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Why I Re-Wrote Jane Austen's 'Outlier' Novel

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NORTHANGER ABBEY
Grove Press

It was probably the most terrifying question of my writing career. "Would you like to write a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey?" said the editor from HarperCollins UK with the cut glass accent and the string of pearls. I mean, I'm a crime writer. Jeans and hoodies. Dark psychological thrillers with a judicious spatter of blood and guts, that's what I do. Not chick lit. Certainly not romance.

"Me?" I said, feeling a bit like the Ugly Duckling. "Me? A swan?"

Of course, I said yes.

Northanger Abbey is the least well known of Jane Austen's six published novels. There's a good reason for that. It's because it's the only one that is more than a story of love clambering over obstacles to get to the happy ending. Northanger Abbey is the outlier, in more than one respect.

Crucially, as well as the romance, it's also a satire. Austen acknowledges the fascination of her readers for the Gothic novel laced with horror and suspense, and rather than try to follow the fashion, she mercilessly mocks both the form and the content of the works of writers such as Mrs. Radclyffe and Thomas Love Peacock.

But nobody apart from English Literature students reads those books any more. So when it came to re-imagining Northanger Abbey in a contemporary setting, the first challenge I faced was finding an equivalent I could satirize in the same way. I considered Fifty Shades of Grey. But everything that could be done to parody that has already been done, and done side-splittingly well. Besides, the defining characteristic of Catherine Morley, Austen's heroine, is that she is an innocent abroad. I didn't see how I could make S&M lite work with that.

And then it hit me. Vampires. Given the success of Twilight and "True Blood" and their legions of fans among young women like Catherine, it was an obvious choice. All that heightened romance, the overblown plotlines and the sheer silliness of the sexual tropes were a gift to anyone with a shred of humor. The more I read around the subject, the more fun I knew I could have.

As if the satire wasn't enough, Austen also seizes the opportunity to take a shrewd and unsparing look at the role fiction plays in our lives. Her primary targets are the impressionable young women who take fiction as a template for living, but she doesn't hesitate to pick on critics, poets and historians and give them all a piece of her mind. Again, there were parallels I could pick up on here.

Because the longer I spent thinking about this project, the more obvious the connections to our contemporary lives became. Superficially, our day to day existences are very different from those of Austen's characters. For example, nobody goes to Bath for the season to take the waters and dance at balls these days.

My first task was to find a modern equivalent and the answer was soon obvious. Edinburgh in August, when the various festivals take place and the city is overrun by performers and punters, all determined to see and be seen. The perfect setting for my cast of characters and their antics.

The other thing I soon realized was that I wasn't going to have to make many changes other than the ones forced on me by modern communications technology. Because when you look more closely, there's a lot more that connects us than separates us from Austen's cast of characters.

People are still obsessed with social status and money. Shallow social climbers like Mrs. Thorpe and her troop of daughters are still with us, only now they pore over magazine celebrations of celebrity. Shopaholics like Mrs. Allen haunt malls the length and breadth of this and every other wealthy country. John Thorpe, with his vanity, his bluster and his vainglorious fixation with his means of locomotion would fancy himself an extra in "Fast & Furious 5". Men like General Tilney still jitter with anxiety at the thought of gold diggers pursuing their sons' inheritances.

And ultimately that's why Jane Austen is easy to reimagine in contemporary terms. Two hundred years on, human nature hasn't changed at all. I had the time of my life reworking Austen's story, reveling in the wit and charm of the original and enjoying finding ways to translate that into modern life. Even the love story won me over. And I managed to get to the end without leaving a trail of bodies behind me.

Apparently, to my surprise, dear reader, I am a swan.

Val McDermid is the author of Northanger Abbey [Grove Press, $26.00].

 
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