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Northanger Abbey: The Austen Project, by Val McDermid

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northanger-abbey-austen-project-val-mcdermid-2014-x-200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

In the second installment of The Austen Project, bestselling Scottish crime writer Val McDermid takes a stab at a contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s most under-appreciated novel, Northanger Abbey. Written in the late 1790’s when Austen was a fledgling writer, this Gothic parody about young heroine Catherine Morland’s first experiences in Bath society and her romance with the dishy hero Henry Tilney is one of my favorite Austen novels. Fresh and funny, the writing style is not as accomplished as her later works but no one can dismiss the quality of Austen’s witty dialogue nor her gentle joke at the melodramatic Gothic fiction so popular in her day. I was encouraged by the choice of McDermid as author and intrigued to see how she would transport the story into the 21st century.

Our modern heroine, sixteen-year-old Cat Morland, is a vicar’s daughter living a rather disappointing life in the Piddle Valley of Dorset. Her mother and father seldom argued and never fought, and her siblings were so average she despaired of ever discovering any dark family secrets to add excitement to her life. Homeschooled, she can’t comprehend history or French or algebra, but delights in reading to fuel her vivid imagination, favoring ghost stories, zombie and vampire tales. After years of exploring the narrow confines of her home turf she craves adventure abroad. Rich neighbors Susie and Andrew Allen come to her rescue by inviting her to travel with them and attend the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland where Cat “is in her element, seeing potential for terror and adventure around every twist and turn of the narrow streets.”

Introduced to theater, art and books, and thanks to fashionista Mrs. Allen, Cat soon acquires a new wardrobe and dancing lessons where she partners with a charming and witty young attorney, Henry Tilney. After researching Henry on Facebook and Google she discovers that his father is the much-decorated general who made his name in the Falkland’s war before she was born. Even more interesting to Cat’s Gothic infused imagination, he owns Northanger Abbey, a medieval Borders abbey in Scotland. Cat also meets Mrs. Allen’s long-lost school friend Martha Thorpe and her three daughters, one of which is just Cat’s age. Bella, who recognizes the Morland last name, knows Cat’s elder brother Jamie who is attending Oxford with her brother Johnny. Before long they were “gossiping about the things that entertain young women of a certain age and type,” and becoming bff’s.

Blowhard Johnny Thorpe arrives in his racy red sports car with friend James Morland in tow. He attempts to court Cat but all she can think of is Henry and his sister Ellie. When Cat attends a céilidh, she anticipates dancing the Highland fling and hopes to encounter Henry Tilney again, who will surely save her from the unwanted attentions of crude Johnny Thorpe. As she and Bella scout the room they notice a beautiful, pale young woman dressed all in white:

“Who on earth was that?” Bella asked, “She acts like she’s in Pride and Prejudice.”
“That’s Henry Tilney’s sister Ellie.” Cat stared after the disappearing figure. There was something about Ellie, something out of time and out of style, like there would be if you were a two-hundred-year old vampire, she thought with a mixture of dread and delight.”

The story continues, mirroring the text of Northanger Abbey page for page, and scene for scene. Cat travels to Northanger Abbey as guest of the Tilney’s and the story turns Gothic and mysterious – just as Austen had devised.

McDermid made clever, creative and sensible choices in modernizing Northanger Abbey by moving the action from England to Scotland. The Edinburgh Festival easily replaces eighteenth century Georgian Bath allowing for a social hub similar in context: theater, shopping and country dancing. Later, we are treated to a really creepy medieval setting for a Scottish castle/Northanger Abbey. Cat is appropriately addicted to modern Gothic novels rivaling the famous Northanger Canon: Herbridean Harpies, Ghasts of Ghia and even Pride a Prejudice and Zombies! McDermid builds the vampire theme slowly, allowing Henry and Ellie to be pale in complexion, anachronistic in demeanor and just mysterious enough to trigger Cat’s imagination. Her characterizations are spot on: Henry is droll and swoon-worthy as ever, Cat a bit air-headed and impressionable, Bella a slick piece of work, and General Tilney deceptive and tyrannical.

The plot plays out as one would expect, and if you had not read Northanger Abbey before you would not notice that the author has really created a complete translation, scene for scene, and sometimes word for word—a No Fear Shakespeare version of Northanger Abbey. While I admired McDermid’s creative choices to bring the story into the modern world (cell phones, Facebook, language and culture), I was immediately puzzled by her choice of narrative style. This novel is really a retelling instead of the reimagining that it was advertised as. The downside of a translation is in its creative limitations, resulting in McDermid’s sentences being affected and unnatural. I just wanted her to break out of the stranglehold she had placed on herself and use the plot and characterization as a spring board, and not a noose. Limiting herself in this manner may have been her way of honoring Austen, but I think she has done a great disservice to her own writing. Having not read any of her acclaimed crime novels I have no idea of her real talent. I believe that Austen herself, who honed her craft so precisely, would be baffled at one author lessening their gifts at the expense of another.

Like the reaction to Joanna Trollope’s contemporary reimaging of Sense and Sensibility published last year, whenever you fiddle with the classics there are bound to be those who are open to the concept and those completely closed off. I read this novel in anticipation of enjoying it. In hindsight, I do not think that it was written for an Austen fan familiar with the original, but for the uninitiated who may view it in a completely different light.

RRP: £18.99
Grove Press (2014)
Hardcover (368) pages
ISBN: 978-0802123015


A life-long acolyte of Jane Austen, Laurel Ann Nattress is the editor of the short story anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It, and Austenprose.com, a blog devoted to the oeuvre of her favorite author and the many books and movies that she has inspired. She is a life member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, a regular contributor to the Jane Austen Centre online magazine. An expatriate of southern California, Laurel Ann lives in a country cottage near Snohomish, Washington where it rains a lot. Visit Laurel Ann at her blog Austenprose – A Jane Austen Blog, on Twitter as @Austenprose, and on Facebook as Laurel Ann Nattress.

This review originally appeared on Austeprose.com and is used here with permission.

Cover image courtesy of Grove Press © 2014; text Laurel Ann Nattress, Austenprose.com

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Gothic Horrors: The Regency Vampyre

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The “modern” vampire genre (or Vampyre, if you will) stems from James Polidori’s 1819 novel, The Vampyre, however the Gothic craze of the entire Regency era led to this printing, and in fact, real events in Europe led to the fascination of all things mysterious and horrible, as characterized in Jane Austen’s novel, Northanger Abbey. It should come as no suprise, then, that Northanger Abbey has finally been rewritten as an actual Vampire inspired novel (see Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey, 2014). Writers have been trying to mash the two genres for years now, beginning with Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight (supposedly a nod to Pride and Prejudice) and Amanda Grange’s Mr. Darcy, Vampyre, to Jane Bites Back, and other similar tales.

According to legend, vampires are mythical beings who subsist by feeding on the life essence (generally in the form of blood) of living creatures (not unlike General Tilney, one might suppose…) In folkloric tales, undead vampires often visited loved ones and caused mischief or deaths in the neighbourhoods they inhabited when they were alive. They wore shrouds and were often described as bloated and of ruddy or dark countenance, markedly different from today’s gaunt, pale vampire which dates from the early 1800s. Although vampiric entities have been recorded in most cultures, the term vampire was not popularised until the early 18th century, after an influx of vampire superstition into Western Europe from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe,although local variants were also known by different names, such as vrykolakas in Greece and strigoi in Romania. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.

Frotspiece to Polidori's "The Vampyre".
Frotspiece to Polidori’s “The Vampyre”.

The charismatic and sophisticated vampire of modern fiction was born in 1819 with the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori; the story was highly successful and arguably the most influential vampire work of the early 19th century. However, it is Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula which is remembered as the quintessential vampire novel and provided the basis of the modern vampire legend. The success of this book spawned a distinctive vampire genre, still popular in the 21st century, with books, films, and television shows. The vampire has since become a dominant figure in the horror genre.

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Jane Austen Novels Books life and times

Jane Austen Novels Books Life and Times

JANE AUSTEN – A LIFE IN TWO WORLDS?

Jane AustenIt is truth universally acknowledged that the author of these opening words, which are among the most famous in English literature, is perhaps the greatest writer the English language, indeed any language, has known, bar Shakespeare.

One might find it hard to think of a time when Jane Austen’s novels was not a byword for romantic fiction, and Pride & Prejudice, where the above quote derives, the last word on it. But there was, of course, such a time and this lasted up until the early years of the nineteenth century.

Once her novels began to be published, however, they came at a rate that would make Stephen King proud: Sense & Sensibility (1811); Pride & Prejudice (1813); Mansfield Park (1815); and Emma (1816). Add to this quartet the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818, a year after Austen died, and it becomes one of most impressive canons of any writer.

For all the popularity of the novels during her lifetime, however, it was not until after her death that Jane Austen’s name became widely attached to them, having originally published them under the pseudonym A. Lady. And it is not until the last two decades has she achieved the world prominence reserved normally for pop stars and screen idols.

The question still remains though as to what exactly makes Austen so immensely popular in the modern day. The television and film adaptations have gone a long way, of course, but the fact remains that her books were being read, enjoyed and acclaimed more than a century before the first screen outing ever appeared.

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