Shannon Hale’s Austenland is about our protagonist, Jane, going to a vacation “resort” (for lack of a better word) based on Jane Austen’s England. This book has a lot of characters who are actors acting as Austen-inspired characters. I’ll put in parenthesis what Austen character or book I think they correlate with, if they do. Let’s meet our cast, shall we?
- Jane Hayes,(probably Liz Bennett) our 30-something protag who is in love with one Mr. Darcy as presented by Colin Firth. Her obsession gets in the way of real relationships. She’s trying to kick the habit. Her name during the vacation is “Jane Erstwhile.”
- Carolyn, Jane’s aunt. On a lunch date, Jane confides in Carolyn her obsession with Darcy. In her will, Carolyn leaves Jane an all-expense paid vacation to “Austenland” / Pembrook Park, where everyone acts as though they are living in the time of Jane Austen.
- Molly (Lady Gardner), Jane’s New York BFF. She gets an email asking for background checks, and she pulls through marvelously for Jane.
- Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Lady Catherine de Bourgh), runs this operation. Enforcer of rules, also extremely rude. (She makes snide remarks about Jane not being their “usual client” but they were willing to do their best for her. WHAT?) She’s the matchmaker, trying to make sure each client is “satisfied.” She also researches each guest and provides financial reports, likes and dislikes, etc. to her staff.
- “Aunt Saffronia Templeton”, the hostess of Pembrook. She works very hard to keep the guests content and occupied. Jane recognizes at several points how tired she must be working at this resort. (Married to Sir Templeton, a drunk who makes inappropriate advances on Jane.)
- “Miss Elizabeth Charming”, another guest, who is in her fifties (but “as long as she’s pretending, she’s 22”). Miss Charming is a married American trying a Dick Van Dyke-inspired cockney accent; she says awkward things like “spit-spot” and “what-what”. She also throws an enlightening tantrum about how the men were supposed to make her feel enchanting. (Probably a first timer.)
- “Miss Amelia Hartwright” (Anne Elliott, Persuasion), a seemingly perfect guest, a return visitor.
- “Col. Andrews,” a witty man, is told to focus on wooing Charming (but is gay).
- “Mr. Nobley,” (Darcy) a brooding, intense man. He protects Jane from getting into trouble multiple times. Seems interested in our heroine, but Jane becomes weary of the actors.
- “Capt. East,” (Wentworth, Persuasion), bland, but cute, interested in Amelia.
- “Theodore”/Martin Jasper, (Wickham), a “gardener” at the estate. He cannot stay in character when he lets Jane know he’s around. Jane sees him as the only real person in this fake world.
Jane goes to England to be immersed in the world of Austen. She learns how to dance with the gardener Theodore, the society rules of the day (such as no talking to the servants and no first names unless engaged). Wattlesbrook (real name!) tells Jane that she cannot have electronics, her real underwear, etc. Jane manages to sneak her cell phone, as she paid for international service and is kinda pissed at Wattlesbrook to begin with since she implied Jane was not worth the resort’s time.
Jane meets Saffronia, Sir Templeton, Miss Charming, Capt. Andrews and Mr. Nobley. Jane takes some time getting into character. As she watches Charming, she sees what the “regular client” is supposed to be: a crazed idiot who wants to feel love away from the hubby. Jane gets a little bored of the leisure Austen heroines are known for. She runs around the grounds, and sits down in an unladylike fashion. The gardener sees her at a bad moment, and although they aren’t allowed to talk he lets her know he’s there. “Theodore the gardener” can’t keep the Austen dialogue up, so he gives up and introduces himself as Martin. He pulls her into the 21st century. Nobley and Andrews run into her shortly after this, and Jane admits to Nobley she’s having a hard time getting the hang of the character. He walks off in character, and Jane’s pretty hurt. Miss Amelia Heartwright arrives, but stays in the cottage. She’s perfect, staying engaged, not breaking character, etc. The men have a happy reunion with her.
While a game of whist is being played by Charming, Amelia, and the guys, Jane sneaks out and visits Martin in his cottage. They watch a NBA game and make out a bit. “Darcy who?” She visits him again the next night, and this time, he’s got McDonalds. But alas! Martin sees her with the actors and asks if she “really goes for this stuff.” Jane replies, “If you were a woman, all I’d have to say is ‘Colin Firth in a wet shirt.’” He “dumps” her, but let’s face it, two nights of some kissing and Mickey D’s a boyfriend does not make. She is tempted the same night that he “dumps her” to visit, but Nobley catches her. A drunk Sir Templeton tries to make a move on Jane, and she knees him. Nobley’s pretty impressed with her defense, and he smiles. Gasp!
Miss Charming, at the breakfast table, is anything but when the men aren’t there. She was apparently promised that the men would make her feel enchanting. Ugh. Jane visits Miss Heartwright in her cottage, and they have a pleasant but stilted conversation. When they walk to the main house, a carriage arrives with Captain George East. See Persuasion. Andrews proposes to Charming to boost her ego. Guess that leaves one man for Jane, eh?
In the meantime, Jane sent an email about Martin and Mr. Nobley to her best friend Molly to do background checks. (She found a check for Henry Jenkins in the book Nobley was reading.) Nothing on Martin, but she found Jenkins’ divorce transcripts– Molly is really impressed at his composure and the fact he was married to a crazy person and was overall patient with her indiscretions. Well, long story short, Jane’s maid ratted her out for having a cell, so Wattlesbrook was going to kick her out. Amelia covered for Jane. Since Wattlesbrook wasn’t going to kick out the PERFECT CLIENT, she let them both stay. Um… again, what?
Nobley and Jane begin actually getting to know each other, and he finds out she used to paint. The next day, she gets paints and is super excited. She paints a self-portrait and scenery from her window. Andrews brings a play, and everyone has to participate. There’s tension between Nobley and Jane. He visits her, compliments her paintings, and when a ball is approaching he asks her to save the first two dances for him. The ball happens, and Jane looks stunning. Martin is there as “Mr. Bentley” to fulfill the gentleman quota. Nobley dances and flirts and proposes to her. She realizes she wants something real, not a Darcy, and says no. She feels freed from all the pressures she’s put on herself to find the perfect man. She then dances with Martin and they talk about hooking up before she leaves England.
Jane leaves in a carriage with Amelia Heartwright, who turns out to be an American who had really good acting lessons before her fourth Austen vacation. She admits to Jane that Nobley asked her to cover for the cell phone incident so Jane could stay. The two ladies have to meet with Wattlesbrook for a last day chat, and “Amelia” comes out of the office apologizing for Jane’s financial situation. (Excuse me, WHAT!) Jane goes in and finds out Martin is also an actor, because they can’t predict each woman’s taste. Jane, understandably pissed since she was played, claims she’s writing an article on the vacation and will expose “Austenland.” It’s a lie, but Wattlesbrook squirming is a perfect ending to her vaca.
But who should meet her at the airport but Martin… and Mr. Nobley? Martin’s there because old Wattlesbrook sent him, but Nobley’s still in costume, like he ran there ASAP, and seems sincere. They fight over her. Her plane’s called. Then Nobley (now introduced by his real name, Henry) buys a plane ticket and admits he’s crazy about Jane for real, not as an act. He liked her because she was not the regular client and was herself from the get-go (he knew during the play she couldn’t act a bit, so there was that reasoning).
Cute book. I am only somewhat into chick lit. I enjoy it for what it is, but it’s not my favorite. I am, however, an Austen fan, and I know Austen has inspired many a writer. The problem with most Austen-inspired books is you can’t really improve on Jane Austen. Sure, she can write a good love story, but Austen has insights on human nature that are impeccable; she’s an amazing narrator who is keenly observant. Most people inspired by her are really only inspired by the “love story,” not the character observations or anything that makes Austen truly unique.
With that said…
- I liked the premise of Austenland. Hale didn’t try to write something Austen-esque, she wrote as a recovering Darcy-addict. She wrote somewhat tongue-in-cheek, recognizing some people really do have this fantasy of living in the world the author creates (let’s face it, people do that… Twihards?). Also, I think the concept is AWESOME. Yes, I plan on going to World of Harry Potter. Yes, I like Renaissance Faires. I am not a LARPer, but I think role play is pretty cool.
- I hated Wattlebrook. That’s no way to run a business. Letting the other clients know someone’s financial situation? Blatant favoritism when you would kick out one Austen participant and not the other? (Sidenote: I’m convinced Wattlebrook was looking for a way to kick Jane out.)
- Jane felt very real to me. I can relate to blurring reality and fantasy, stopping and asking what the heck am I doing? Jane just couldn’t act, and that was what made her engaging. It was somewhat predictable, but what chick lit isn’t?
The Class Part: This book was for fun. But since I’m here:
Grades: There’s no sex, very few minor swear words, but no teenager is going to be interested in this. On her website, Hale said she’d “rate this PG if it were a movie, but didn’t think it would interest young readers.” I agree with her 100%. I wouldn’t buy it for my class library.
Grade: B I had to reflect on coordinating Austen characters, so points for deeper thinking if that was her intent. It was kind of predictable (was it any surprise the heroine would end up with the Darcy inspired character?) but I’d recommend looking at her website for her alternate endings. I enjoyed reading what could have happened, and how she ended up changing it. Knowing she had different drafts in mind make it a little easier to swallow that she went with the obvious Darcy-esque and protagonist pairing.