There are those that cower at the thought of reading a classic novel. There are those who delight in the prospect. With all the adaptations of Jane Austen’s canon (including the dire Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice which I sort of reviewed here), I’ve never understood who the publishers have in mind as the target reader. Is it the reader who can’t bear the stuffy prose and regency rituals of the originals, but is keen to see what all the fuss is about? Or is it the die-hard Austen fan who will read anything vaguely associated with that name? Having just finished read Val McDermid’s twist on Northanger Abbey, I’m still confused.
If I was going to trust anyone with a modern take on Northanger Abbey, it would be Val McDermid, the Scottish doyenne of crime fiction. Surely, I thought, she would add a darker lens, or at least a piquancy to the original narrative, adding a new layer to this beloved classic. Yet McDermid’s Northanger Abby did none of that for me; it was fluffy, frivolous and – although it had me turning the pages – not all that interesting in the end.
Our young protagonist in this modern version is Cat (rather than Catherine) Moreland who, living in a Dorset hamlet, ‘had been disappointed by her life for as long as she could remember’. She has a vivid imagination, is desperate to be the heroine of her own adventure story and yearns to see the world that lies beyond her own small hometown. Miraculously, her dreams of adventure and romance come true – the family’s neighbours ask Cat to accompany them to the Edinburgh Festival for a month.
McDermid has done her best to make Cat a modern girl – she reads Twilight and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (rather than gothic tales like Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho). She regularly updates her Facebook status and uses Twitter and Instagram. Yet, this characterisation felt almost like a parody, or more likely, a middle-aged person’s interpretation of how a young person behaves. Now, I’m no expert on today’s ‘yuuf’, but I do know, for instance, that they use their phone to interact with people they’re sitting next to, as well as those they’re not with. I’m not sure they say ‘amazeballs’ without sarcasm, or even ‘totes’, like they do in this novel. I’m convinced that McDermid is capable of much more nuanced, if not complex portrayal of her heroes and heroines, but these skills aren’t called on here – what you read is what you get. You know exactly who each character is supposed to be, as well as their function, within moments of their introduction into the narrative.
There were some well-placed lines in the book poking fun at the sometimes nonsensical acts that appear at the Festival (‘a sketch comedy group from Birmingham doing a musical version of Middlemarch‘/’a one-woman show of King Lear). Similarly, McDermid uses Edinburgh as the perfect backdrop to the story, situating the scenes at many of its beautiful landmarks (the Assembly Rooms, Arthur’s Seat, the West End). I particularly loved those parts of the novel set in Charlotte’s Square at the Book Festival. This evocation of Edinburgh might’ve been enough to hold my interest, but then of course the action moves to Northanger Abbey and this aspect is abandoned.
There’s nothing wrong with this Northanger Abbey – it has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has characters that you’re intended to like, and those that you’re not. It has some wry observations about festival-goers (‘a woman dressed in the Edinburgh cultural uniform of linen and cashmere’) and it presents Edinburgh at the height of its festival in an authentic and loving way. I can even forgive it a particularly silly twist at the end, because I guess it was McDermid’s best shot at taking a very Austen-era plot point into the 21st century.
This is a book to read on the beach, or if you have a toddler who’s likely to interrupt your concentration every few minutes or if you’ve tired of scrolling through Facebook. You can read it quickly and without any real commitment. It’s pleasant and not challenging and I’m pretty sure I won’t remember much, if any of it, in 12 months time.
I may not have learned much from this book, but I have come closer to understanding who the target demographic might be for these adaptations. Or at least, I know now who it’s not aimed at ….. me.