Hazel McHaffie

Austen revisited

I’m intrigued. The name Val McDermid doesn’t conjure up pictures of muslin dresses and mincing men and gentle romance, does it? Far from it. But here she is re-writing Jane Austen – well, not the whole bang shoot; Northanger Abbey to be precise.

It’s part of the Austen project: six contemporary authors were asked to rework these famous classics in whatever way they choose. Not surprisingly there have been a fair few swift intakes of breath at the sheer audacity of such an exercise. I mean, Jane Austen? THE Jane Austen? Come on! Quite understandably some reviewers have been prejudiced against it from the outset.

Northanger AbbeyI confess I’m a convinced Austenite myself, and I personally didn’t want anyone to ruin her work for me either. That’s possibly why I turned to Northanger Abbey revisited first – my least favourite, and the least well-known, of her novels – well, that and because I was given it for Christmas.

The modern story is cleverly set in Edinburgh at the time of the Book Festival – I’m instantly totally at home! It moves to theĀ abbeys in the Borders – familiar territory again. Both chosen by McDermid to reflect the essential characteristics of the original settings and thereby sustain the plot.

In brief … Cat Morland is a naive, home-schooled 17 year old from a sheltered background who lives life through fiction. So much so indeed that she believes novels to be source books for real life. When she meets the rich, handsome, well educated Henry Tilney she is captivated. By the time she arrives at his ancestral pile, she has woven deep dark secrets into the mysterious Northanger Abbey, convinced that it will reveal unimaginable horrors. And indeed the magnificent abbey becomes the personification of all her fantasies rolled into one. Secret compartments, forbidden corridors, locked rooms, bullet holes in a family Bible, a beautiful but deceased mother who mustn’t be mentioned, a Jekyll-and-Hyde patriarch, sudden departures … all fuel her imagination.

Reading Val’s own explanation for her choices – voice, setting, characters, plot – gives me additional respect for her skill, her versatility, and the seriousness with which she approached this commission. She has indeed been sensitive to the original. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions is the way the authors handle the suspense. We know from hindsight that boy gets girl – no cliff hanger there then. Austen also gave away the mystery early on, choosing to let the will-they/won’t-they element in the romance alone carry the reader through. McDermid – as befits a crack crimewriter – keeps the reader wondering ‘why’ right to the end … although the denouement when it came seemed ridiculously tame to me compared with the build up. But that really wasn’t the point of the exercise. The point is that Austen knew what makes people tick; her books are a reflection of real life. And McDermid has echoed the emotional intimacies of teenage girls, the obsessions of rank and heritage, the arrogance of handsome buccaneers, the blindness and ambitions of parenthood, the hypocrisy and humour of polite society. She has simply brought them up to the present day. In my back yard!

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