Women Writers Reading Challenge #30: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid


Every so often, you come across a book that you’re excited for, but when you actually come to read it, you’re a bit disappointed. That’s how I felt reading this updated version of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

Now I’ve never read Val McDermid, though I know she’s a well-known mystery writer who has sold a lot of books, so I cannot speak to her writing in general, only to what I read in this book. I do know this book was most likely commissioned, so many of the choices might not have been the author’s to make. In that case, I feel like the restrictions posed were a mistake.

There were a few things that were really well done, namely giving her heroine a taste for vampire fiction to parallel Austen’s Catherine and her taste for gothic novels. McDermid’s Catherine is an interesting figure, a romantic feminist who sees good in all she meets. Her friendships with other characters are also convincing, and I particularly enjoyed the relationship she had with her hosts in Edinburgh. I thought setting the novel in Edinburgh was a good choice, and I wish the setting had informed the story even more.

If you’ve read Austen’s novel, you know the plot of this book. It is an episode for episode retelling. I felt like this was a little forced in certain places, and I would have liked to see the author’s perspective on how the character of Catherine Morland would operate in present society beyond the confines of the original storyline. I would have preferred her to take liberties with the plot and with other details, such as Catherine’s age. A 21 year old young man dating a 17 year old in our modern society is looked at a little differently than in the early 1800s. She can’t have a drink in a pub, she’s not in college–it’s just strange. It makes the hero seem a little bit creepy for pursuing her at all.

The two things I felt were most lacking was the social commentary of Austen’s work and a good representation of Catherine’s character. She was a contradiction, and I had no clear picture of her as a person. At times she seemed so sensible, at others hopelessly gullible. Her dialogue was sometimes eloquent, her points well argued, at others she fell into (really awful) slang, she swore…and there seemed (to me at least) to be little rhyme or reason to these character swings. In the Austen book, Catherine’s character is fairly dynamic, but she is interesting in her naïveté and she’s easy to relate too, even in her silliest moments. I felt nothing like that for this Catherine.

It also is devoid of the social criticism that is such an important part of Austen’s work. This is what makes Austen so hard to copy or replicate because underneath the stuffy drawing rooms filled with eligible gentlemen is an astute depiction of society–and what it means to be men and women operating within it. While Austen’s Northanger Abbey has elements of the gothic novel, it goes far beyond these elements, speaking to ideas about what innocence and experience mean as well as the role of the novel itself. This novel in contrast, is a vampire book without vampires, which makes it deeply unsatisfying.

This book is one in a whole series of Austen updates, and though I may read one more to satisfy my curiosity, I certainly won’t make it a priority if this book is any indication of what the chosen authors were asked to do. It’s an interesting writing exercise to update an existing work, but it doesn’t become a good adaptation unless something new is brought to the original.

What is your favorite Austen adaptation/inspired work (movies count too!)? Or which of Austen’s novels are your favorite?

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