Monday, January 05, 2015

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I’ve just finished reading this, the third book in HarperCollins’ The Austen Project, a 21st century re-writing of Jane Austen’s novels. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as much for Val McDermid’s skill in giving the story a completely credible 21st century makeover, as for the unputdownable book she came up with. I shall not reveal the neat twist at the end - though I suspect that many of you will already have read the book.

The Edinburgh Festival makes an excellent alternative to Bath – plenty of things to see which will broaden Cat’s mind – and relocating Northanger Abbey to the borders is just right.

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I also think that Cat being obsessed with vampire fantasy really works. Cat buys into the vampire fantasy world and allows herself to believe that it fits uncannily well into what she knows of the Tilneys. Of course, she’s going to be frightened witless and make an utter fool of herself.

However, the real technical problem for Val McDermid, surely, was how to create a believable Catherine Morland, a seventeen-year-old who must be naïve and ignorant of the world – but in the 21st century. Her solution is brilliant: Cat has been home-educated by her mother, a Primary school teacher, so she has never had to cope with her dinner money being stolen; never been laughed at or shamed in class; she’s never had a best friend to giggle with – or to break up with; and, apart from her brother James, she knows no boys.

Furthermore, she has a highly-developed imagination and lives almost entirely inside her head where she is the heroine of her own adventures following the vampire stories she so loves. I suspect that for many of my fellow bloggers who were ‘scribbling children’ this may ring as bell, as it did with me.

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

Cat’s admirable parents try to keep her feet on the ground but they don’t grasp the extent to which her growing up largely in isolation from her peers has made her potentially vulnerable. If Cat had been educated normally, she’d probably have had a crush on the lovely Bella who talks the talk, knows who’s hanging out with whom, and where the cool places to be seen in are - and grown out of it. In the stories Cat tells herself, best friends are never devious or manipulative, so she simply doesn’t recognize Bella for what she is. Bella becomes an instant soulmate – and Cat is loyal to her friends.

She has no idea how to take Johnny Thorpe’s mixture of boasting, fulsome admiration of herself, and heavy hints she doesn’t understand and which make her feel awkward. Bella and Johnny are types quite outside her experience and, if she’s to emerge unscathed, she’ll have to wise up fast. 

Claremont Lake  - a touch of mystery

I love the way Val McDermid shows us all this. It’s interesting, too, that sex is a subject Cat shies away from; it embarrasses her. When Bella comments, ‘Oh God, that was the first sleepless night your brother gave me.’ She paused and gave a cat-like smile. ‘But not the last’, Cat’s reaction is to shift the conversation away as fast as possible. It’s obvious to the reader that this is an area where Cat is completely ignorant. And it fits. I liked the way that her growing feelings for Henry come tentatively (‘she felt a curious yearning sensation in her stomach’) and she’s cautious about labelling it. That, too, rings true. We feel that she will sort out sex later, when she’s ready for it.

Val McDermid is equally successful in her portrayal of Henry Tilney. In the original, Henry is a clergyman: intelligent, fun to be with, and he opens Catherine’s eyes to a number of things, including explaining Isabella and Frederick’s behaviour. He’s Cat’s emotional mentor. However, he has no personal problems to overcome, which a hero needs.

In McDermid’s version, Henry is still Cat’s emotional mentor but we get a hint of his back story. When Cat demands, ‘How would you feel if your fiancée was letting another man come on to her in public?’ We learn that ‘Henry’s face froze’. The discerning reader picks up that there is something in Henry’s past which has hurt him badly. Did Freddie seduce Henry’s own girl-friend, perhaps. We aren’t told but, if we read carefully, we realize that Henry, too, has emotional problems, and this makes him more real and, dare I say it, more intriguing than the Reverend Henry Tilney. 

Dillington House, standing in for Northanger Abbey

McDermid’s Eleanor Tilney, too, is more filled-in as a character than the original. She longs to do an art degree but her father has forbidden it. She is also lonely and misses her mother, who died when she was thirteen. She confesses to Cat: ‘It’s like I don’t have anybody to show me how to be a woman, if that makes sense?’ She is forced to live in an entirely male environment with no consideration of what she needs.

Cat, who has two sisters and comes from a loving family, is unselfconsciously affectionate towards her new friend and Eleanor responds to this.

In fact, one of the most interesting strands in the book is Cat as catalyst. Just before she sets off for Northanger Abbey, Andrew Allen, a highly-successful theatrical ‘angel’ tells her that having her to stay, ‘has broadened the range of what I’ve been to see…. I think you may inadvertently end up earning me quite a bit of money.’

St Alban’s shrine – a touch of Gothic

Cat is astonished. ‘Her parents had never encouraged her to think of herself as having a positive influence on anybody’s life.’  Not only may Cat have to do some internal readjustments, we realize that her parents may have to do so, too. Her lack of pretentions and her openness have also affected both Henry and Eleanor for the better; they, too, are moving on  Cat’s innocence holds a sort of moral mirror up to the other characters in which their true natures are displayed.

If you haven’t already read this book, I highly recommend it. Not only did I enjoy it thoroughly, it also gave me great pleasure to think about it at some length and to write this piece.

Elizabeth Hawksley


Melinda Hammond/Sarah Mallory said...

I am not often tempted to read Austen spin-offs, Elizabeth but you have tempted me to try this one, thank you.

A fascinating post.

Elizabeth Hawksley said...

I'd be interested to know what you think, Melinda/Sarah. Dare I say that this one has more bite?!

Amanda said...

A very interesting post, Elizabeth, it was a pleasure to read. Dillington House looks beautiful, too. Where is it?

Unknown said...

Thank you for your comment, Amanda. Dillington House is a Jacobean house set in spacious grounds and run by Somerset County Council. It offers courses and lectures throughout the year. I have taught there and it's a wonderful place to stay.

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