In the English countryside is a retreat called Pembrook Park — an estate, really, which caters to visitors looking for a respite from modern living and a chance to experience the flavors, sensations and propriety of Regency England. Pembrook Park boasts its very own members of the British upperclass, and these actors traipse about the property speaking in elevated tones and adhering to a strict sense of manners that any of us living in 2010 would absorb with befuddled expressions.
And that’s where Jane Hayes arrives, is newly christened “Miss Erstwhile” and given a room on the estate populated by gentlemen in breeches and ladies in flowing gowns. This English vacation, a gift from her recently-deceased great aunt, is an attempt for Jane to finally rid herself of the pesky Regency fantasties that have been plaguing her. An avid Austen fan, Jane wonders if her daydreams about Pride & Prejudice and its noble, brooding hero Mr. Darcy have created a firm wedge between her reality as a modern, single woman working as a graphic designer in New York city and a fantasy where someone like Darcy could exist. And, you know, sweep her off her feet.
But things in Shannon Hale’s Austenland are rarely what they seem. At Pembrook Park are two gentlemen — Colonel Andrews, a sort of Charles Bingley, and Mr. Nobley, a frustrating man with decidedly Darcy tendencies — and Jane isn’t sure what to make of either of them. Other female guests share her time with the men and all seem to buy into the “fantasy” of life at Pembrook Park. Each is given a role to play and all are expected to adhere closely to the ettiquette of the time period, so modern conveniences like cell phones, e-mail and television? No way. Ladies could not be seen in the company of gentlemen while unattended, were expected to read and play whist in the evenings, etc.
Jane initially struggles with the rules, as anyone would, but eventually decides to throw herself whole-heartedly into her time at Pembrook Park for the three weeks in which she’ll be present. Over time, she must come to grips with her own romantic past and decide what she’s truly looking for in her future. And as she spends more and more time as Miss Erstwhile, what will it be like to return to her identity as plain ol’ Jane Hayes when the adventure is over?
Austenland is a novel which has, I know, stirred up controversy amongst the Jane Austen fan set, but I can say firmly that I really enjoyed this book for what it was: a fun, light and pleasant look at a woman who adores our Austen as much as we do. In a way, it really felt like an homage to Pride & Prejudice and our dear Darcy — as portrayed by Colin Firth in the film version, natch — and Hale obviously shares our passion for all things Jane.
Did this book change my life? No. But I didn’t expect it to realign my thinking or shake up my world. At less than 200 pages, we go on a journey with Jane and watch as she unravels the mistakes she’s made in the past in order to jump more fully into the future. Some of that requires letting go — a tough lesson for anyone. And I was right there with her.
Austenland appealed to me in the same way that Laurie Viera Rigler’s excellent Confessions Of A Jane Austen Addict and Rude Awakenings Of A Jane Austen Addict did — Hale’s story is a modern take on classic themes and characters, and a glimpse into a modern woman’s confusion and befuddlement with the traditions of the past. As someone who clearly loves her Austen, when haven’t I fantasized about donning a gorgeous gown of fine silk and arriving on the arm of a handsome Brit at an elegant ball? (Answer: pretty frequently.)
There’s a reason Jane Austen still inspires countless novels, film adaptations, sequels, parallel stories and fan tributes — the latter of which I really consider Austenland to be. Because Jane is brilliant. And any book that helps us remember how incredible she is works for me.
If you’re an Austen purist, you might scoff at the light examination of themes and contrivances in her books — and wonder if Hale is spending too much time looking at Regency England with modern eyes, something which really can’t be done. But if you’re someone who’s fantasized about your own Darcy and wonder what it would really be like to wander through an English garden thinking of all the passionate restraint of the time period, Austenland might just be your book. And that ending!
4 out of 5!