Northanger Abbey is a 2014 novel written by Val McDermid and published by the Borough Press. This novel is the second in the series the "Austen Project," an ongoing venture wherein six acclaimed authors will rewrite Jane Austen's novels in a modern context.
Catherine Morland, or, as she prefers to be called, "Cat", is a seventeen-year-old girl from the county of Dorset. Due to the fact that she is the daughter of a minister and has been home schooled all her life, Cat hasn't had many social interactions or forays into the world outside of her hometown Piddle Valley. It is only natural, therefore, that she jumps on the opportunity to visit Edinburgh with her neighbors and family friends the Allens. Edinburgh has limitless cultural outlets for Cat - theatre, music, and shops fill up each and every one of her nights.
While in Edinburgh, Cat meets Bella and John Thorpe, as well as the charming Henry Tilney. Cat is torn between allegiances to each, and she frequently has a hard time navigating the social expectations that are coupled with friendship and romance. She often falls back on to her beloved science fiction and horror novels in order to focus her attention on a comfortable and familiar space in her life.
Proliferation of Technology
In McDermid's attempt to reconceptualize Northanger Abbey in today's society, she mostly relies on the presence of the internet and social media in everyday life. Cat and Bella constantly refer to their Facebook and Twitter accounts, and experience the technical difficulties of entering phone numbers into smartphones incorrectly. Very few pages go by without a reference to modern technology, in a style that will likely be outdated in a handful of years (if the reader doesn't find them outdated already).
Though it seems that McDermid fumbles at times, her use of Google and Facebook stalking as a means to gather more information on strangers are of note. When Cat meets Henry and inevitably falls for his good looks and charisma, she decides to search his name on Google, and when that doesn't work, she searches for both him and his sister on Facebook. After searching through countless photos and posts on his sisters' page, Cat is able to obtain both Henry's employment information and relationship status. The use of technology to overcome Cat's shyness is exactly in line with the behavior of many people today - and shows how the infusion of modern culture doesn't have to be as blatant or as heavy handed as the texting lingo that McDermid spreads throughout the text.
The Importance of Young Adult Literature
Literature written for readers younger than sixteen years of age often carries with itself a negative reputation. These books are seen as "lesser than," or "watered down," and not seen as being of as much note as literature written for adults. In much of the same way that Northanger Abbey (1817) is a Gothic text parodying its own genre, so too is Northanger Abbey (2014) aware of itself as a piece of Young Adult fiction. Whereas the 1817 version includes references to other famous Gothic texts of the time, the 2014 adaptation discusses popular teen fiction of the 2000s.
Early in the text, Cat scoffs at the idea of her time in Edinburgh being similar to the Harry Potter novels, stating: "Harry Potter? Even little kids don't believe Harry Potter's for real. You can't long for something you know is total fantasy" (McDermid 11). Outwardly, it seems as if Cat is critiquing the Harry Potter series as infantile, and that it is silly to imagine that life could be similar to the magical setting present in them. However, Cat herself is guilty of imagining events around her are like those in her novels "Ghasts of Gigha" and "Poltergeist Plague of Pabbay" (54). Novels like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games are just as imaginatively powerful as books written for adults, and are important in their cultural standing - even if they aren't deemed as "classic literature" like the novels that Cat peruses.
Despite McDermid's reputation as one of the UK's top crime writers and the author of twenty-five best selling novels, her attempt at rewriting Austen for a modern, youthful audience has received tepid reviews. On Amazon, one of the few online marketplaces selling the novel, there are more one-star reviews than five-star, averaging a 3.0/5.
McDermid mostly receives negative marks for her awkward handling of "teenage language," overusing phrases like "totes amazeballs," "OMG, like...," and "bgfs"; or "Facebook" and "Twitter" in their verb form.
Significance of Adaptation
Northanger Abbey stands in a strange middle ground between adaptation of Austen's work, and companion to the Twilight series. Much of the novel is focused on the developing relationship between Henry Tilney and Cat - more so than in the original text - and Henry is recast as a character very reminiscent of, if not Edward Cullen from Twilight, then at least modern sexualized vampires. He is described as being almost "too pretty for a man," tall, pale, and with a "wolfish grin" that reveals "small, sharp teeth" (24). He speaks in trite phrases like, " I promise you, it's not as hard as it looks. I'll be gentle with you," and the baffling, "That's a lovely frock...I love the way all the layers are cut on the bias so they cascade like a waterfall" (25, 30). He speaks in a peculiar manner that manages to wildly charm Cat. His descriptions and behavior seem almost predatorial, especially considering that McDermid decided to keep Cat's age at 17 and Henry's age ambiguous (though he is old enough to be a lawyer).
This adaptation often doesn't differ enough from the original text to truly be set in modern times, and often feels awkwardly trapped between the two worlds. It is, however, an avenue for Young Adult readers to be introduced to the bare or basic concepts of Austen's work, while still couched in the familiar territory of Young Adult romance novels.