Toronto: Harper Collins, 2014.
One of the books in The Austen Project, Val McDermid’s reimagining of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is a delight. She has found exactly the right template for reimagining Austen’s take on the gothic novels of her day: vampires! It’s perfect. I am a sucker (!) for this kind of thing, always hoping to find in fan fiction something that approximates the joy that the original book gives me. Northanger Abbey is my favourite of Austen’s novels, not surprisingly, because it is a book about books, and McDermid embraces the metafictional and intertextual aspect of the project wholeheartedly. The book positively fizzes with it.
Set in Scotland during the Edinburgh Festival, books are everywhere. Cat Morland’s mother sends her off to Scotland with the Allens, and while they listen to Bram Stoker’s Dracula on audio book in the car on the drive up, her mother “displayed not a sign of concern about what dangers might lurk on the streets of Edinburgh, in spite of having read the crime novels of both Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson” (9). One of the Fringe Festival plays is a “dramatic adaptation of last year’s bestselling novel about love, zombies and patisserie, Cupcakes to Die For” (43). You can see how McDermid has her intertextual cake and eats it too: reverence and satire in equal measure. Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea, Harriet the Spy, and even The Gruffalo all make appearances; this book is absolutely saturated in bibliophilic goodness.
She refers frequently to the fact that characters imagine themselves in a Jane Austen costume drama, and by doing so addresses head on the difficulty of reimagining Austen for the modern age. To my mind, she has done so seamlessly. There is dancing, of course, but it’s lessons in highland dancing that first bring Cat and Henry Tilney together. Vampire fiction substitutes for the horrors of Austen’s gothic fiction, and Henry is an avid reader of the page-turners. And while text messages largely substitute for the letters of the original, real ink and paper make their way into the book as well, with a wit that shows that McDermid can hold her own in the snarky comments department:
“Oh, and this came by hand while we were out.” He nodded at a thick piece of card tucked into the flap of the sort of heavy white envelope that signals senders with a good opinion of themselves. (22)
Of course, the danger of this kind of reading is that it’s difficult to fully immerse yourself in the book when constantly on the look-out for comparisons. I read Joanna Trollope’s rewriting of Sense and Sensibility with considerably less pleasure. I think my mistake was to re-read Austen’s book before reading Trollope’s, and it just did not hold up, so I’ll end by recommending McDermid’s book highly and by suggesting that you avoid (re)reading the original first.