She sighed. And decided it was okay to let her heart flit and flutter around, and for her breath to get caught in her chest like the ghost’s flowing headdress on a shrub. It was okay to fall in love inside books and stories, and where was she if not inside a story? And wasn’t this why she’d come, after all? She felt certain she would be able to withdraw herself intact when the time came. She felt certain she was not in too much danger.
(from Midnight in Austenland, page 151)
Shannon Hale’s Midnight in Austenland is the follow-up to Austenland, once again set at Pembrook Park in Kent, England — an exclusive vacation destination where guests adopt the manners, customs, and wardrobes of Regency England and experience a little romance with actors whose characters are reminiscent of the heroes from Jane Austen’s novels. Charlotte Kinder still feels blindsided by her husband’s infidelity and their subsequent divorce, and in the midst of her friends setting her up on disastrous blind dates, she discovers the novels of Jane Austen. With her two children spending the month with her ex and his mistress-turned-new-wife, Charlotte decides she’d like nothing better than to step into an Austen novel and make herself its heroine.
At Pembrook Park, she becomes Charlotte Cordial, the widowed sister of the handsome and charming Edmund Grey. While she bonds easily with her pretend brother, she finds herself nervous under the watchful gaze of the brooding Mr. Mallery. Charlotte becomes immersed in Colonel Andrews’ tales of murder and ghosts, especially when she finds a secret room, which may or may not have been hiding a body. She is determined to figure out what she saw in that room — so determined that the romance of Pembrook Park is put on the back burner while she pokes around for clues. This is no ordinary vacation, as readers watch the Charlotte Kinder who was merely nice and clever and never heroine material come to terms with the end of her marriage and discover her true self among the corsets and carriage rides, the darkened halls of an old estate, and her very own Gothic novel.
Midnight in Austenland alludes to Northanger Abbey and its naive heroine, Catherine Morland, who let her imagination get the best of her. Like Catherine, Hale’s unlikely heroine is likeable and endearing. I couldn’t help but laugh at Charlotte’s attempts at witty conversation in an effort to become a sort of real-life Elizabeth Bennet but sounding more like a less rambling but equally dull Miss Bates. What saves this novel from becoming a mere rehash of the first is the mystery. Was there a murder? And if so, was it part of the script? Or is Charlotte just overcome by a house that seems alive at night? Hale also revisits characters from the first novel, and I loved how she gave more depth to the stoic Mrs. Wattlesbrook and Miss Charming, who enjoys Pembrook Park so much that she has almost become part of the furniture.
Midnight in Austenland is a fun, escapist novel, especially for readers who have longed to live in their favorite books for a short while. Hale shows the dangers of being unable to separate fiction from reality and how the heart can easily be persuaded when real life is just too complicated to face. Her heroines are realistic, strong women in need of a self-assessment and the ability to see their true selves. I am hooked on Austenland and hope Hale takes readers back to Pembrook Park soon! This is a completely standalone novel, but I suggest reading Austenland, too, just for the fun of it.
Disclosure: I borrowed Midnight in 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.