Yes, you did read that right – Val McDermid. Although she is better known for writing rather violent and graphic crime novels, often referred to as ‘tartan noir’, rather than light and witty social comedies this is actually a really interesting retelling. I love Jane Austen and this, her earliest written novel, is one of my favourites – the combination of a very young heroine and the lure of sensational fiction is hard to resist.
What I particularly liked about this book was the way in which the obsessions of our modern lives are mapped onto those which dominated in Jane Austen’s day. There are some obvious one – instead of referring to Cat Morland’s diary Henry Tilney teases her about her Facebook feed – and some are virtually unchanged. After all, what is our fascination with true crime, lurid newspaper reports and outrageous celebrity stories, but an extension of the excesses of the gothic novel? Every generation has its own brand of sensational literature and this is a good bridge between ours and that of the 19th Century.
The most inspired change to the plot is that of moving the location from Bath to the Edinburgh Festival. Bath is a lovely city but probably doesn’t, these days, have enough of the hustle and bustle it had in its heyday. The Edinburgh Festival provides all this and also gives the characters a perfect excuse to indulge in conversations about books, theatre and art without sounding like the kind of culture vultures we would, maybe, dislike intensely. And you probably can’t think of any fictional show which is too daft for the Fringe Festival….
My only problem with the whole novel is the realisation that our heroine, Cat, is only 17 yet she ends up in a relationship with a young man who is probably 10 years her senior. This isn’t a terrible thing, obviously, but it made me a bit uncomfortable. I never noticed this in the original so it must be a tribute to the quality of the re-imagining that I read it as a novel of the modern day – and applied my modern day standards to it. Given Val McDermid’s comments about a character in Wire in the Blood being based on Jimmy Saville this may have been in her mind too. Or maybe it is just me…..
I really enjoyed this book. It has all the bits of Jane Austen which I need – I found the tone light, entertaining and clever – but is firmly located in the early 21st century. I would recommend it to those who think Austen has no relevance to today and maybe we will get them onto the original in time.