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Vamping up Northanger Abbey

Came across Val McDermid’s 2014 take on Northanger Abbey the other day, and thought I’d give it a go but was almost immediately sidetracked into picking up Miss Austen’s original. I love this novel with its delightfully naïve heroine and her Gothic terrors. And so many memorable quotes. My favourites:

‘The person, be it gentlemen or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid’

‘But Catherine did not know her own advantages - did not know that 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’

A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can’

‘Catherine enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself’

‘I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible’

From politics, it was an easy step to silence’


So was there a real Northanger Abbey?

There’s good reason to believe that Farleigh Hungerford Castle, just a few miles outside Bath, could have

served as inspiration for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It dates back to the 14th century and was the site of at least one murder. (Back in 1523, Lady Agnes Hungerford was found guilty of murdering her first husband and was hanged at Tyburn. Then her son-in-law, Walter Hungerford (1503-1540) was brought to trial for imprisoning his third wife in a tower, trying to poison her. The poor woman suffered this for four years, appealing for help to Thomas Cromwell. Hungerford eventually upset Henry VIII and was brought to trial for these crimes and also 'unnatural vice' (usually a euphemism for homosexual behaviour). He was beheaded at the Tower of London). Plenty of scope in history for Bluebeards, real or imagined by Catherine Morland!

The castle had fallen into ruin by Jane Austen’s day and was even then a popular tourist attraction. I’m sure I read somewhere that the Austen family were in possession of a guide book for Bath that recommended the castle as a 'rich treat'.


But back to Val McDermid’s contemporary take. Its structure, although set primarily in Scotland, is remarkably close to the original and it’s not giving anything away to say that the 21st century heroine, known here as Cat Morland, is entranced by the Twilight novels and their vampires rather than The Mysteries of Udolpho. Nice twist at the end!

Favourite quote: ‘But no young woman has ever allowed reality to stand in the way of her romantic fantasies, and in this respect, Cat was no exception to the rule.’

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