The real, the fictional, and the young woman

Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey (2014) and Caroline Lamb’s Glenarvon (1816)


Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an exercise in how being genre-savvy only works if you know which genre you’re actually in. The tale is a relatable one to anyone who has ever watched a scary film only to panic that the same danger is waiting just outside the door. In Val McDermid’s version, the scare factor is somewhat lessened by the fact that the danger is vampires, something of a favourite of heroine Cat Morland. In an unsurprising but pertinent move, McDermid updates the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe et al to the gothic teen franchises made most famous with the Twilight books. The dangers of female reading, a deep concern to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century of Austen and Lamb, move from worries about female loss of identity whilst reading and having too emotive responses to their reading material to modern worries about girls who may be too influenced by heroines falling for supernatural creatures and their fangirl responses to these books. Times, it seems, do not change.

Glenarvon is famous (well, reasonably) for being Caroline Lamb’s fictionalisation of Lord Byron, with whom she had a four month affair a few years previous to its publication. Byron becomes the vampiric Glenarvon, not the only time the poet was figured as such a creature. Lamb’s fictionalisation of the various people and locations in the society of 1812 in which they had their affair is widely thought to have been pretty transparent to contemporary readers, who could share in the delight of reading a version of an infamous scandal. Glenarvon was published the month after Byron left England in a haze of notoriety never to return again and it is not difficult to imagine the vampire explanation seeming pretty compelling to those with only a vague knowledge of the gossip and a decent imagination. As the author of the phrase ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know,’ Caroline Lamb has a solid position in the Byron mythology, but in Glenarvon she actively contributes to it, taking a real experience she was condemned for and injured by and making it more, well, supernatural and out of her control.

The line between the real and the fictional is questionable in both of these novels. Cat Morland can believe that Henry Tilney and his family are vampires because the fictional vampires she has read about and seen in films appear so real to her, so plausible outside of their fiction. Caroline Lamb makes her real subject fictional, and through this creates the potential for her fiction to seem more likely than other gothic novels. Is the danger of being seduced by Byron real or fictional or both? Frances Wilson writes that Byron became ‘the first male literary sex symbol, as if the act of reading Byron was in itself seductive’ (1). Byron was seducing in real life, through his poetry, and through others’ representations of himself (must’ve been tiring work for him).

With this as some of the origin story for modern vampire stories, it is not surprising that the vampires of the books that McDermid’s Cat Morland reads can seem to leap from the pages, seducing readers as well as fictional heroines. The modern Northanger Abbey updates many of Austen’s plot points, like taking Cat to the Edinburgh Festival rather than Bath as one of the few conceivable places that people might decamp to for a period of time, but McDermid does not need to update the breakdown, or perceived breakdown, between the real and the fictional, particularly in relation to young women.

Female identity has been mocked and trivialised for centuries, and the fear that fiction can break down this identity and cause ‘inappropriate’ behaviour in women has stuck around too. Whilst this does not bode well for modern society, it suggests that vampires will continue to hold a strange position between fictional and real for a long time yet. They may evolve – Cat is not put off by the modern decor in Northanger Abbey because she knows the vampires in Twilight have a modern looking home too – but the potential for vampires to be lurking in the shadows can still have the power to put reason second behind an excited imagination. Byron was not a vampire, the modernised Tilneys are not vampires, but it may be more thrilling if they were.


(1) Frances Wilson, ‘Introduction’, in Caroline Lamb, Glenarvon (London: J.M. Dent, 1995), p. xxiii. This edition of Glenarvon, sadly out of print, is the best for anyone looking to read the novel, with a brilliant introduction and useful notes on the real life figures, and is easily picked up secondhand.