Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

This mystery starts much like Northanger Abbey does, and I was immediately struck by the realization that Austen is so loved there’s an audience of people who even understand references to her perhaps least-known work.

An openly dramatic narrator, confident in her narration, seems quite fitting for the only Austen novel in which Austen directly lambasts idiots who pooh pooh novels and directly engages the reader in the author’s process of writing. Comments like “Let’s skip ahead” may be faulted for reminding us we’re in a book, but, especially this early on, I’m perfectly happy admitting that I’m about to be taken on a pleasure ride by someone confident enough to assert her steering the course (3).

This book offers frequent little rewards for those of us paying attention such as “hope had been that thing with burnt feathers buried in her soul” without even so much as Dickinson’s name! (10). Hale knows we know, and it is nice to be treated like someone who knows what’s going on. Reading about Charlotte’s dates made me feel better about mine. At least the ones who call again aren’t just “‘artists’—hopeful novelists, painters, glassblowers” who find dating me “more convenient than applying for grants” (5).

Once Charlotte arrives at Austenwood, more pleasures await. A celebrity is hiding out there, and Charlotte is quickly befriended in a manner which reminded me, I thought at first, of the way Isabella Thorpe tethers Catherine to her immediately. As it turns out, the Elinor Tilney comparison makes more sense since the celebrity is close with the would-be hero. Miss Charming, the third woman of the party, appears to be well-endowed of person but not of mind. Charlotte is much better able to stay in character than she, and she has been there longer. Our heroine doesn’t quite trust anyone. The butler “didn’t seem guilty” but “then again, neither had” her husband while he was cheating on her (165).

No wonder Charlotte has trouble: she wants instantly to be Elizabeth Bennet, who “didn’t like to speak unless she could say something to amaze the whole room” (38); who among us hasn’t wished the same? She should count her blessings to be Catherine Morland! We learn early on that Catherine’s Ann Radcliffe is Agatha Christie. So Austenwood must be Northanger Abbey, “the sort of house where murders happen” (21).

As usual, I was busy trying to figure out who is who. Is Mr. Mallery James Thorpe or Henry Tilney? Catherine is going to ride with him and considers it “flattering in a way” (41). But they’re going to a haunted place . . .  She couldn’t have flirted better if she had been aware she was doing it! When she can’t figure out how to ascend the phaeton in her new garb, she tells Mallery, and he’s down in a minute swooping to get her and leaving her “tingl[ing] with an adrenaline rush” (43). Mrs. Wattlesbrook, I reasoned, must be General Tilney, who catches our heroine leafing through papers she knows are not her business (73). In this retelling, Charlotte asks one of the male actors to read more clues to the mystery they’re solving, and it, of course, includes laundry lists and such, as Catherine thought contained dread deeds in NA (54).

Even though Charlotte doesn’t realize she’s Catherine Morland until page 135, and I guessed that on page 1, sometimes my confidence mislead me. For instance, when Charlotte and Miss charming explore the “second floor” (third in England), they take the servants’ quarters, and it feels sneaky, and we think they’re going to get caught by the Henry figure, but all they do is walk in on a poor servant girl changing. Sigh. There must be a dark secret somewhere! What surprising things happen! I kept waiting for the narrator to say “and then she woke up,” but no! I was totally taken aback again and again. I pride myself on catching hints, but this was a series of surprises.

Hale inserts short chapters from various times during Charlotte’s life, including her recently failed marriage. In addition, then, to sorting out the mystery she’s puzzling through in Austenland, the attentive reader draws connections between the selected moments of the past and the continuing narrative of the present. Charlotte takes some ridiculous risks. If her problem before was a lack of confidence, she has certainly overcome that by the near-end of the story. I laughed at her discussion of the formality of the name James and how his refusal to adopt Jim, Jimmy, or Jamie should have been a warning to her (216). I once dated a guy with the same insistence and thought along the same lines!

Hale gives us some more serious ideas to contemplate, in addition to the titillating story. She presented, I thought, an interesting way to view the Austen canon: the six heroines show that “there wasn’t just one kind of woman to be” (240). Also interesting in the “big ideas” category: once our heroine finds love, she contemplates that she would not have been equipped to handle those feelings at a younger age; rather, “age gave her the peace . . . to live inside” the moment (243).

For me, that idea explained a lot more than the mysteries of Charlotte’s life.

Published in: on February 26, 2012 at 2:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

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