Shannon Hale, Austenland

I have mixed feelings about this book, but at least it looks significantly superior to the movie.

 

(From this week’s column)

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Mr Darcy died this week.

Some months ago a giant Mr Darcy rose from the Serpentine like a participant in some bizarre Austen/Godzilla crossover movie (Pride and Pacific Rim?), the alarming sculpture a tribute to that scene in the Pride and Prejudice TV series, where Colin Firth jumps into a lake only so that we may admire his clinging wet shirt. That scene, and Firth’s Darcy, have grown into a phenomenon in themselves. The scene has become a staple of a certain sort of fluffy literature which can make the assumption that most heterosexual adult women have seen it and can identify with its power. One of the earlier examples of this is in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books—Bridget is a big fan of Firth’s Darcy, a situation made funnier by the fact that Bridget Jones’ Diary is itself a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice (and Bridget’s Mark Darcy is also played by Colin Firth in the film adaptation). Fielding’s third Bridget Jones book has just come out, and even those of us who have not yet read it can hardly have missed the big news—Bridget is now a widow, her Mr Darcy dead. Perhaps it was about time.

That’s certainly the impression one gets from Shannon Hale’s Austenland, the movie version of which recently released. Hale’s heroine Jane Hayes is an Austen fan; she’s read the books multiple times, and has managed to enjoy them (except Northanger Abbey, which already makes me suspicious of her taste). But Jane is also a Mr Darcy fan, and is self-reflexive enough to know that those two things aren’t necessarily the same. After a series of unsatisfactory relationships Jane has begun to think her obsession with Mr Darcy is actively hindering her love life. When a relative sends her on a three week holiday to an Austen-themed resort, she determines to face and conquer her Darcy problem.

The resort, it turns out, is an ‘immersive’ regency experience for rich (usually married, usually American) women who want to live like Austen heroines and flirt with beautiful men in period costume. Jane finds herself both attracted and repulsed by the lifestyle—the gorgeous men in breeches on the one hand, the long hours of boredom and class snobbery (one is not permitted to flirt with the sexy gardener) on the other. The toll of keeping up the act—though Jane is certainly luckier here than the actors, who are being paid to be pawed at by rich women. And being seduced by a gorgeous man who says all the right things is very nice, but not when he’s been hired for the role and one can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

Part of the problem is that it’s never clear how far Darcy has affected Jane’s life—of the ex-boyfriends of whom we hear, most are terrible, and a couple are ordinary failed relationships of the sort that happen to anyone. As Jane is reminded on her arrival, in Regency England a woman in her early thirties would be regarded as unmarriageable and (therefore) a failure; in the 2010s that is far from true. Since it’s not clear what Jane is doing wrong, it’s hard to see why she should need to fix it.

But then this also plays into a cultural narrative in which women who like romance novels and movies are somehow incapable of functioning within real world relationships. In the end, I’m not sure whether Austenland challenges that idea by giving Jane a relationship that validates all her fantasies so far, or endorses it by assuming that there’s something wrong with this adult woman who dreams of Colin Firth.

Either way, the problem appears to be Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy and his dripping, wet-shirt-encased torso are somehow sabotaging all our love lives. Mr Darcy had to die, and we can only be thankful to Helen Fielding for killing him off.

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3 Responses to “Shannon Hale, Austenland

  1. Have you ever seen Lost in Austen? It does marvellous things with all these assumptions and problems.

    • I saw one episode, but I was on a plane at the time (and it wasn’t the first episode!) and never went back to it. I’ve heard good things of it though. Tell me more?

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