Here she was at the beginning of something, her toes curled over the edge of the diving board. She was ready to plunge. Good-bye to her awkward list of numbered boyfriends and her mutated, Austen-inspired intensity that had pushed her from one ending to another. She was determined that this vacation, this holiday, unlike any of her relationships, would have a very good ending.
(from Austenland, pages 30-31)
Jane Hayes is a 33-year-old artist working as a graphic designer at a newspaper in New York City. She is obsessed with Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, specifically the 1995 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Jane has endured a string of failed relationships, and none of the men she’s dated live up to her Mr. Darcy ideal. Recognizing that Jane is living in a fantasy world, her great-aunt Carolyn leaves Jane in her will an all-inclusive, three-week trip to Pembrook Park, an estate in Kent, England, where wealthy women act out their fantasies of living in Regency England. Jane decides to enjoy the trip, live out the fantasy, and return to a reality without Mr. Darcy…or any man.
At Pembrook Park, Jane dons Regency dresses and bonnets, plays Regency parlor games, adheres to Regency etiquette, and acts out a story in which she is Jane Erstwhile, the American niece of the estate’s owners. Jane spends her days and evenings with other guests like herself (including Miss Charming, a 50-year-old American pretending to be a 22-year-old and adopting a horrible British accent) and the actors paid to charm and romance them. Jane banters with Colonel Andrews, a happy-go-lucky, rakish second son of an earl (reminiscent of Pride and Prejudice‘s Colonel Fitzwilliam) and his friend, Mr. Nobley, a brooding, arrogant man who makes her question the attractiveness of her beloved Mr. Darcy.
As the lowest-ranking woman in attendance, Jane feels like an outsider and enjoys hanging out with the gardeners more than the gentlemen. As the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur, Jane has to decide whether or not to play the game. She has to confront her Austen obsession head on and find her true self.
The Girl (age 13) and I read Shannon Hale’s Austenland together in preparation for the movie, and we both thought it was a delightfully fun novel. The Girl hasn’t read any of Austen’s novels yet, but she loves the movie adaptations, and we both were intrigued by the idea of basically becoming an Austen heroine for a few weeks.
Hale created a believable, likeable character in Jane. I’m sure many bookworms can name some fictional characters who’ve made them swoon and have wished that real-life relationships all had happily-ever-afters. Hale includes a short description of each of Jane’s relationships at the beginning of every chapter, and it’s easy to see why she’d want to hold out for her Mr. Darcy, although somewhere along the way (probably blinded by Colin Firth in the wet shirt scene) she forgot that even Mr. Darcy isn’t perfect. It’s also understandable how Jane could get caught up in the magic of Pembrook Park, all the men in breeches, and all the Austen-ness. And between the hot-to-trot Miss Charming and Jane’s numerous mishaps, there are plenty of laughs.
The Girl and I gobbled up this short book on a lazy Sunday afternoon. We had an inkling of how it would play out, but we just couldn’t stop reading until we found out what happened to Jane. Austenland is full of humor and fantasy, and it’s a must-read for Austen fans who want to go back in time for a little bit in search of their own Mr. Darcy.
Disclosure: I borrowed Austenland from the public library.
© 2013 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.