother John in turn begins pursuing Cat. Cat, though, is already interested in Henry Tilney, son of General Tilney, the owner of Northanger Abbey.
Much of the plot of Austen’s original book rides on the Thorpes’ assumption that Catherine is the Allens’ heir. McDermid implies a similar motive for their friendliness.
McDermid has not changed the plot of Austen’s novel in any major respect, except for the reason why General Tilney throws Cat out of the house in the middle of the night. In that instance, she chooses to pursue a theme that has been cropping up a lot in her later fiction, and the choice is unfortunate. She has set us up to expect something else, and the motive she chooses doesn’t fit in well with anything that has already happened. It is clear that General Tilney is unusually friendly with Cat because he thinks she is wealthy, so to alter the reason for this dramatic scene at the last moment throws us off.
Although the novel seems promising at first, with some witty observations about the festival attendees, we soon fall into the banalities of conversation and texts between vapid young women. Cat just loves vampire fiction and actually believes vampires might exist. You can see where this might lead in terms of the original novel, if McDermid had given it a bit of a twist. I am sick of vampire fiction, but I was almost hoping one would appear in the darkness of an Edinburgh street.
Just as a side note, those wily internet marketers must have noticed my searches for Northanger Abbey, because I got an email about the Complete Northanger Horrid Novel Collection. This collection includes all of the gothic novels referred to in Austen’s novel. All mine on my iPad for a mere $.99! Well, why not? I’ll be reporting back later.