“It is not the function of fiction to offer lessons in life.”
Now, Northanger Abbey is, as I have said many times before, my favourite of Jane Austen’s novels, so Val McDermid’s modern adaptation of it seemed intriguing enough to try. It relocates Austen’s heroine Catherine (here nicknamed Cat, “on the basis that nobody should emerge from their teens with the name their parents had chosen”) to the Piddle Valley in Dorset, with the bustling social circle of Bath transformed into the Edinburgh Fringe in August. As in the original, Cat finds herself surrounded by people richer than she is, and her hyperimaginative turn of mind, fed by horror stories and, brilliantly, the Twilight series, leads her into trouble.
McDermid’s update is pretty much word-for-word: entire conversations from the original are “translated”, as it were, into modern English, with slightly iffy results. McDermid’s dialogue, and indeed her prose, leaves much to be desired: it’s uniformly stiff and formal, as if she’s tried to imitate Austen’s Georgian intonation without having any kind of idea how that style works. Where Austen’s prose is meticulous, balanced, sharp and witty, McDermid’s is monotonic and unbelievable, and made even more so by the occasional interlarded example of teen-speak: “totes amazeballs”, “yeah, right, whatever”. These don’t enhance believability so much as highlighting McDermid’s tin ear for how teenagers actually speak.
The problem, I think, is one of relevance: McDermid fails to find anything in the original novel which can speak to the modern reader in a modern setting. Which is a shame, because I think there is a good deal in Austen’s novel that could be really pressing to a modern reader if the adaptation had been more inventive: issues of fiction and patriarchy and coming of age. But what I feel McDermid has done is to remove the wit and satire of the original and left only a slightly frivolous romance narrative peopled by teenagers of questionable priorities. What modern seventeen-year-old is seriously thinking of marriage, after all?
Despite everything, though, I had a lot of fun with Northanger Abbey. As far as it goes, the updating of the actual plot is lively and colourful, and the choice to set the novel at the Edinburgh Festival is inspired. I love that the Gothic horror classics Austen lampooned so mercilessly become in McDermid’s novel the Twilight series – it’s a brilliant move that really puts the Gothic novel into cultural perspective for a modern reader. Most of all, though, it’s a gentle, frothy read which makes for a nice break from life in general.