Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid


Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Val McDermid

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first page, I adored this rewrite of Northanger Abbey by author Val McDermid.  McDermid, better known as an award-winning crime writer, has here taken on the task of reimagining Jane Austen’s heroine Cat Morland in the present day. McDermid states in her prologue that she hopes Jane Austen would enjoy her take on the classic novel, and I think McDermid has succeeded in this aim.
Val McDermid is clearly an author who is intimately familiar with Jane Austen’s work. Happily, I had just finished reading the original Northanger Abbey, as well as watching the Masterpiece Theater film adaptation, so I had many of the sentences, and the particular wit that Austen employs, fresh in my mind. Thus, I was truly impressed with the way that McDermid captures the essence of Austen’s classic so succinctly. Using her own words, McDermid somehow manages to convey the sound, rhythm, and tone of the original Northanger Abbey. And even more remarkable is how she is able to do this within a contemporary setting.
What McDermid has achieved here is no small feat, as I can attest to, having read, and been disappointed by, numerous novels by contemporary authors which fail to achieve an authentic sense of the past. The problem of a superficial gloss of old buildings and costumes over disappointingly contemporary characters is also apparent in popular television series. One example is Lost in Austen, in which a present-day heroine goes back in time to visit the Bennet family from Pride and Prejudice. What these artistic attempts, and quite a few others, show, more than anything, is how difficult it is for contemporary writers and filmmakers to capture a convincing sense of the past. Somehow, Val McDermid has reached that difficult goal, creating modern characters who manage to almost seamlessly capture the essence of an Austen novel. Basically, Northanger Abbey feels like the novel Austen would have written herself, if she was alive in 2014.
That said, Northanger Abbey stays true to the plot of the original novel. It is a credit to this rewrite that, despite having recently read the original, I was completely enchanted with McDermid’s version, even knowing every conversation and situation the characters would encounter. This is indeed high praise from someone who rarely rereads a book or rewatches a movie.
The only slight quibbles I would have, which are not really complaints, but just interesting observations, were that to me, the Henry Tilney of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey lacked the charm, self-effacing humor, and integrity that made him such an endearing character in Austen’s novel. McDermid’s Henry was a pretty nice guy, but he didn’t seem quite so intelligent, gallant, or mature as Austen’s character. At times, he came across as harsh. The same goes for Ellie, and for Cat. Ellie seemed a little less graceful and angelic, and Cat seemed a little less ingenuous. The closest thing I can compare it to is how different actors portray characters in film adaptations of a novel. An example would be Johnny Lee Miller and Jeremy Northam in the different Emma adaptations. Each actor had slightly different takes on the character of Mr. Knightley, though I must say, in that instance, I would have a difficult time deciding which one I would rather fall in love with.
All said, McDermid’s Northanger Abbey was a delight to read and a worthy tribute to the Jane Austen classic. It will definitely be more fully appreciated by readers familiar with the original novel. And I was so impressed by McDermid’s writing that I began her crime novel, A Place of Execution, while still in the middle of Northanger Abbey. Though utterly different in tone, I am happily engrossed in this mystery, and am so glad to finally become familiar with this truly gifted and versatile author.

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