Review: Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid

I have been highly sceptical about The Austen Project.  I steered well clear of Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility and I would not have read this if I had not been handed a free copy.  However.  I was completely wrong.  Northanger Abbey as imagined by Val McDermid turned out to be terrific fun.  I read the original when I was in my first year at university, my mother had always warned me away from it as being ‘odd’.  My own view is that Northanger Abbey is the most hilarious of Austen’s novels but that it is far more a novel of ‘ideas’ than a novel about events; the plot is not the main point.  Its main focus is the power of books on the mind and emotions.  Perhaps because the plot was secondary, Val McDermid is able to transplant the action fairly effectively into the twenty-first century.

Of course, none of this is new, Austen has been done, done and redone.  People are forever trying to find new and inventive ways of telling her stories – there have been the sublime (Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Bridget Jones, CluelessLongbourn, Lost in Austen) but then also the ridiculous (Death Comes to Pemberley, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies).  There is something about Austen that has provoked discussion, contemplation and imagination for two hundred years.  Perhaps because the simple marriage plot has changed so markedly since they were first written, we respond to Austen’s work differently.  Do we therefore need to have the stories reworked for a new generation to carry their messages forward?  Or is it more an act of laziness – I have noticed that children shy away from The Secret Garden for The Toilet of Doom, do adults require the classics to be simplified too?


Just like her Regency namesake, Cat Morland is seventeen and has grown up in middle of nowhere.  McDermid emphasises Cat’s unworldliness by making her a homeschooled vicar’s daughter, surely the most naive demographic in modern society.  Rather than having an obsession with Gothic fiction, Cat is a huge Twilight fan.  It has always been my belief that literary fashions are circular – just as Pamela is like Fifty Shades of Grey, so Twilight mirrors the Gothic romances – it is no accident that many of the classics were reissued with Twilight-esque front covers.  To be fair, with its emphasis on conservative dating and turgid prose, Twilight does stand in nicely for dodgy Gothic horror.  It is the highlight of Cat’s hitherto uneventful existence to be whisked up to Edinburgh to keep the rich Susie Allan company while her husband ‘does’ the Festival.


Val McDermid, celebrated crime author

I thought it was genius to move the action from Bath to Edinburgh – both cities are heavily influenced by the Georgian era but the excitement surrounding the Edinburgh festival provides a marvellous modern equivalent for the Regency social whirl of Bath.  Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities in the world and the Festival is one of my favourite times of the year – the true residents sigh heavily as the city changes beyond recognition and they all wait for it to be over but for me, it is always amazing.  I could completely understand why Cat Morland found it so exciting.  Equally, with her Twilight obsession, Edinburgh makes a superb setting for Gothic melodrama.


Cat is dragged hither and thither by her wealthy ‘patroness’ (family friend), outfitted with new clothes and receives a thorough cultural education via the Fringe, featuring regular trips to the Book Festival on Charlotte Square (a personal favourite of my own).  Another reason why McDermid’s decision to take Cat to Scotland works wonderfully is of course the ceilidh.  Regency dance moves have rather fallen by the wayside – The Lizzie Bennet Diaries set Lizzie and Darcy’s first encounter at a wedding but other than that there are few modern social occasions that involve compulsory dancing – other than Scottish country dancing.  At a dance lesson, Cat meets the rather dashing young lawyer, Henry Tilney.


Henry Tilney: Austen version

Henry Tilney has always been rather the Cinderella of Austen’s heroes.  This is partly because he is from ‘the weird book’ but also Henry does not help himself.  He is openly sarcastic, often patronising and makes fun of Catherine’s naiveté which sets the feminist reader’s teeth on edge since it is hardly Catherine’s fault that she is naive.  Still, I always liked Henry in a rather guilty way – he was funny, he read a lot of books and he forgave Catherine for her fairly ludicrous conspiracy theories whilst also defending her to his father.  I will always like Captain Wentworth best (then Darcy second) but Henry Tilney still comes in towards the top.  McDermid’s re-imagining smooths off some of Henry’s sharper edges while keeping his sense of humour, making it love at first sight for young Cat.  Still rather than having to rely on the global omniscience to find out his particulars and annual income, Cat can simply Google and have an old-fashioned Facebook stalk to find out more.


During her time in Edinburgh, Cat also meets the Thorpe family, rapidly becoming ‘BFF’s with the flirtatious Bella Thorpe who has more than a passing interest in Cat’s brother James.  Notes and letters exchanged in Austen’s version become Tweets, Facebook messages and emails; so many authors lack the courage to incorporate modern technology but McDermid managed it wonderfully.  I was impressed by how Cat signs off a text written in haste with ‘cxx’ – who amongst us has never mistyped in a hurry?  And of course, numbers can be copied down incorrectly when confusion is necessary and when Cat finally journeys to Northanger Abbey, it is naturally a signal black hole.  One character who was surprisingly intact after two hundred years was Bella’s brother Johnny Thorpe.  Rather than owning a barouche, he has a dangerously fast car but other than that he is unchanged.  And disturbingly recognisable.  His aggressive pursuit of Cat, his daredevil driving and general City Boy loathsomeness make this one man not to come across on a dark night.


This is not a true ‘re-imagining’, in fact it is a re-telling.  The course of events is perfectly predictable for all who have read the original or even seen the decent ITV 2007 adaptation … still, I heartily enjoyed this.  I think that the key to appreciating The Austen Project is to look at it with an open mind.  This is a celebration of what we love about Austen, a brave attempt to take what she taught us into a new age.  Just as once there was Gothic fiction, now we have Twilight – there will always be new silly trends, but there will also always be Austen there to remind us to keep a firm reality check.

Also published on Wordhorse

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Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Published by Borough Press on 2014
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 343
ISBN: 9780007504275

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5 thoughts on “Review: Northanger Abbey, Val McDermid

  1. Well, you've almost convinced me. I am extremely tempted by these, but I am usually so offended by the whole "But we have to make Jane Austen relevant. Otherwise the young adults won't like it!" I'm sorry, but as a young person I just resent the heck out of the thought that I can't, you know, sit down and read the real thing. That rant aside, this does look good and I think that if I read this with an open mind, like you say, I could really enjoy it. A Jane Austen spin-off that I really enjoyed is Austen Land. The movie made be laugh my head off.

  2. I'm really curious to read this, I've yet to read any of the other books in the Austen project, but Northanger Abbey is one of my favourites and I'm interested to see how it's been updated. The fact that it's set in Edinburgh just makes it all the more appealing- it's one of my favourite cities and I'm determined to make it up there for the festival this summer!

  3. I understand completely, but there are exceptions to every rule. Have you seen the Lizzie Bennet Diaries on Youtube? They got a very well-deserved Emmy last year – it was superb! I think that the point of Northanger Abbey is to make fun of that dizzy teenaged moment that most of us go through and because of that it worked quite well in the modern day. The way that Cat appeared to sincerely believe in vampires was a bit wobbly for me but in the end I realised I had heartily enjoyed it (and had a mini-swoon over Henry Tilney which is not bad going).

  4. I love Edinburgh too – it's funny, I was actually there while I was reading this – it did add the experience! I was surprised by how much I liked the 'remake' though – I was expecting another Death Comes to Pemberley but actually it worked brilliantly! I loved how Mrs Allan and Mrs Thorpe were translated into a trophy wife and an interior designer, attempting to network at the Fringe. The Festival is one of my favourite times of the year and I really felt that McDermid captured the atmosphere. Rather jealous that Cat got to go for an entire month! I do think that an open mind is needed but it was great fun.

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