Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid, Borough Press, RRP£18.99, 352 pages
The appetite we have for good-naturedly violating the fiction of Jane Austen is inexhaustible. Other classic writers – Shakespeare, Dickens, Conan Doyle, the Brontës – have had their works adapted, “homaged” and repackaged in ingenious ways. But none has been reconsidered quite as extensively as Austen; she would surely be amazed by the sheer mass of reworkings – from novels, to films and TV series – that have spilled out over the past 15 years, not to mention the fabulous amounts of money generated. This was a woman who sold Northanger Abbey for £10 to a publisher who did not think it good enough to publish and let the manuscript lie on the shelf for 13 years.
Borough Press’s Austen Project – the latest, and most ambitious reinvention of the Austen canon – has recruited six authors to recast the six novels in modern settings. First out of the blocks was Joanna Trollope’s stylish modernisation of Sense and Sensibility. The marriage theme at the heart of that most marital novel was a groove the author of Second Honeymoon and The Rector’s Wife fitted into smoothly.
Val McDermid, who has taken on Northanger Abbey, is a bigger departure. McDermid is a proudly lesbian, Scottish-noir crime writer, routinely mentioned in the same breath as Ian Rankin. There is, I think I’m right in saying, not a single Scot in the whole Austen oeuvre. But despite what may look like incompatibility, McDermid has made a brilliant job of the mission she’s been given. Two things are necessary to get full value from her update. The first is a close recollection of the original Northanger Abbey, in order to appreciate both deviation and parallelism. The second is an intimate knowledge of Edinburgh.
Northanger Abbey, as McDermidised, goes thus. “Cat” Morland, the 17-year-old daughter of a Dorset vicar, is home educated and innocent. Rich, childless neighbours give her the holiday of a lifetime by taking her to the Edinburgh Festival (in the original, Catherine visited Bath – spa town and marriage market.)
McDermid’s Cat is a teenager of her time – “totes” addicted to Facebook, texting and neo-vampiric fiction of the Twilight kind (a neat update of Ann Radcliffe’s tales of terror, which chilled the blood of 19th-century readers). In Edinburgh, Cat is introduced by her friend Bella Thorpe to the gothic horrors of Morag Fraser’s Hebridean Harpies. So far, so parallel – albeit amusingly Caledonian.
Much of the action takes place round the Edinburgh Book Festival – outrigger to the festival proper – where later this year, Northanger Abbey will surely be the hottest of literary hot cakes. There are lots of Scottish literary in-jokes. The balls that feature centrally in Austen’s Bath are absent but Scottish dancing events – which have revived hugely with nationalism – supply a plausible equivalent. Cat does the Gay Gordons with Bella’s brother, the obnoxious John Thorpe, who represents everything that is worst about England, and – more happily – with Henry Tilney (here in training for the law, not the church) who embodies the best of Scotland.
The climax carries Cat off to Northanger Abbey in the Borders, presided over by Henry’s father, General Tilney. The General is a brave Falklands veteran, a domineering father and a homophobe: a prejudice that is woven with great skill into a final episode that is, for my money, even better than Austen’s.
Cat, like Austen’s Catherine, makes an utter fool of herself and comes out the other side no longer a foolish girl but a sensible woman – no longer with any relish for those stupid vampire fictions. TartanNoir, as McDermid likes to call crime fiction such as hers and Rankin’s, will surely be on the future Mrs Tilney’s bookshelf, once she has outgrown her adolescent passion for Hebridean Harpies. Whether, like McDermid who has recently moved back to Scotland after 20 years in England, Cat will be a supporter of Scottish National party leader Alex Salmond is hard to say.
I was utterly charmed by this newfangled Austen and look forward eagerly to Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma, promised later this year. It, too, may well have a tartan tang to it.
John Sutherland is author of ‘A Little History of Literature’ (Yale)