If you like Jane Austen’s work you have probably already heard about the Austen Project. Within this ambitious undertaking a number of modern writers publish their takes on classical Austen’s plots, not only reimagining them in contemporary settings, but reworking them to create new works of fiction.
Val McDermid is one of established authors of modern crime fiction, so she was a natural choice for remaking Northanger Abbey, the novel satirizing Gothic literature, as immensely popular in Austen’s times as cheap mystery novels are today.
In the original book we see Catherine Morland, a naïve young girl who, under the influence of her friend, starts consuming Gothic novels in inordinate amounts and, what it worse, accept their contents at face value. Morbid mysteries, grisly murders, terrible crimes, skeletons in closets – all these typical traits of Gothic literature are perceived by her as facts of life, and she eagerly looks for them in everything that surrounds her.
When she goes to stay to the eponymous Northanger Abbey, a very Gothic-looking place, she immediately sees the signs of dark and troubled past in her hosts – only to discover, to her dismay, that what she perceived as mysteries had very mundane explanations, and she didn’t just make a fool of herself, but risked losing the attention of a young man she loves.
A New Take
Val McDermid is a crime writer in her own right, and it is only too natural to expect that in her case she will put some real murder and horror in the story – which makes the fact that she doesn’t all the more satisfying. It is still Jane Austen’s plot, albeit in a different setting, a skillful and pleasant homage to the original. McDermid doesn’t simply retell the original changing the time period – it will be a real treat for Austen’s fans who know her texts well, because McDermid made sure to reference a lot from the original novel without actually repeating it, and gives plausible explanations for why things happen exactly like they happened two hundred years ago.
It is pleasant to see that she also tries to look at the entire Austen Project from outside. The book is full of references to the famous Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula and its connections to modern vampire fiction, namely Twilight series. We seemingly can’t help but retell and reimagine the same stories over and over again, recreating and resurrecting the same characters, McDermid muses. Sometimes it leads to recreations becoming more familiar and recognizable than the originals – Cat Morland, the heroine, feels rather strange when reading original Dracula she never heard about after getting acquainted with its distant descendant. In modern culture we are much more likely to first watch a movie or a TV series and only then become interested in the literary original, even if we know about its existence.
Jane Austen, according to McDermid, enjoys (or suffers) similar status today: all too often people are familiar with her work only through cinematic reimaginings, with the original lost in the mists of time.