Val McDermid (2014) Northanger Abbey.
Northanger Abbey isn’t so much a place as a time. In the introduction to Jane Austen’s (2000) Northanger Abbey the reader is informed it was written in 1897-8, but not in publication until 1803. So it’s a relatively old book, written in English, in a style of indirect free discourse (whatever that means) which Austen patented. It is also steeped in the sensibilities and, in particular, the Gothic literature of the time. The reader is addressed directly and enters into a conspiracy with the writer as she maps out, in a knowingly ironic tone, Catherine Morland’s episodic journey into society; a journey from innocence to experience – or something like that.
Look at the opening of both books and guess the modern reading. ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her to be born a heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition were all equally against her.’
‘It was a source of constant disappointment to Catherine Morland that her life did not resemble her books. Or rather, the books in which she found its likeness were so unexciting. Plenty of novels were set in small country villages and towns like the Dorset hamlet where she lived…Piddle Valley…Cat as she preferred to be known.’
Cat, in Jane Austen’s time, was of course, something you skinned or kicked on the way to the barn. Moore’s law has led to many innovations. I hope that one day we can sic one book, like fighting dogs, against the other and watch them battle it out. My money would be firmly on Jane Austen.
The plot demands that Cat is mistaken for sole heiress to Mr Allen’s fortune. Write what you know is a literary convention. The spa town of Bath were socialites gathered like pigeon shit around an open loft is updated to contemporary Edinburgh with its theatre and book festivals. General Tilney when he finds this not to be the case flouts social convention and sends Catherine home -ALONE- from Northanger Abbey, unescorted by a gentleman relative or lady friend. Shock, horror, gasp. It doesn’t really translate nowadays. The right of primogeniture is a more nuanced foreign concept to a contemporary audience, but perhaps the rights of a married lady as a chattel to be herded like sheep is more easily understood. Henry Tilney’s impotence can only be understood in reference to the former and Eleanor Tilney’s quite courage in terms of the former.
Similarly, the boorish and ill-bred John Thorpe is a stock character. His ability to see shortcomings in all but himself translates into logorrhea about his two-seater red sports car, how fast it goes, and how much he paid for it – and how he always duped the other fellow – to Austen’s John Thorpe, who purchased a two-seater gig and how his horse is a marvel. Simply a marvel.
But when John Thorpe interrogates Catherine about her relationship to Mr Allen and he tries to wheedle from her how much her benefactor is worth he refers to him as an ‘old Jew’. This is a term McDermid’s Thorpe also uses. The structure in the book is broadly identical, but the meaning is lost in translation. McDermid, as an ex-reporter, adopts punchy sentences and a Bridget Jones- type approach which lacks the subtlety and melodic variation of Austen’s prose. There’s no sin in that.
I’d sic, Grace, a character from Alice Munro’s story, ‘Passion’, on both of them: ‘she hated spoiled rich girls of whom nothing was ever asked but they wheedle and demand’.