When I first read about Shannon Hale’s Austenland, I was intrigued: An American travels to an English holiday resort where one can completely immerse oneself in the world of the Regency for a number of weeks. Being very fond of dressing up myself, and having some experience in Medieval-type role-playing, I was wholly in favor of the concept and curious about what Shannon Hale would do with it.
Jane Hayes, a 33-year-old graphic designer from New York, receives a three-week trip to Pembrook Park in England as a bequest in her great-aunt Carolyn’s will. A year ago Carolyn learned that Jane is still single because of an obsession with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice or, more precisely, with Colin Firth’s interpretation of the character in the 1995 BBC version. Jane watches the film at regular intervals, and because she is ashamed of her addiction, she hides the DVD in a houseplant. No man compares to Mr. Darcy. To give her the opportunity to get this obsession out of her system, Jane will visit a holiday resort in which she will be completely cut off from the modern world for three weeks and pretend to be a Regency miss, surrounded by other holiday-makers and a large cast of actors.
When Jane accepts the bequest, she regards it as a last fling before giving up on men completely and accepting her status as a spinster. On arriving in Kent, she is received at an inn by a Mrs Wattlesbrook, who gives her a crash course in Regency behavior over one evening and takes away all her modern gadgets (although Jane does smuggle in her cell phone). Mrs Wattlesbrook is a real dragon of a woman: domineering, patronizing, and slightly comtemptuous of her clients. Her attitude leaves Jane a very bad first taste of what Pembrook may be like. Matters improve when Jane, now called Miss Erstwhile, arrives at the manor and is introduced to the other inhabitants. There is the hostess, Lady Templeton, whom Jane is to address as Aunt Saffronia, as well as her husband, and fellow-guests Miss Charming, Mr. Nobley and Colonel Andrews.
Jane is at first very unhappy at Pembrook. The constant role-playing and the lack of anything substantial gets on her nerves, and she is delighted when she discovers that one of the under-gardeners, Theodore, who is really a student called Martin, stays in one of the cottages on the estate and owns a TV. They watch basketball matches together and engage in a pleasant flirtation, culminating in some kisses, but then they quarrel about what Jane is actually doing at a place like Pembrook.
Subsequently Jane changes her view about what she wants to do here: She decides to use the artificiality of the place to re-train herself in being young, pretty, admired and flirtatious. She hopes that by immersing herself in the superficiality of her situation, she can rid herself of her obsession. As a result, she begins to enjoy everything that comes her way, without questioning it overmuch, and interacts with her fellow-guests, trying to understand them and their motives but not worrying too much about anything. Especially intriguing is Mr. Nobley, a darkly handsome gentleman, who spends much time brooding and disapproving and is obviously modeled on Mr. Darcy. Because she doesn’t care this time around, Jane gives as good as she gets, instead of wondering if he might be Mr. Right. As a result, this relationship develops, in spite of the artifice in which it is embedded, in some ways more naturally than many of her former ones. (These are described in very funny vignettes at the beginning of each chapter.) At the same time, Martin is still fascinated with Jane and tries to recapture her interest. This love triangle is fun to read about and very cleverly handled. Until the last few pages, I did not know which of the men Jane would end up with, if either. The ending is satisfactory for a romance reader – at least it was for me –, but it is more of a Happy New Beginning than a traditional Happy Ending.
The novel is at its most fascinating in the questions it raises. Does Jane’s obsession with romance – because, as I read it, the Darcy obsession symbolizes all romance here – truly harm her? How does her immersion into Pembrook influence her inner development? Will she have to completely renounce romance or will she be able to integrate it into her life after Pembrook? Do romance and the expectations it gives stand in the way of real relationships or can they further them? The novel refuses to give easy answers and retains some of its ambiguity to the last pages.
While I was immensely pleased with the book on an intellectual level and enjoyed reading it a lot, I was less so emotionally. Jane is a complex character and I grew to like her, but the male protagonists remain too enigmatic until right at the end, so I was not able to warm to them particularly, although they were interesting to read about. This certain lack of emotional engagement is a detriment, but for anyone who enjoys clever books and is interested in a complex discussion of how romance may influence a woman’s life, I can give it a very solid recommendation.