Northern Northanger: McDermid updates the setting from Bath to Edinburgh. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey and the struggle to breathe new life into Jane Austen

In the next instalment of the “Austen Project”, the Scottish crime writer gives her modern-day take on the novel formerly known as Susan.

Northanger Abbey
Val McDermid
Borough Press, 352pp, £18.99

It is an odd thing, the so-called “Austen Project”. The idea, dreamt up by some clever operative at HarperCollins, is that a well-known novelist produce a contemporary version of each of Jane Austen’s six novels. You can imagine the growing excitement in the marketing department: each volume would catch both the contemporary author’s loyal readers and all those Austen fans. Better still, the series could hook some of those who have enjoyed Austen on the screen but who might find early-19th-century prose too daunting. Joanna Trollope has already “done” Sense and Sensibility; now the crime writer Val McDermid, doyenne of tartan noir, gives us her version of Northanger Abbey, transposed to some kind of present day.

The heroine is the callow, lovable Cat Morland, taken by friends of her parents not to Regency Bath but to contemporary Edinburgh, during the festival (so there are still assembly rooms and balls and Georgian façades). Henry Tilney, whom she falls for, is a young lawyer rather than a vicar; Johnny Thorpe, who assumes she will fall for him, is an obnoxious young City type. And so on. But, as in Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility, the narrative follows its original – episode by episode, dialogue for dialogue – very dutifully. We know it must be contemporary because there is a very large number of text messages and references to Cat’s interest in Facebook, but the structure is all Austen’s until a twist at the very end. In the original novel, General Tilney cruelly throws Catherine out of his house when he discovers that she is not the heiress he supposed. In this updating, he is given a more modern (and purely bigoted) reason for turning against her.

It is what used to be called an “imitation”: an updating that is supposed to be all the more pleasurable if you know the original. Yet, in successful instances, the point is as often the deviation from the original as the replication of it. That blissful cinematic imitation of Austen’s Emma, Clueless, is delightful because it improvises its analogies. In Beverly Hills, the thoroughly cool latter-day Frank Churchill character, who loves shopping and looks like a perfect partner for a chic girl, is unavailable because . . . he is gay. Of course!

Readers will find few of the pleasures of deviation in McDermid’s novel, but, if they know their Austen, will keep knowing exactly what is going to happen. And in one respect the old story is hard to update. When Northanger Abbey was published in 1818, the year after Austen’s death, it was with her prefatory note explaining, somewhat sheepishly, that it had been written 13 years earlier and featured “books, and opinions” that had since become “comparatively obsolete”. Composed as a jeu d’esprit when Austen was in her twenties, it preserved the satire on Gothic fiction for which she was now apologising.

It is just this satire that McDermid finds trickiest. You might think that such an accomplished crime writer would relish finding a contemporary equivalent for Catherine Morland’s conviction that she has stumbled on a murder mystery. Austen’s heroine has fed her imagination with Anne Radcliffe’s novels; McDermid’s reads the Twilight novels and a series called Hebridean Harpies, which includes such gems as Vampires on Vatersay and Banshees of Berneray. Compared to these, Radcliffe seems positively Tolstoyan. McDermid is having fun, of course, but her narrative task unfortunately requires her to show that these tales have taken possession of her otherwise delightful heroine’s untutored imagination.

We must believe she could fancy that the stiff, peremptory Falklands veteran General Tilney, who looks “amazingly young”, therefore just might be a vampire. After all, there don’t seem to be many mirrors in the house. Tilney mère is supposed to have died of leukaemia four years earlier, but young Cat “couldn’t help a tiny niggling voice in the back of her head muttering about bad blood and vampires”. Perhaps Mrs Tilney is a prisoner in one of the towers of the former abbey in the Scottish Borders that is the Tilney home? Or perhaps her husband murdered her? Or are the Tilneys a whole family of the undead? Cat may be a callow teenager from deepest Dorset but her delusions are as incredible as they are indistinct.

Austen’s novel is a witty parable about the uses of the imagination; McDermid’s determinedly sportive retelling does not have enough belief in the parable to breathe new life into it.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London and the author of “What Matters in Jane Austen?” (Bloomsbury)

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism