Last year, the first instalment of The Austen Project was released, Sense and Sensibility by Joanne Trollope. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a fan, though to be fair, I couldn’t actually get all the way through the original Sense and Sensibility, so perhaps it’s the characters I’m not a fan of.
Anyway, the second book in the ‘re-imagining’, shall we say, was recently released, and though I was a bit doubtful, I decided to pick it up for a read anyway. Luckily for me I did, since Northanger Abbey was a fun, light-hearted read.
Written by Val McDermid, who is most well-known for her crime fiction, Northanger Abbey is the latest Austen book to be catapulted into the 21st century. Cat Moreland, lighthearted and over-imaginative, is whisked off with family friends to the Edinburgh festival for a month of fun. Though Cat doesn’t particularly relate to the shallow Susie Allen, things become a whole lot more interesting when she meets Bella, and more importantly, Henry and Eleanor Tilney. Not only is Henry smart, dashing and an all-round nice guy (aren’t they hard to find?), but Eleanor is the height of sophistication. Oh, and they’ve invited her to come stay at their ‘house’, Northanger Abbey.
To Cat and her over-active imagination, Northanger Abbey is a pleasure trove of secrets, delights and hidden nasties. Only problem is, the formidable General Tilney, and the lecherous John Thorpe, may just get in the way of true love.
This is a fun and light-hearted read, and for the most part, believable and relatable as a reader of the 21st century. Though McDermid is a tad too heavy-handed in her references of modern life (Facebook and Twilight are mentioned too often for comfort), and the ‘text speak’ is an abomination to have to read (even as a pain-in-the-arse 15 year old, I still used full sentences in messages), overall she creates the right tone and atmosphere.
Though the original Northanger Abbey is set in Bath, I thought McDermid made a wise choice in changing the location to Edinburgh – not only is it bustling and filled with life, but it also made a realistic setting for the continual ‘bumping into’ that each of the characters encountered. Because let’s be realistic, it’s very unlikely that you’re going to run into the same group of people on a daily basis in London.
I also got a particular delight in the absolute awfulness of the Thorpes, especially Bella and John. Though their actions were so extreme they were almost comical, I thought it added an element of excess that the novel sorely needed. McDermid painted a perfect picture of the highly undesirable John, who is not only arrogant and boring, but he is truly unaware of how much of a catch he isn’t – and I think we can safely say that we all know a least a handful of those types of people.
In saying that, John’s advances of Cat grew from annoying, to meddlesome, to downright creepy. Considering the way that he behaved towards her, and the things that he said about her behind her back, I found it untrue to her character that she didn’t eventually tell him to put a sock in it. Granted, she had her friendship with Bella to consider, but at the same time, no means no. Especially if you fancy a different fella.
While I think I was a bit old for the intended audience of Northanger Abbey, I did enjoy reading this modernisation of Jane Austen’s classic. I particularly think a lot of teenage girls would feel a real connection with a lot of the characters, and perhaps get them interested in reading Jane Austen, which has surely got to be the main point behind The Austen Project (behind making lots of money, of course). If you’re after a light read that won’t hurt your brain, and assuming you’re not a die-heart Austen fan, then I’d recommend Northanger Abbey. If the idea of a classic being re-written with references to sparkly vampires hurts your soul, then perhaps give this one a miss.