Time Travel to Jane Austen's World
The Austenland book and movie, plus novel Midnight in Austenland, tell tales of love, hope and disappointment in male-female relationships.
by Nancy Kerstetter
Step into Austenland and you step into another reality.
Shannon Hale's first foray into adult fiction, Austenland: A Novel (2007) and Midnight in Austenland (2012), revolves around the whirlpool of love, hope and disappointment in male-female relationships, standard Jane Austen fare. The English Regency time period serves as the backdrop; the twist is that the stories take place now. They are decidedly contemporary tales.
The two separate novels are set in Austenland, which is not an amusement park, but an immersion experience along the lines of an Outward Bound expedition. Participants abdicate their regular daily lives to immerse themselves in a world alien to their normal experience in regard to setting, customs, behavior and expectations. In such settings emotional responses can be raw and unfiltered as one's social equilibrium is askew. Herein lies the story.
Austenland beckons fashionable women of means to escape their humdrum realities in order to become someone in their dream world of two hundred years ago. Visiting Austenland is limited to the wealthy few who can afford its charms. In devising Austenland, Hale creates her own world, along the lines of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth or C.S. Lewis' Narnia, but without all the detail needed for an alien setting. She liberally borrows from the Austen novels. Austen fans are quite familiar with the social mores of the period although Hale explains some of the restrictions that might be unfamiliar to those not immersed (read: fanatic) in Austen's tomes. Guests arrive at Austenland's Pembroke Park estate delighted to step into the world they have read and dreamed about, but never thought they could personally experience.
Overall, the story and characters of Austenland receive a light touch from the author resulting in a thoroughly charming and delightful romp through Regency period life by very modern visitors. Both of Hale's novels feature numerous witty give-and-take subtly-charged exchanges between characters a la Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.
In Austenland, the Lizzy-like character Jane Erstwhile and Darcy-clone Mr. Nobley engage in a verbal skirmish. "He tightened his lips, in annoyance or against a smile, she wasn't sure. 'You are infuriatingly persistent, Miss Erstwhile.'
'And you, Mr. Nobley, are annoyingly stubborn. Together we must be Impertinence and Inflexibility.'" Touche.
Midnight in Austenland departs from the sunny outlook of Austenland.Author Hale introduces a weird Heathcliff-like character from Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, not Peter Gallagher's comic strip Heathcliff the Cat. Like myself, you might prefer the cat. The strained nervous subplots are troubling, keeping the reader on an emotional edge. Yet Hale adeptly employs the element of surprising story twists to weave an engaging tale.
The principal women in Hales' books appear to be strong, but flawed characters who vacillate between independence and stereotypical wishy washy ladies. They are believable enough to be women with whom you can relate, not so perfect that they are cardboard characters. But neither are they satisfying as fictional heroines. The author scrimped on some of the supporting female characters leaving them oversimplified and one-dimensional (such as Elizabeth Charming in Austenland).
Hale did a better job developing the male characters. Edmund Grey of Midnight in Austenland shines as her best developed character in either book. She gradually reveals his multifaceted character by means of intriguing dialog and memorable circumstances. Throughout the novel, the reader discovers one new satisfying layer after another regarding Edmund Grey. Of course, there is the obligatory nod to Mr. Darcy in each story. In one the Darcy-like character is the previously mentioned enigmatic Mr. Nobley, in the other he is the incomprehensible Mr. Mallery.
Hale takes a flight of fancy as she names her characters. Relying on the literary device of charactonym, naming a character according to a trait or quality that character possesses, the author overindulges by choosing silly names for some of the characters. Miss Erstwhile is always waiting for her life to get going. Miss Charming is anything but charming. Mr. Nobley is proud. Take a guess about the personality of Mrs. Wattlesbrook, if you dare. Mr. Mallery's name is more subtle only hinting at a bad disposition (in Spanish and French mal means bad). The frivolous names detracted from the overall effect of the story. Hale probably intended for them to be winsome, but they are distracting. J. K. Rowling shrewdly used charactonyms in the Harry Potter series, but Hale's attempts fall short.
Fervent Austen fans will recognize the subtle echoes of Jane Austen's novels in the characters and subplots of these novels. Besides Lizzie and Darcy, you can identify personality or character traits of Anne Elliott, George Wickham, Captain Wentworth, Henry Crawford, Fanny Price, Catherine Morland, Captain Tilney and so on. Hints of Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and of course Pride and Prejudice lurk in the background. Curiously Hale does not include a church man, a staple in Austen's works. Perhaps she has one planned for a sequel.
Both novels resolve in satisfying endings that Austenites will embrace. Although not stacking up to Austen's works in a literary sense, Hales books provide a pleasing read. Many authors have attempted sequels to the Austen novels, but most bring in smutty intrigue and unlikely scenarios casting them into the 'worthless reading' category. Not so, Shannon Hale; she maintains the Regency dignity and mores.
A movie version of Austenland starring Keri Russell, JJ Feild and Jennifer Coolidge was released on DVD in the United States in 2014. The film debuted at Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. It was not released for the big screen in the States, going directly to DVD.
The movie is a delightful, comedic romp. The English countryside estate of Pembroke Park is visually stunning. The movie cast features appealing eye candy actors. Director Jerusha Hess toys with the story to convert it to a visual chronicle; she alters the storyline and characters with the unexpected result of a slapstick comedy reminiscent of I Love Lucy or The Princess Bride, with a few unfortunate lapses into the mode of The Three Stooges. Amazingly, it works overall.
The story line is written as a story-within-a-story. Jane Hayes (Keri Russell) heads to England to rid herself once and for all of her Darcy mania. She becomes a character at Austenland and encounters her own Mr. Darcy in the person of Mr. Nobley (JJ Feild). Jane feels out of place in her new world. She stumbles into the arms of the servant Martin (Bret McKenzie) for a harmless diversion, but is haunted by questions of what is real and what she really wants. Jennifer Coolidge and James Callis are paired as the ridiculous, overplayed Miss Charming and Colonel Andrews. Although they are sometimes amusing, Hess directs them with a heavy hand so one tires of their ludicrous dialog quickly. Jane Seymour in her role as Pembroke Park hostess Mrs. Wattlesbrook is very entertaining in her portrayal.
This is a fun, lighthearted movie for anyone seeking a good laugh. The dialog comes from the book with a few added bits that really zing.
Two characters argue out-of-character about their veracity. Martin, a servant, maintains he is being honest, but Nobley demurs by lashing out at real-life Kiwi actor portraying Martin, "You're just jealous, aren't you? Because my aunt would rather bring in a complete novice than move some Kiwi actor up to the big house...Couldn't you get a job in The Hobbit?"
To which Martin retorts, "That's it, Shakespeare!" A scuffle ensues. Quite a bit of lively action for the Regency era.
Like the books, the movie is not destined for the long-run, but does entertain and amuse. Should you be a slapstick fan, but not an Austen devotee, it will still be a pleasant and diverting evening.
You can obtain these titles from your local library, interlibrary loan or purchase your own copy from:
Austenland: Austenland: A Novel
Austenland on Kindle: Austenland: A Novel
Midnight in Austenland: Midnight in Austenland
Midnight Austenland on Kindle: Midnight in Austenland: A Novel
Austenland Movie: Austenland Movie