Character adaptation in Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s "Northanger Abbey"

Hausarbeit (Hauptseminar), 2014

22 Seiten


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. A Brief Note on Reading Women in the Early Nineteenth Century and Exchanging Gothic Fiction with Twilight

3. Adaptation of Character
3.1 Leading Ladies: Catherine “Cat” Morland, Isabella “Bella” Thorpe and Eleanor “Ellie” Tilney
3.2 The Gents: Henry Tilney (Henry), John “Johnny” Thorpe and General “the General” Tilney

4. Media Use

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Ever since their publication between the years of 1811 and 1817, Jane Austen’s novels, namely Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, have never gone out of print. Her works are “perennial favourites” (Carson xi) and, furthermore, there seems to be a huge demand for “Austen novelties”. It does not come as a surprise, therefore, that there are hundreds and hundreds of Austen adaptations and spin-offs. All six novels have been repeatedly turned into movies and the amount of literary adaptations[1] appears to be almost uncountable. Since most “educated people have at least heard of Jane Austen [and her] novels are in the public domain” (Parrill 176), adapting them seems to be particularly attractive in regard to the low economic risk and reduced investment costs (no acquisition of legal licences and little marketing costs). Austen has become a “cultural commodity[,] almost a brand name” (Wiltshire 7) and there will probably always be new publications as long as there is such a keen and vast market.[2] The recent “Austen Project”, published by Harper Collins, sees six bestselling authors adapting Jane Austen’s novels and transposing them into the twenty-first century. Economically, it profits not only from Austen’s fan base but also from the faithful readers of popular writers such as Val McDermid, who adapted Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. This retelling is the latest publication of the Austen Project and seems particularly interesting since Northanger Abbey is chiefly concerned with the mocking of Gothic fiction and the vindication of reading. It deals with bestsellers from the early nineteenth century and thus appears to be firmly rooted in its time. Due to these intriguing particularities, the paper at hand is based on Val McDermid’s modern retelling of Northanger Abbey.

McDermid follows the plot structure very closely and the reinterpretation of the source text chiefly lies in the temporal, linguistic and cultural update. The plot is set in an environment shifted by two hundred years, Bath has been swapped for the now more fashionable Edinburgh Festival Fringe and almost all characters are expertly tweeting, texting, and posting “selfies” on Facebook. Whereas Austen set out to write an amusing burlesque and a vindication of novel reading, McDermid’s adaptation aims at pleasing the Austen-familiar readers and at humouring them by applying a “modern twist”. Austen’s novel is “an exercise in the genre” (Rigberg 32), McDermid’s part of a major literary, profit-orientated project. Since the adaptation of plot seems very faithful to the original, this paper mainly focuses on the adaptation of character. Whereas, for instance, seventeen-year-old Catherine was of “prima age in Georgian times to be wooed and wed[, in] 2014, Cat Morland is considering what she’ll do when she finishes school” (The Saturday Newspaper). Such temporal updates most certainly shift the dynamics of the entire plot as well as the interpersonal relationships of the characters. In order to provide some background knowledge, there will be a brief section on female novel reading in the early nineteenth century and the issue of replacing Catherine’s reading preferences (Twilight instead of The Mysteries of Udolpho !). Additionally, there will be a brief chapter on the introduction of new media. Due to the finite length of this paper, this analysis is constricted to six major characters of the novel namely Catherine Morland, her love interest in Henry Tilney, her closest friends (Isabella and Eleanor), the arch-villain General Tilney and Henry Tilney’s “rival” John Thorpe. Other aspects regarding the theory of adaptation, as picked up in McDermid’s introduction of new topics such as “Scottish twists” and homosexuality, could be touched on only briefly or had to be omitted altogether.

2. A Brief Note on Reading Women in the Early Nineteenth Century and Exchanging Gothic Fiction with Twilight

Female literacy increased dramatically between 1750 and the mid-1830s in Europe and the subsequent “reading craze inspired furious criticism as well as stunned amazement” (Lyons 119). Especially the consumption of works of fiction was deemed to be worrisome by some contemporaries since many feared that female readers could be led morally astray due to their “impressionable” nature (Greg qtd. in Jack 234). This ensued “wide-ranging debates about what women . . . should be encouraged to read, or discouraged – prevented even – from reading” (Jack 228). Medicals further fuelled these worries by “diagnosing” that “women’s heightened sensibilities made them prone to hysteria and madness. Both these conditions might be induced by excessive and inappropriate reading, particularly of novels” (Jack 233-4). Accordingly, a reoccurring topic in “anti-novel literature [was the] vulnerability of the novel-reading girl to seduction” (Pearson 196). The genre which was most often mocked in these works and most often publicly debated was the one nowadays referred to as “Gothic fiction”.[3] This genre became immensely popular in the 1790s and introduced new themes and topics such as “horror, mystery, and faraway settings” (Greenblatt 584). But even though Northanger Abbey bears the characteristics of a Gothic parody, including an easily frightened, naïve heroine whose fears turn out to be ill-founded, the novel is not only mocking a genre but is also rather a vindication of novel reading in general while additionally advertising a more reasonable approach, since works of fiction are commodities “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed . . . in the best chosen language” (Austen 36-7). Stephen Greenblatt observes that Jane Austen set out “to explore what the novel form could be and do” (524) and in fact, Northanger Abbey is “consciously literary” (Gill and Gregory 3). Instead of merely criticising/vindicating novels per se, it critically engages with the genre itself (cf. Sutherland 353). The incongruities between literature and life are looked at in a comical way and the tendencies of novels to imitate one another rather than real life, is mocked (cf. Fergus 11).

Eric Rothstein has observed that “the strength of Northanger Abbey, and its theme, emerge from the connections between Catherine’s education and ours, and between the social and literary modes of her experience” (qtd. in Williams 11). To understand it entirely – especially as a parody – the reader ought to be familiar with the features of the Gothic genre (cf. Gill and Gregory 24). Thus, whereas Austen mainly focuses on the works of Ann Radcliffe as a starting point for her parody, McDermid swops them for the Twilight -series,[4] nowadays “the most popular of the vampire romance strain” (Wisker 234). This seems to be a reasonable exchange since the Twilight -fan culture appears to be akin to the “Gothic craze” of the early-nineteenth century and the readership has also been the target of various criticism, for instance “the mainstream press has belittled the reactions of girls and women to the Twilight series[,] frequently using Victorian era gendered words like ‘fever’, ‘madness’, ‘hysteria’ and ‘obsession’ to describe Twilighters” (Click, Aubrey, and Behm-Morawitz 6). In accordance, best-selling author J. K. Rowling agreed that this adaptation “shows that innocent, bookish girls in the thrall to the supernatural have changed surprisingly little in two centuries” (qtd. in Overdrive) and it appears as if McDermid has chosen an appropriate substitute.

3. Adaptation of Character

3.1 Leading Ladies: Catherine “Cat” Morland, Isabella “Bella” Thorpe and Eleanor “Ellie” Tilney

Catherine Morland[5] is “set up from the outset as an anti-heroine. She has none of the characteristics of novel-heroines; [i.e.] she is not an orphan [and] not beautiful but ‘very plain’” (Waldron 26). Her character seems to be modelled on the formula found in the burlesque novels.[6] Typical burlesque heroines are young and naïve but commonly possess sound, healthy affections and a good deal of common sense. Their errors are not likely to be long lasting, for their own abilities, with a little experience, are bound to correct them (cf. Kirkham 88). In accordance, Catherine is “without conceit or affection of any kind – her manners just removed from the awkwardness and shyness of a girl; her person pleasing” (Austen 19) and she displays “an unerring sensitivity to certain basic values, and even though she is so lacking in an appreciation of the facetious, she proves her right to respond as she does by the depth of her own feelings” (Hardy 8). In this regard, the adaptation of the character seems to be very true to the source text and Cat’s character is described similarly to Catherine’s: whereas Catherine is “affectionate[,] cheerful and open” (Austen 19), Cat is repeatedly described as “’lovely [and without] cynicism’” (McDermid 174), her family is “deeply average and desperately dull” (McDermid 2) but also loving and kind (cf. McDermid 325). The source text characterises Catherine’s family as “plain matter-of-fact people, who seldom [aim] at wit of any kind” (Austen 64). Furthermore, Catherine has grown up “’in a small retired village in the country [where she] can only go and call on [the rather dull] Mrs. Allen’” (Austen 76) which Henry Tilney very rightly considers to be “’a picture of intellectual poverty’” (Austen 76). Accordingly, Catherine strikes the reader as rather naïve and ill-informed and displays an almost comic degree of social unsophistication (cf. Mooneyham 3). This rural background is maintained in the adaptation, which sees Cat stemming from a tiny village with the rather provincial sounding name Piddle Valley (a replacement of the more neutral “Fullerton”). In addition to that, Cat’s sole social contact remain to be the Allens, who have been converted into “the culture vultures of Piddle Valley” (McDermid 6) and hence rendered slightly more sophisticated.

Catherine Morland has often been referred to with a term coined by W. D. Howells who described her as a “silly little goose [–] a goose, but a very engaging [one]” (55). In fact, Catherine is described as being little educated and as not having been interested in a thorough education: “She never could learn or understand any thing [sic!] before she was taught; and sometimes not even then, for she was often inattentive and occasionally stupid” (Austen 16). Thus, neither education nor social interaction prepare Catherine for the larger world (cf. Mooneyham 3) and she has to undergo both a social and a literary education (cf. Mooneyham 5).[7] Overall it seems as if McDermid has dropped the notion of Cat(herine) being “a silly little goose”. Catherine’s and Cat’s educational background, however, is still very similar. To justify Cat’s gaps in education and social unsophistication, McDermid turned her into a home-schooled naïf. But whereas Catherine’s experience of being taught at home by her mother, whose “time was so much occupied lying-in and teaching the little ones, that her elder daughters were inevitably left to shift for themselves” (Austen 17), was rather common at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Cat’s experience of home schooling appears to be somewhat unusual. It is justified in as much as Catherine’s mother is a former primary teacher (cf. McDermid 2) and thus a “professional”, and by hinting at Mrs Morland’s own negative experiences of school which have “left her with a firm conviction that her children would thrive under her own instruction” (McDermid 2). Not being “expos[ed] to a classroom and playground society” (McDermid 3) left Cat rather naïve when it comes to social interactions and, as mentioned above, her being home-schooled has ultimately resulted in educational gaps and social unsophistication.

Whereas Catherine’s stupidity and intellectual shortcomings are pronounced as appealing in Austen – “a good-looking girl, with an affectionate heart and a very ignorant mind, cannot fail of attracting a clever young man, unless circumstances are particularly untoward” (Austen 106) – this would have made a rather awkward basis for a modern romance. Catherine easily accepts Henry Tilney as her mentor and even openly acknowledges at one point that he “’must know best’” (Austen 144). In an attempt to render Cat a less “ignorant” character, it is stated by her mother that she might be “one of those individuals whose right brain dominate[s], making them creative, musical and imaginative” (McDermid 4). It appears to be a noteworthy aspect that (presumably to make sure that her core characteristic of being dreamy and quite scatter-brained remains intact) this notion is countered by Mr Morland who states that she is nevertheless a “’completely dozy article’” (McDermid 4) who might have creative interests but does not pursue any of them (cf. McDermid 4). Similarly to the home-schooling, this is yet another detail McDermid has added which renders Cat a more appropriate 21st-century-heroine: whereas Catherine might only be expected to have a basic education and might even be deemed to be particularly appealing in her ignorance which was probably sufficient for any matrimonial match (the only thing she can truthfully aspire to), Cat cannot rely on “ignorant” charms for finding a male provider or even the notion of the latter being something acceptable in modern society. Her parents are obviously worried about her future prospects (cf. McDermid 4) and are trying to help her find the right occupation, one “’that requires no qualification other than a good heart’” (McDermid 5). Even though Cat has only “’a bunch of GSCEs’” (McDermid 269) and is no academic, she has to try and find a job nevertheless. Whereas her mother pictures her as a future-nanny, Cat aspires to become a writer of children’s novels (cf. McDermid 269) and thus tries to turn her fascination with story-telling into something profitable. This proves that despite her educational shortcomings, she is by no means “stupid” but possesses sound reason and a grasp of her skills, any potential occupational possibilities and the demands of the real world. In contrast to Catherine, who is intellectually inferior to other characters, Cat is mainly educationally limited. The existence of her wit is further shown in her trait of mocking others and even making sarcastic remarks (cf. McDermid 146).

In a novel about novels, Catherine’s reading and reaction to literature is at the heart of the story. One of the main themes of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is therefore the mocking of the Gothic genre, something which is mainly to the cost of Catherine as the “heroine” of the novel. There are continual references[8] to her heroic qualities, i.e. when she suffers like a typical heroine (cf. Austen 52) or when she cannot go to sleep after plans to go out with the Tilneys have failed and she is dismissed by the narrator “to the sleepless couch, which is the true heroine’s portion; to a pillow strewed with thorns and wet with tears” (Austen 86). Catherine’s reading list mainly contains works of Gothic fiction and she has read “all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those qualifications which are so serviceable and so soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives” (Austen 17). This includes authors such as Alexander Pope, Thomas Gray, James Thompson and William Shakespeare. Cat on the other hand, does not aspire to spend any time on highbrow literature (with the exception of listening to an audiobook of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on her way to Edinburgh; cf. McDermid 12). Instead, she is completely amazed by intellectually rather undemanding literature and her reading does not include the English literary canon but works such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies or the fictitious Hebridean Harpies -series. The introduction to a fictitious fantasy series is an element added by McDermid and with titles such as The Poltergeist Plague of Pabay, Shapeshifters of Shuna, and Killer Kelpies of Kerrera, one might argue, that Cat’s reading list has been given a “Scottish twist” by McDermid (Adair). Cat’s reading seems to be rather lowbrow and hence, John Mullan has argued in a review published in The New Statesman that compared to her reading preferences, “Radcliffe seems positively Tolstoyan” (well, might be nowadays!). The importance of Cat’s literary preferences has been toned down and turned into a joke, particularly in regards to the often rather formulaic titles of fantasy novels, it seems. Cat does not read to become a heroine, but rather “all her life ha[s] been preparation for the role [of a heroine]” (McDermid 5). But regardless of their different choices in regards to reading, both Catherine and Cat display a tendency that uses novels as a means of guidance in real life. “Deluded by too much novel reading and not enough experience, [both girls] cannot make distinctions between words and life” (Levine 335). Hence, Catherine identifies General Tilney as a “Gloucestershire Montoni” (Gill and Gregory 54) and – as a “well-read” (Austen 172) fan of Gothic fiction – she is certain that she knows a villain when she sees one. After waking up from her “visions of romance”,[9] Catherine realises that everything has been “a voluntary, self-created delusion” (Austen 187-8). Whereas Catherine’s “visions of romance” seem to be involuntarily self-inflicted, Cat appears to evoke such notions rather willingly. From the start, it is noted that it “was a source of constant disappointment to [her] that her life does not more closely resemble her books” (McDermid 1) and that she perceives her family home in Piddle Valley as dissatisfying since it is “not a backdrop that fuel[s] her imagination one whit” (McDermid 2). Cat is seeking to be deluded, “determined to discover dark secrets, set on scaring herself silly” (McDermid 282), and takes a conscious approach to the “visions of romance” that Catherine does not display. She actively tries “to be the heroine of her own adventure” (McDermid 2), constructs stories around herself which are the perfect backdrop for this desire (cf. McDermid 2) and after she is invited to Northanger Abbey, she is looking forward to going “on a vampire hunt” (McDermid 203). Furthermore, Cat differentiates between her reading and the plausibility of the various fantastic genres she indulges in. Whereas, for example, Harry Potter “’is totally fantasy[, vampires] could be true [and] be the way things are beneath the surface [since they make] sense in a way that . . . silly spells don’t’” (cf. McDermid 11). She is completely obsessed with the vampire genre, particularly with the Twilight -series, and takes both the knowledge gained from the novels and their movie adaptations into account, i.e. when the General leads her through the (now Caledonian) Abbey and Cat notes that if “he was trying to put her off the scent, he’s failed [since she has] seen the Twilight films and [knows] you [can] have the latest in designer clothes and furniture and still be a vampire” (McDermid 257). The fact that Catherine’s suspicions are solely based on her reading but Cat draws ideas from both the Twilight book-series and the movie adaptations appears to be a striking difference. As Gill and Gregory have pointed out: “In a literary novel, Catherine’s mistake is appropriately literary: instead of taking the language of Gothic as a metaphor for potential evil, Catherine takes it literary” (58). Thus, McDermid has undone one of the main characteristics of the novel.


[1] There appears to be three kinds of literary Austen adaptations: firstly, novels which stick very closely to the storyline and imagine background stories or continuations (such as P. D. James’s recent publication Death Comes to Pemberley). Secondly, novels that retell the stories with a twist, i.e. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and thirdly, novels which are only loosely based on Austen’s “famous six” (best known is probably Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary).

[2] Robert McCrum has criticised in an article published in The Guardian that “[n]othing illustrates the loss of nerve in contemporary British publishing than the vogue for franchising classic literary brands” and wonders whether such projects should actually be replaced with “giving oxygen, light and space to new fiction by new writers, the Austens . . . of the future”. As long as adaptations prove to be financially successful, however, the latter statement will probably remain wishful thinking.

[3] There is no exact definition of “the Gothic”. It started out as a medieval revival and inspired a variety of works. Some features, however, are reoccurring in many Gothic novels and can therefore be regarded as characteristic. Among them are remote settings, “dramatic events which happen in the night and often during tempestuous weather; an innocent young woman who is threatened by a powerful, corrupt and sometimes lecherous nobleman [and] an eerie atmosphere” (Gill and Gregory 24).

[4] McDermid actually considered satirising Fifty Shades of Grey but abolished that idea since erotic fiction would not befit Catherine’s “defining characteristic [of being] an innocent abroad” (McDermid – Why I Re-Wrote Jane Austen’s Outlier Novel).

[5] To facilitate differentiation between the source text and the adaptation, I will refer to the original characters as “Catherine, Isabella, Eleanor, Henry Tilney, General Tilney and John Thorpe” and use abbreviated forms, as they are actually introduced in the retelling of the novel, when talking about the others (“Cat, Bella, Ellie, Henry, the General, Johnny Thorpe”).

[6] Certain eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century writers such as Charlotte Lennox, author of The Female Quixote (1752) were particularly popular.

[7] The first part takes place in Bath, where she encounters the lies and overall deceitfulness of Isabella and John Thorpe and the second one in Northanger Abbey, where Catherine must learn that fiction is not always applicable to real life. The dichotomist structure of the novel has often been criticised. Ann Ehrenpreis, for instance, has pointed out that the “formal relationship between the Bath episodes and the Northanger experience is not comfortable, and Catherine’s adventures at Northanger are not a natural consequence of her reading” (qtd. in Glock 33).

[8] It seems a noteworthy aspect that these references are made in a different manner in McDermid’s adaptation where – in contrast to Austen’s narrative – the reader is never directly addressed and the narrator does not refer to Cat(herine) as “my heroine” (Austen 102). This is probably the case because direct references between narrator and reader are rather uncommon in contemporary “mainstream” fiction.

[9] McDermid sticks very closely to plot and structure of the source text and one of the main changes of the adaptation lies in the updated language. It is therefore noteworthy that she directly quotes: “The visions of romance were over” (280) when referring to Cat’s awakening. This might be regarded as an indicator of what McDermid found most important to adapt (namely the delusion and disenchantment of Cat(herine) Morland).

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Character adaptation in Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s "Northanger Abbey"
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz  (DEL)
Adaptation and Appropriation
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character, mcdermid’s, jane, austen’s, northanger, abbey
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B.A. Elisa Valerie Thieme (Autor:in), 2014, Character adaptation in Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s "Northanger Abbey", München, GRIN Verlag,


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Titel: Character adaptation in Val McDermid’s retelling of Jane Austen’s "Northanger Abbey"

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