The Austen Project

Austen Portrait
Jane Austen, by her sister Cassandra

I’ve recently read Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid. Yes, you read that right; not Austen, McDermid. And I loved it. It’s the second book in The Austen Project, in which contemporary authors re-write each of Austen’s six finished novels. It’s an ambitious, and controversial, undertaking, and I think its success will largely depend on how well the writers bring Austen’s social commentary and satire into the twenty-first century. Having written my dissertation on Austen, I confess that one of my major pet peeves is when people treat her work as simple love stories; yes, romance plays a major role in all her novels, but she uses it to cast light on human behaviour and the inequalities of the society in which she lived. As a result, much of her writing is timeless; Mr. Darcy is as sexy today as he was two hundred years ago, and, while Catherine Morland in the new Northanger Abbey is more likely to watch The Vampire Diaries than read the works of Ann Radcliffe, it is easy to see young TVD fans in Austen’s Catherine. Some of it, however, might have more impact and relevance if modified for the present-day. For instance, Jane Fairfax’s only options in the original Emma are to be a governess or marry, something few British women today can relate to; on the other hand, a struggle to prove her worth alongside male colleagues or to balance a career with family life would serve to drive the essence of Jane’s story home to a new generation.

Another issue I foresee with this series is the extent to which characters and plots adhere to the original. This is an issue with any adaptation that makes significant changes right from the start, as this series does with setting. Teenagers these days don’t go to balls at their neighbours’ country homes every weekend; Cat meets Henry Tilney instead at a ceilidh, which teenagers do do, but usually not with any regularity or frequency. Nor are they likely to make and accept marriage proposals within weeks of having met. Simply put, the way in which people interact – and of particular significance in these stories, young people in mixed-gender groups – has changed a lot in the past two hundred years. A friend of mine also pointed out that Fanny Price marrying her cousin, whom she grew up with, may raise a few more eyebrows in modern times.

Overall, I think McDermid’s approach was a success. Many characters’ traits and idiosyncracies have changed from the original – for instance, General Tilney refuses to connect to the internet as much as possible for fear of being hacked – yet McDermid does it in such a way that it serves to make the characters resonate more strongly with modern readers. Likewise, General Tilney’s motivation behind sending Cat home in disgrace is not financial, as it is in the original; rather, he mistakenly believes his daughter, Eleanor, and Cat are in a relationship. In this way, McDermid chooses a controversy that is more relevant to the modern day; it would be hard to believe anyone would really throw someone out of his house because she had less money than he had believed, and was therefore considered an unsuitable partner for his son, but it is easy to imagine an old-fashioned army general objecting to his daughter’s sexuality.

Although I’ve discussed how Northanger Abbey updates the story in a way that makes it more relateable to modern readers, I would still argue that these books would be best enjoyed by people who are already familiar with Austen’s work. By reading Northanger Abbey with my memory of the original in my mind, I can see where McDermid diverged from the original narrative, and more fully appreciate the impact of these changes. To go back to the example of General Tilney throwing Cat out of the house, his motivation in McDermid’s version makes me see his original motivation in a new light. It highlights how he is a father who thinks he has the right to meddle in his adult children’s lives, a particular facet of his character which 200 years’ distance from the original novel had somewhat obscured for me.

Having enjoyed Northanger Abbey, I look forward to reading the rest of the series.


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