Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Books - Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

After reading, loving (subjectively at least) and reviewing Joanna Trollope’s modernadaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I was very excited to read the next novel in The Austen Project – Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey. I feel my excitement was justified.

Released in March this year, McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey takes Catherine (now Cat) Morland out of the Bath winter season of balls and into the Edinburgh Fringe festival. She is constantly on twitter and facebook, and finds a lack of wi-fi to be definite proof of vampirism. And rather than being obsessed with the eighteenth century gothic of Mrs Radcliffe, she is obsessed with Twilight. It is, perhaps like all things related to Jane Austen, great fun.

Yet, strangely enough, I have to make the opposite complaint of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey than I made of Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. I absolutely and thoroughly loved and enjoyed Trollope’s adaptation, but objectively I didn’t really think it worked in a modern framework – or at least, not in the modern framework Trollope used. With Northanger Abbey I found the opposite. Objectively I think the novel works far better than Sense and Sensibility. McDermid’s modern adaptation is, for me, much more convincing, aside from a few moments I’ll talk about later. Still, I’m not I enjoyed it quite as much. I didn’t sit glued to my sofa reading and grinning for hours on end as I did with Trollope’s new Austen. Although of course that’s not to say I didn’t still love it, because any Austen plotline is probably bound to win me over.

I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t like it as much as Sense and Sensibility. Perhaps I just don’t like the original Austen plot as much to begin with. I find Catherine (in both the original and the modern version) a little bit irritating. Her naivety makes her a little harder to sympathise with, then, say, Eleanor from Sense and Sensibility. Likewise, Henry Tilney has never been my favourite Austen hero, and I found the modern Henry quite patronising, and at times almost verging on sexist. I imagine most of the bits where he cites silliness and an overactive imagination as solely feminine traits are taken from the original, but I still didn’t completely like him. I think I found less characters to sympathise with in Northanger Abbey than in Sense and Sensibility (the main exception being Eleanor Tilney, who is wonderful), but I think that’s probably my fault rather than either McDermid’s or Austen’s.

As with Sense and Sensibility – as with any modern rewriting of a nineteenth century novel – engagements are a problem. I liked how McDermid fixed this issue at the end of the novel, but this doesn’t change the problem of Isabella Thorpe and her relationships. The fact simply is that people nowadays are far, far less likely to get engaged in a matter of months, then alone a matter of days. Isabella’s engagements, more than any other aspect of the plot of this Northanger Abbey, struck me as entirely ridiculous, and mostly unnecessary. Apologies for the spoilers ahead, but I imagine after a novel’s been about for two-hundred years you’ll just have to forgive me.

I can just about understand why McDermid decided to still have Isabella get engaged to James, even though I personally think it would have worked just as well to have them going out and her wanting to move in with him. It might have worked well in fact if James’s parents objected to James’s and Bella’s engagement on the basis of their age. After all, Bella is only eighteen or nineteenth, and nowadays this is very very young to get married. Yet why McDermid chose to also make Bella think herself engaged to Freddie is entirely beyond me. That was unnecessary, and entirely unbelievable. It is surely impossible than anyone nowadays (no, not even Isabella Thorpe) would take seriously and then accept a proposal from someone they had known for about two weeks. Besides, it isn’t really necessary for the plot that Bella’s a golddigger; all that’s needed – which would have translated perfectly to the modern day – is for her to cheat on James, and in general be careless, inconstant and selfish. Were marriage taken out of the equation it would be far more realistic, and James would still be heartbroken.

The other slight problem (again, one that I imagine every writer doing the Austen Project will find) is that there are far fewer “ladies of leisure” any more. Obviously Cat is only seventeen, but the fact that she has been nothing for a year since she finished her GCSEs seems strange to me. Even if it had been casually mentioned that she’d tried and failed or dropped AS levels it would have made more sense. Still, I love the idea of making Cat homeschooled. An automatic update would send her to school, but her naivety (both about vampires and about men) was far better explained this way.

I must admit I got quite annoyed by the text speak in the novel. Yes, people text now, but the only people I know who write in text speak (as in, how R U?) are either under fifteen or over fifty. For one thing, I think a lot of people have accepted now that it’s a bit silly, and for another, now that most people (including the characters) have smart phones with touch screen full keyboards, it’s quicker and easier to write full words that your phone’s dictionary will recognise. I can just about forgive the choice to make Cat and Bella write in text speak, because they’re teenagers and both supposed to be rather childish, but there is absolutely no way that either James, a trainee lawyer, or Ellie, who seems very sensible and is said to talk in an old-fashioned way, would use text speak. A minor point, perhaps, but it did annoy me. Maybe that’s just because I value good grammar.

I shall now cease my complaining, and go on to praise McDermid’s Northanger Abbey as it deserves to be praised.

The setting was a brilliant idea. The Edinburgh Fringe festival is probably about as close to a fashionable city “season” as we have today. The quantity of events, the sheer busyness, the concentration of people and the strange likelihood of meeting people you know – it all translates wonderfully. The presence of ceilidhs even allows McDermid to keep the ball scenes from the original somewhat intact, while still making them realistic, which was lovely. Throughout the Edinburgh scenes McDermid creates a brilliant atmosphere, and one very akin to Austen’s original Bath one. I thought this was very well done. Oh, and it also really made me want to go to the Edinburgh festival, which is probably a good sign.

I absolutely loved all the in-jokes and Austen references, the casual, ‘this wasn’t some Sunday-evening period drama’, and dropping into sentences references to ‘Jane Austen heroines’. It was beautifully self-conscious.

Also, it would be unfair to say I never sympathised with Cat and Henry. There were a few lovely scenes between them. I particularly enjoyed how the original conversation of what-will-you-write-in-your-diary-about-me? became what-will-you-post-on-facebook-about-me? This really made me smile. I thought John (now Johnny) Thorpe was done very well, even though I imagine a modern day John Thorpe might have been a bit more forward and a bit more suggestive that he was here. The updated Bella worked well (except for, as I said, the engagements) and, as with the original, Eleanor Tilney emerged as my favourite character.

The altered reason for General Tilney’s turn against Cat is a stroke of genius. Sheer brilliance. It’s so clever, and means that McDermid manages to avoid (as Trollope didn’t) fairly outdated values with regards to wealth. I spent most of the novel wondering how McDermid was going to update this aspect of the plot, and was very pleasantly surprised.

All in all, I did enjoy Northanger Abbey, and ultimately I think the modernisation works well. It was a thoroughly lovely book, and good fun. And again, it made me want to go back and reread all of Austen.

I await the next instalment of the Austen Project with great excitement.

Greatest strength: The setting and general atmosphere was all in all very strong. I also thought McDermid had some great ideas for updating the novel.

Greatest weakness: The few weak plot points I mentioned, especially the many engagements of Isabella Thorpe.

Let’s finish on a quote: The furniture was surprisingly modern, and although the General gave her a blow-by-blow account of each piece and its designer, Cat could not have been less interested. If he was trying to put her off the scent, he’d failed. She’d seen the Twilight films and she knew you could have the latest in designer clothes and furniture and still be a vampire. You didn’t have to wear period costume and live in a museum.

Next week: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

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