Austenland by Shannon Hale: Two Perspectives

First Review by Fran Tomlin

Austenland could be the epitome of “Chick-Lit”, with its title emblazoned on the cover in shiny pink lettering above an artist’s impression of our impossibly slim, pouty heroine gazing contemplatively at a Regency bonnet.  The cover review comes from Stephenie Meyer, author of Twilight, who assures us that this book is “adorable!”.  No pretensions to high literature here, then – instead we have a friendly, harmless indulgence from a market aimed almost exclusively at women.  Like bubble bath.  Or low-calorie chocolate products.

The plot centres on Jane, a New Yorker obsessed with Pride and Prejudice whose great-aunt bequeaths her a trip to an English resort specifically for Austen fanatics; a full-on Regency adventure complete with actors taking the roles of the romantic gentlemen leads.  Will Jane fall for the chiselled, gruff Mr Nobley?  Or perhaps be swayed by the more earthy charms of Martin, the gardener?  Will such total immersion therapy permit her to return home ready to discard the Darcy obsession and find real love with a real man?

For avid Chick-Lit readers, I am sure Austenland will not disappoint.  The writing style is simplistic but the plot bounces along good-naturedly enough, with sufficient twists ensuring we don’t know who the “right” man is until the very end, while the brief interludes at the start of each chapter detailing Jane’s previous disastrous boyfriends provide a faintly amusing diversion.  The Austen references are basic and do not provide the satisfaction that more carefully thought-out in-jokes might achieve, but then this book is not pretending to be anything more than mildly entertaining froth, so maybe that doesn’t matter.

However, for me this read was not a satisfying one.  Firstly, I know this is a genre which deals in romantic escapism and is therefore obliged to provide a “happy ever after”, but I cannot help feeling uneasy that in the twenty-first century there are still so many women devouring books with the central message that “contented spinsterhood was not an option” (180); that women need men to be complete.  For one glorious moment (around page 186), I thought the gutsy Jane would spurn both suitors and return to New York, proud and comfortably single.  Alas, no.  The final (frankly ludicrous) plot twist gives Jane her man and her happy ending.  And all is well.  Except, of course, for the attempted sexual assault on page 86, with Jane pinned against the wall by the drunken, leering “Sir John”.  Obviously, this being a family-friendly book, he gets no further than gripping her hands and leaning in lasciviously before our plucky heroine knees him in the groin and escapes, to laugh about the “joke” of being “propositioned by the drunken husband” (88).  “Sir John” is then sent away.  The incident is not mentioned again.  The way this is dealt with (or rather, not dealt with) implies that such behaviour is natural for drunken males, while all responsibility for the outcome lies with the intended victim.  Presumably Hale chooses not to take the attack seriously because doing so might detract from her romantic narrative, but then why include it at all?  Particularly for an “adorable” book aimed specifically at women, I find this not only confusing, but deeply unsettling.

Second Review by Rebecca Wray

2013 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and earlier this year it was being celebrated with numerous events (Masters). It seems timely then that Shannon Hale’s novel should have been published in the UK this year to coincide with the anniversary. Austenland follows New Yorker Jane Hayes, a thirty-something woman who has a secret – she’s obsessed with Mr. Darcy, or rather Mr. Darcy as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejuduce. After discovering this secret, a wealthy aunt leaves Jane in her will an all-expenses paid three-week trip to Pembrook Park, England, a Regency-era resort which enables women to act out their ‘Jane Austen fantasies’. Of course Jane decides to go, treating the trip as ‘therapy’ with the aim of ‘putting to rest’ her Darcy obsession.

In-between chapters are the chronicles of Jane’s previous boyfriends. Over the course of the book, the reader learns how these ‘disastrous’ relationships drove Jane towards the novels of Jane Austen and helped develop her Darcy obsession. It’s suggested in the narrative of the text and by Jane’s best friend Molly that Jane’s relationships were all doomed to failure because she is holding men up to an ideal in the form of a fictional character. Over the course of the book Jane navigates her way through how she sees herself in relation to men. When she initially sets off on her trip she goes having ‘sworn men off’ for life because she believes she will never find her ‘perfect man’, her Mr Darcy. As her vacation progresses, Jane begins questioning what she wants out of the trip and how she feels about the gentlemen as she tries to work them out.

In Pembrook Park several male actors are paid to play Regency-era gentlemen and court the female guests. The character of Mr Nobley is clearly there to fit into the Mr Darcy role, appearing broody, stiff and restrained in comparison to the other gentlemen who throw themselves into courting the female guests. Mr Nobley and Jane go through relationship patterns in much the same way Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy do, right down to the witty banter about first impressions. As the story progresses Jane starts to lose herself into the fantasy of Pembrook Park and finds herself falling for Mr Nobley, but is he real? That is the question which plagues Jane and the reader throughout the novel. Who and what is real here? After all, Pembrook Park, is designed to cater to female fantasies and help women find a temporary, yet rewarding romance.

Upon entering Pembrook Park, guests are all stripped of not only their modern day accoutrements but also their name and in a sense their identity too. Guests are assigned new names and given a false background story tailored to fit into this Regency-era world. Similarly, the more permanent residents of the park are all actors with false names and playing various roles. The deeper Jane falls into this world, the more difficult it is for her to work out who is real and who is acting and even some of the guests are not quite what they seem. Jane not only develops interest in Mr Nobley but also the gardener Martin Jasper, whose earthy ‘realness’ stands out among the parade of refined and restrained gentlemen. But as is typical for chick lit heroines and a trope that can be found in the works of Austen (Wells), Jane ends up with the man who seemed least attractive and least likely to work out. What is interesting here is the journey rather than the outcome.

With Martin, Jane feels she is different to the other female guests seeking out Regency romance. Here, she sees herself as experiencing something ‘real’ and seeing through the games being played among the other couples in the park. Occasionally Jane expresses embarrassment at her knowledge and interest in Austen and feels concern that Martin sees her as just another guest who likes to play dress-up. This positioning of Jane as different to fellow female characters can be found in other aspects of the text. In Pembrook Park the female guests are cast into two groups by the proprietor Mrs Wattlesbrook. They are either financially ‘well off’ regular visitors or like Jane, they’re “not our usual type of guest” (25). This division by money creates a hierarchy of guests, placing Jane last and alone in even the procession to the dining room and reflects the ‘class without money’ trope found in not only chick-lit but again in Austen’s own novels (Harzewski).

Further, Austen fans appear to be divided up by Hale between those who have read the books (like Jane) and those who haven’t and are out to ‘bag a man’ (like Miss Charming). Jane appears desperate to set herself apart from this latter group and as noted earlier by her aunt, it is not her books that Jane was hiding from view in her apartment but her (Colin Firth) DVDs. This leaves the reader wondering what exactly Hale is trying to say about Austen fans. In the 2008, Bloomsbury USA edition of the book, a list of questions for discussion by reading groups is included. One of the suggested questions asks what Jane Austen herself would think of fans like Jane Hayes. While Pembrook Park is set up as a place of female fantasy, it takes only a scratch beneath the surface to reveal it is imperfect. Both Jane and Miss Charming are seen to become increasingly bored and frustrated with the Regency-era hierarchies, rules, manners and stifled conversations as they spend seemingly endless days of typical activities for women of the period such as sewing, playing whist and ‘taking a turn around the garden’, while the men are off drinking port and hunting. In the end, Jane sees herself as having ‘beaten’ Mrs Wattlesbrook and the Regency fantasy and unlike the other female guests, she leaves with the prospect of a new relationship unfolding.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 (1813). Print.

Harzewski, Stephanie. “Tradition and Displacement in the New Novel of Manners.” Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. 29-46. Print.

Masters, Tim. “Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen fans celebrate novel’s 200th anniversary”. BBC News, 25th January 2013. Web.  <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-21078941&gt;

Wells, Juliette. “Mothers of Chick Lit? Women Writers, Readers and Literary History. Chick Lit: The New Woman’s Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2006. 47-70. Print.

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