A modern novel inspired by Austen

Austenland by Shannon Hale

During the week of July 17, Shiny New Books is celebrating Jane Austen. I’ve written a reading list (with help from Elaine) about Austen inspired novels and sequels. A while ago, I shared my full review of Darkness at Pemberley by T.H. White, now here’s Austenland, another book that’ll appear in the reading list – which is again, completely different to any of the others, yet somehow the same…

The prologue begins, as many P&P homages do, with an adaptation of that immortal opening line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little, and Jane Hayes, pretty enough and clever enough, was certainly thought to have little to distress her. There was no husband, but those weren’t necessary anymore. There were boyfriends, and if they came and went in a regular stream of mutual dissatisfaction – well, that was the way of things, wasn’t it?

But Jane had a secret.

She has an obsession with the BBC’s P&P adaptation starring Colin Firth as Darcy. Her Firth-Darcy fixation is one that no mortal man could hope to live up to. As a result, Jane’s love life is stuck in a rut. What is she to do? She swears to give up men, but her aged aunt sees through her and plans a surprise for Jane.  When Aunt Carolyn dies, instead of money, she leaves Jane an experience – a trip to Pembrook Park in England.

Jane will spend three weeks of total immersion, role-playing at an exclusive resort, where the Regency rules, where you can live out your Austen fantasies – and maybe even find your own Mr Darcy if you’re lucky.  Jane decides to go for it.

Before Jane is let loose at Pembrook House, she has to be inducted into the ways and mores of living in the Regency era. Mrs Wattlesbrook is her guide to etiquette and manners, she shows Jane the custom wardrobe they’ve designed for her.  Whilst in the house, Jane will be known as Miss Erstwhile – only family or fiancé may address her as Jane.  A gorgeous hunk introduced as Theodore is also brought in for her to learn to dance Mrs Wattlesbrook is the scheme’s policewoman too  and she takes (nearly) all of Jane’s gadgets into safekeeping.  Jane will arrive at Pembrook House on the morrow.

The other two paying participants making up the house party are a middle-aged American woman – Miss Charming –  who is pretending to be a Kittyesque twenty-something, fluttering her eyelashes at anything male, but especially in uniform, and a slightly mysterious lady – Miss Heartwright, who is residing at the estate’s cottage and is a returnee.

This novel cleverly pastiches Austen, but the laugh is on us. Hale builds in many little anachronisms to keep reminding us that we’re not in the Regency era, it’s the 21st century, everyone except Jane and two other guests, are actors – it’s all fake and they all have a role to play. This means for instance, that a romance with Theodore, who turns out to be the gardener, should be totally out of the question for Jane, but she can’t help feeling attracted to him, whereas the Darcy-esque Mr Nobley has been engaged as a house guest to parry with her and she finds it difficult to get his measure at first. Will Jane find love in Austenland?

Hale has many fans for her other modern fairy tale novels, I found I already have Goose Girl on my shelves, and might add the second Austenland novel that she has written, for I have to admit that I found myself really enjoying this novel. It is pure romcom – very light and very frothy, but it is imaginatively written and a cure for the Darcy blues. (7/10)

One thing is certain though – I shall not be watching the movie of Austenland – just look at the cover!

Source: Own copy

Shannon Hale, Austenland (Bloomsbury, 2007) paperback, 200 pages.

2 thoughts on “A modern novel inspired by Austen

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m not convinced – but if it was on telly on a rainy day of course I’d watch it! Presumably Jane Seymour is Mrs Wattlesbrook?

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