Austenland by Shannon Hale

This book takes a new twist on Austen in our world. Our heroine, Jane, is 32, and has “learned to love from Austen,” as all normal 32-single women have. She, unlike any heroine I’ve reviewed in these columns, is sent by a deceased relative (in a will) to Austenland, a world located physically in modern England but socially in Jane Austen’s England. There, actors are employed to give (mostly married, looking for a little adventure) women some fun on holiday.

The story begins with a great intro to Colin Firth, and the prologue even captured my favorite moment in the BBC P&P—when Darcy looks at Elizabeth over the piano after she has just rescued Georgiana from embarrassment at the hands of Caroline Bingley. One of this book’s best attributes, really, is its ability to make every fan of the novels, of the customs of the time, of real love, and of Colin Firth, feel we are not alone; we, in fact, have real camaraderie and shared values with an unseen number of women, and possibly men. We feel vindicated when the heroine says something that reminds us so much of our favorite adaptation (e.g. “that’s a fair prospect”), that it really is an allusion to the film, and not our own obsession inventing allusions that aren’t there.

Jane’s goal at the beginning of the book is to be “perfectly normal” and, rather than hide the BBC version in the plants when guests come over, to have the strength of will to toss it once and for all. It is obvious she has a lot to learn about what “normal” is.

And learn she does. Though the heroine knows what part she is playing before she decides to play it, she—and we—has/have a lot to learn about who Darcy, Edmund, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Captain Wentworth, etc. really are, if they exist at all. She knows how to handle women; she even goes along immediately with the claim of “Miss Charming,” a 50ish woman, that she is just 22, a decade younger than Jane. There are traces of Sense and Sensibility (Uncle John has a cottage, but this Uncle John is a bit of a letch) and Persuasion (the jilted military man who comes back rich), and Mansfield Park (the quiet man who thinks play-acting inappropriate entertainment in the home of a lady while the husband is away), but there are so many possible links to stories that the sensible Austen reader begins to see plot links to Austen that don’t actually develop! Is Martin Wickham? Is Nobley Darcy? Edmund? Is Captain East Fitzwilliam? Wentworth? Colonel Brandon? It’s enough to drive a reader near mad—or at least to keep her up at night reading when she should be getting her beauty sleep.

The text seems to suggest that the Austenland experience prepares a woman for an imperfect man—a description of each of her lifetime boyfriends is scattered through the text and provides a fascinating psychological study—and Jane concludes at one point near the end that “fantasy is the opiate of women.”

I was horrified. But, much to my relief, there is a neat plot twist at the end (I shan’t reveal it here) that argues otherwise. We can keep our BBC P&P on the shelves with our other DVDs, we can keep Darcy in our hearts, and, if we’re very lucky, we can find some version of him in the real world.

This time, when I got all choked up at the end, I think it was more than joy for our heroine and a longing for my own happiness in love. This time, I took comfort in having such a bond with countless women and men who want real love and a world in which to enjoy it. For many of us, that seems more likely in Austenland than in our own, but the point really is that Austenland can be our own world—if we let it be.

Published in: on December 6, 2009 at 12:43 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I read this and enjoyed it. Point me in the direction of more Austen-inspired books.

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