When I first heard about The Austen Project, I thought, ‘About bloody time’. If you’re not familiar, it’s Jane Austen reimagined with the help of six international authors; their aim is to take “these well-loved stories as their base” and write “their own unique take on Jane Austen’s novels”. It sounded promising.
First up was Joanna Trollope and ‘Sense and Sensibility’. My mum bought this for me for Christmas this year, and I devoured it in days, but then, I devour most books in days, and chocolate takes even less time… I was entertained, if not actually absorbed, but this isn’t about Trollope’s effort, this is about the second offering. Enter Val McDermid.
Best known for gritty Scottish crime novels, which she describes herself as ‘tartan noir’, I can see why she was chosen for the gothic parody that is Northanger Abbey. And yet… and yet.
There are the usual modern updates: Catherine Morland becomes ‘Cat’, Isabella ‘Bella’, Eleanor ‘Ellie’ (you get the idea) and the action is moved from Bath to Edinburgh (McDermid’s comfort zone?). The first sign of anything gothic comes on page five with Cat’s overactive imagined adventures of warring families, or her beloved turning out to be a vampire. I should have seen it coming. I really should. Especially when the back cover reads, “It looked like vampire heaven in the images she’d googled.”
But to be honest, I wasn’t too enamoured with the use of “googled” either. Snobbery which I’d be prepared to put aside if it wasn’t for the liberal sprinkling of social media and modern technology throughout the entire novel. I get it. It’s Austen reimagined. I get that Cat is a modern teenager, and as such, is glued to her smartphone desperate for a free wifi hotspot. And to be fair it’s probably how Austen herself would have written it today. But I still don’t like it. And, also, to me, Austen reimagined didn’t necessarily mean Austen completely modernised. I guess the publisher, HarperCollins, are trying to tap into a younger generation, and the copious vampire references won’t harm that either, but it does seem both gratuitous, and also a little patronising. I read Austen, as she imagined it, when I was a teenager, and I didn’t suffer for the lack of Facebook and Twitter.
And then there’s that cover. It’s pretty vile, to be honest. In case the photo doesn’t do the orange justice, it’s fluorescent. It doesn’t sit well in my tastefully colour-coded bookshelves at all (yes; I really am that pathetic…). I’ve spotted other cover designs floating about on the internet, including a much more attractive crimson with bats flying above the silhouette of the abbey. Why didn’t they ship that one out? They really should have. And if they really were trying to get the teen vampire-lovers on board, it would have served their purposes much better.
So what’s my verdict? I would never tell someone not to buy a book, because, let’s face it, even if it’s not quite top notch, it’s still better than not reading at all. It’s not as good as Trollope’s offering – the constant modernisation is distracting and clunky (special note, ‘amazeballs’ is barely acceptable when the cast of TOWIE use it. It should NEVER fall from the mouth of an Austen heroine!), and the vampire theme is depressingly jaded and far too easy a target for McDermid’s pen. Having said that, orange cover and all, it is still sitting on my bookshelf, and while traditionalists should steer well clear, if it introduces even one person to Austen in all her glory, then it’s worth a purchase.