Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy. Mr. Darcy. What is it about Jane Austen’s male protagonist in Pride and Prejudice — this aloof, arrogant man — that draws women to him like a moth to a flame? The mere mention of Mr. Darcy, sighs and dreamy-eyed, flushed expressions flourish. But enough about me. Back to Austenland: A Novel. Author Shannon Hale undertakes modern day career woman, Jane Hayes and her secret addiction to the 1995 A&E television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and all things Darcy (specifically the sexy, dripping-wet-shirt-out-of-the-lake scene Mr. Darcy, played by the handsome Colin Firth) and launches her into a fantasy vacation to Pembroke Park in England. Never heard of it? Neither did our female protagonist, who came up empty, even when she Googled it! As it turns out, she has inherited from an eccentric great aunt, an all-expense paid excursion to the ultra-exclusive country estate in Kent, catering to the romantic sensibilities of super-rich trophy wives whom, by the way, happen to be Austen fans or at least those who hold a tendresse for men in britches and Hessian boots. The brochure reads, “Enter our doors as a house guest come to stay three weeks, enjoying the country manners and hospitality – a tea visit, a dance or two, a turn in the park, an unexpected meeting with a certain gentleman, all culminating with a ball and perhaps something more… Here, the Prince Regent still rules a carefree England. No scripts. No written endings. A holiday no one else can offer you.”
And so, Hale’s Jane decides to indulge in this one last Pride and Prejudice hurrah before cutting her ties to Mr. Darcy forever. And by that, she means to get on with the business of her real life, relinquish her Regency Era fantasies, and quit comparing every man she meets to “you know who.” Upon arrival at the estate, she is met by the shrewd proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook, who promptly renames our anxious Jane Hayes to Miss Jane Erstwhile, all the while explaining the strict rules and standards to maintain authenticity as well as dictating a brief course in Regency decorum. Quickly Jane tires of the uncomfortable clothing, over done role-playing and false pretenses, and is quite determined to find her own adventure – with Theodore, the gardener! After a bit of bungling about with Theodore and tripping all over herself with the other guests and actors, she finds that all is not as it appears. And like in so many other faulty choices in her real life, Jane finds she has been dilly-dallying with the wrong man. It was very easy to relate to Jane Haye’s Darcy -complex — and I found myself pleasantly yielding to her real life anxieties, disappointments and cheering for the pseudo Darcy character, Mr. Nobley (another of Hales fun, yet campy play with her character’s appellations.). My Janeite sensibilities were never in danger of offense, even by Hale’s blatantly contrived happy ending. Because we all know, happy endings were one of Jane Austen’s specialties.
I admit that I didn’t buy Austenland in 2007 when it was first published as I thought the premise was kooky — obviously I have been taking myself way too seriously. I am kicking myself now for not having read this sooner! This fun melodrama was an amusing page-turner leaving me wanting to know, “Where do I make a reservation?” If only. *Sigh* Thank you Shannon Hale. Your book left me with a happy heart!
4 out of 5 Regency Stars
Austenland: A Novel, by Shanon Hale
Trade paperback (208) pages
Bloomsbury USA (2008)