Northanger Re-Visited

Ever behind-times with reading contemporary books, we spent yesterday and today reading Val McDermid’s retelling of Northanger Abbey. This is part of the Austen Project, which accoringt to The Guardian is endeavouring to make Austen’s ‘timeless classics’ more accessible. Now we tend to be of the opinion that timelessness should convey accessibility by default, but that wasn’t our reason for railing against the first 60 pages of McDermid’s Northanger.  In fact what irritated us was that those first 60 pages read not like an adaptation, but like a bizarrely translated version of Austen into ‘modern’ English. In some cases, lines like the  the inexplicably memorable ‘Do you know muslin, sir?’ actually are translated. Thus Mrs. Allen’s question to Henry becomes, ‘Are you in textiles, sir? A designer perhaps?’ We can’t put our finger on why this rewrite loses the elegance of Austen to us; it just does.

The thing about that kind of self-conscious referentiality is that if you’re going to make the reference, if you want the prose to shout, ‘See what I did?!’ it’s neater to simply insert the quote being nodded to because similarly, ‘No one should emerge from their teens with the name thier parents chose for them’ while no less true than Austen, falls short of its original, ‘no girl wants to be called at sixteen what she was called at six.’ Well it does for us. Why? Partly it’s because language, like clothing, goes through fashions. The cadence of Regency Era English cannot be converted into modern-day English by simply swapping the words about and really, why should it? We would never attempt this kind of word-for-word updating with Old English because whatever the practice then, it is now not normal  to the verb at the end of a sentence put. Austen’s English might lack declensions but the theory is the same; any attempt to directly update it word-for-word sounds at best like a round of I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and at worst stilted.

In the case of Austen’s prose though, it’s more than the prose fashion of the period because her writing stands stylistically apart from her contemporaries. Put her beside Maria Edgeworth and you’ll see what we mean. It’s not only the balanced sentences and the elegance of her writing, there’s an asperity to Austen’s wit that is not only too often overlooked but makes her style nigh impossible to replicate. It is -dare we say it? -a truth universally acknowledged that no one but Jane Austen could write like Jane Austen.

In proof of this McDermid’s story takes off when she relaxes the paint-by-number approach to retelling, stops trying to tick referential boxes and settles into narrative adaptation. Twilight -obsessed, vampire mad Cat Morland is a stroke of genius. John Thorpe is if possible worse than before because one thing that does translate is his obnoxious preoccupation with speed and stylish transportation.  In an inspired scene set in the run-up to arriving at Northanger, McDermid leans heavily on the idea (implicit in Austen’s prose) that Catherine’s first sleepless night is largely fuelled by Henry’s extravagant fantasies about the place. Better than that, here Catherine encourages him in his hyperbole, even plays along a little, giving her more agency than might be expected by readers familiar with Northanger. In so doing, it gives her the inner life that Austen never quite convinced us Catherine had. We loved her, of course, but Catherine Morland never felt to us as if she was prone to thinking, which explanation we used to playfully cite in lectures for the lack of third-limited prose.

In that sense, McDermid succeeds at re-enervating a beloved classic. True to the spirit, rather than the letter of the text, the book fizzes with energy. The only catch for us is the jarring hyper-modern lingo. For instance returning to her rectory home by coach, Cat texts her father,  ‘Fone dead b4. Mist u.’ Look, we get that kids texting use numbers for letters, and abbreviate whole words. But ‘Fone’ for ‘phone’ and ‘mist’ for ‘missed’? It’s not only that though. We’ve never heard teenagers talk the way Cat Morland and Bella Thorpe do, even allowing that we use ‘totally,’ ‘like,’ and ‘so’ considerably less than your average teenager. We know girls of 17. Whatever and however they write online, we have yet to hear one say in all seriousness that something is ‘totes amazeballs.’ Granted, we may be out of the loop. But of one thing we are certain; no girl of seventeen has called anything ‘the bees knees’ since our last encounter with an Enid Blyton book -except Cat Morland and Ellie Tilney, naturally.

In all fairness, we think this kind of hyper-exaggerated slang is intended as satire in the way that Austen’s Northanger was initially a vehicle for the satirisation of the inflammatory register of the Gothic fantasy and the hyperbole of the language of sensibility. The fact that we can’t tell, and the fact that it too often reads like a dire effort to capture modern parlance is problematic. Luckily for our nerves -which were close to resembling Mrs Bennet’s at her most overwrought – it relaxes considerably once Cat is ensconced at Northanger Abbey.

And as quibbles go, we’ll take it, because there is wit and sparkle -and some beautiful similes -to be had from McDermid’s prose. Read it, indulge in and enjoy it. Just don’t, for God’s sake, ask for or expect Austen, because that is unreasonable and unfair in the extreme.

I Write This…

…Sitting on a startlingly orange sofa, as it happens, and balancing a lap-desk, not being possessed of a proper one. There’s the kitchen table, but we’ve an aversion to putting the computer at the same table where we take our tea. What we really sat down to do though wasn’t catch the atmosphere and character of Kinness Place, but collect together some of our favourite openings to books.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Is there a better beginning than Dodie Smith’s opening gambit to I capture the Castle? We have spent years trying to equal this one in our own writing, and likely won’t ever succeed. True at once to Cassandra’s voice, the tone of the story and our sense of the castle, this makes the promise that the story more than lives up to.

‘Take my camel, dear,’ said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. On the strength of that sentence, an Oxford friend sent us Rose McCauley’s The Towers of Trebizond.  The Oxford friend was right; we did love it. The story of Aunt Dot, Laurie, Fr Chantrey-Pigg and their journey to Turkey is full not only of evocative landscapes but also of some of the most nuanced treatment of religion we’ve read. We still go shivery thinking of Laurie’s first introduction to Jerusalem. We won’t spoil it. Read it. We want another person to help unravel the symbolism of the camel. Unconvinced?  The symbolic camel in question, and the High Mass both transpire in Oxford. Aunt Dot’s just that eccentric.

Long ago in London, in 1945, all the nice people were poor. It sounds like a fairytale, and Muriel Spark does have an ear for modern fairytales. This one is the beginning to The Girls of Slender Means. There is nothing you need to know about it except that the martyr is not a martyr and there is an unexploded bomb in the back garden of the May of Tech Club.

They’re all dead now. So begins Ann-Marie MacDonald’s gothic novel Fall on Your Knees. This was the sentence that set us collecting sentences. The fact that we fell in love with the novel was purely an afterthought.

I suppose it must have ben the shock of hearing the telephone ring, apparently in the church, that made me turn my head and see Piers Longridge in one of the side-aisles behind me. It wouldn’t be us without at least one Pym. She’s best read in well-worn cream paperbacks that smell of book. This is the opening of A Glass of Blessings, our second favourite after Excellent Women. Somehow she cuts right to the inciting  incident while still leaving us with the fuzzy impression that we’re not reading a carefully crafted novel, only a slice of someone’s life.

My father had a face that could stop a clock. This was the sentence that set us on our love of Jasper Fforde and Thursday Next. We don’t read much fantasy or sic-fi. This manages to be both at once, as well as a consummate exercise in spot-the-literary-allusion. We’ve never looked back but have gone on to read this man’s work compulsively. Wherever academic coach Stephen Bloom is now, we owe him a tremendous debt for the recommendation.

Finally, what must be our favourite opening to a novel ever. High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles an hour. This owes to David Lodge, specifically Changing Places. No one has ever made us laugh quite so much.

There are others of course; this is by no means a comprehensive list. We’ve tried to dodge our more obvious favourites, but we also can’t believe we’ve omitted so many; Lipman, Hardy, Monica Dickens are but a few. Some day we’ll draw up a list of favourite books and perhaps get around to doing her justice. In the meantime, go read!

In Defence of Said

Ever since we took to actively writing on the internet -about three years ago now -we’ve stumbled from time to time across advise written by writers for writers. Sometimes it’s writers’ forums, sometimes memes, and lots of it has been insightful and interesting. The  piece of advice that routinely flummoxes us is the one that suggests overuse of the verb ‘said’ in dialogue is monotonous.

Here’s the thing about ‘said;’ we don’t read it. It’s an invisible word. The brain is programmed to see ‘said’ and absorb it for what it is, a dialogue tag. In other words, the reader glosses over it and registers not the verb only who has spoken. The minute a writer substitutes ‘said’ for another word it needs to be purposeful, and more importantly, it needs to make sense, because the writer is now calling attention to the speaker. It might be that there’s a narrative reason for this; the scene-level conflict might be escalating, or s/he might be striving to convey a particular emotion. Even then though, we’re not sure its necessary to swap ‘said’ for another verb because  appending an adverb to it should be sufficient to convey feeling. We as readers absorb that along with the speech marker.

Speaking from experience, we know we stumble over characters who grumble, speak through gritted teeth, while smiling or laughing. (Try that last one; one or the other is possible but not both at once.) We confess too, that list is only the beginning of the tip of a massive iceberg.

It  might feel monotonous to write, but we are great defenders of ‘said.’ We will, therefore, go on using it, be there ever so many memes that list potential synonyms. We don’t notice it when we read, it doesn’t clutter the conversation or pull us out of the narrative, and more importantly, it makes sense.