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Saturday, March 8, 2014

Book Review: Austenland by Shannon Hale

I can't really pinpoint when my love of all things Austen began.

It may have been a gradual admiration.  It may have started very early on when I wanted to know where my family  roots were.  As much as I loved living at the Jersey Shore, I always dreamed of living somewhere grander, somewhere exotic.

I did move around quite a bit as a child, growing up an army brat, but it was always within the US borders. Still, I have always had a wanderer's heart.  Discovering that I was Welsh, 4th generation on my maternal Grandmother's side, and English, although further back, on both my maternal Grandmother's and Grandfather's sides really started the affair.

I wanted to learn about the land my ancestors hailed from.  This led to a natural obsession with all things Arthurian. medieval and as I got older, British television.  While other kids were no doubt watching cartoons in the afternoon, I was watching PBS for the Shakespeare hour and I would read Shakespeare for pleasure. I grew up on Monty Python, Doctor in the House, Good Neighbors, Shelley, Fawlty Towers, Alas Smith & Jones, Yes Minister and Prime Minister, Black Adder, Benny Hill, Doctor Who, The Prisoner, The Avengers, and any other British show being televised on PBS.

The first romances I read I would categorize as Regency Romances, titles eluding me now, but I would ride my bicycle to the public library and take out a stack every couple of weeks or so during the summer months.  The Regency Romances back then were not quite like the Regencies now and I didn't really see them as romances, rather historical fiction.

When I got older and had control over the remote or could drive myself to the theater, I would watch just about any period film that came along.  I believe the first Austen film I saw was Northanger Abbey from 1987, but it wasn't until the infamous 1995 TV miniseries with Colin Firth that I actually started reading her novels.

At that time in my life, I was working in a book store, so I had the world at my fingertips.  It's funny, but I don't really remember buying a whole lot of books before I started working there.  I used to troll used bookstores and flea markets, but for the most part couldn't afford back then to buy new books unless they were mass market.

The magic of a used bookstore back then is so hard too describe now.  The internet has practically put out of print books in our hands without having to get out of the chair, but back then, you would never know what you might find.  There was treasure to be found and I would spend hours looking.

My downfall was when I started making a salary where I could actually afford to buy new books and that is how my collection started building.  But I digress.

I never really got into any other Regency or even Victorian era authors, but again would watch the movies.  I have come to learn over a long period of time, that other period films and books written by authors contemporary to Jane Austen are usually pretty miserable.  The films are beautiful, don't get me wrong.  And one of my all time favorites is A Room with a View, which led to a whole E.M. Forster period in my life.  But the point is most of the stories were sad and miserable where no one got what they wanted or if they did, they were the least deserving person to get it.  I realized I didn't want to feel miserable watching a film, no matter how good it is, or a book for that matter.

At that point, I pretty much limited myself to Austen's stories and movies made from her books.  I have several versions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility  I have a couple of Mansfield Park.  I have movies based on her novels and even more Austen tribute books, although I have come to realize there is an alarming amount of books that fit this description and not all of them seem appealing to me.

So, I had seen Austenland when it hit the shelves in hard cover back in 2007, but I wasn't too sure of it.  Back before the invent of eBooks, it was a bit more risky to purchase books without being able to get a feel for them, at least for me.  I left the book store in 1998, so lost my employee discount.  Instead, I read some reviews, which were not glowing, and decided that it wasn't worth taking the chance.

Ordinarily, I don't take other people's opinion as gospel and reserve judgement for myself, and now I wish in this instance, I had taken the chance.  Although in retrospect, it is probably better off this way.

Austenland came out as a film in 2013.  I wanted to see it desperately, but it only came to a small artsy theater and the timing was off.  It was a short run and I missed it.  I have been waiting for it to come out on Blu/Ray or DVD since and it finally has.  The movie became an instant favorite.  Naturally, though, I couldn't get enough of the film, so I decided to order the book, after all these years.

Austenland is the first book I have read since before Christmas.  I have had very little time for reading and when I have, I've been too tired to focus on a novel, so I have been reading my Kindle samples.

There are a lot of differences between the book and the movie.  The movie was perfect, but there are aspects of the book that I am not quite so fond of.  For instance, in the movie, Henry Nobley is the nephew of Mrs. Waddlesbrook and was brought into the world of Austenland when his aunt came up an actor short.  In the book, he is just an actor who has been working at Austenland for the past few years.  That fact alone drastically changes his character and the reader's or viewer's sympathy towards the character.  While I did love the book, I loved the movie more.  It seems like they took the best parts of the book to make the film.  And I can say this without criticizing the author as Shannon Hale co-wrote the script.

So, let's step into Austenland.

Book Description (From Amazon):
Jane Hayes is a seemingly normal young New Yorker, but she has a secret. Her obsession with Mr. Darcy, as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is ruining her love life: no real man can compare. But when a wealthy relative bequeaths her a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women, Jane's fantasies of meeting the perfect Regency-era gentleman suddenly become realer than she ever could have imagined.
Decked out in empire-waist gowns, Jane struggles to master Regency etiquette and flirts with gardeners and gentlemen--or maybe even, she suspects, with the actors who are playing them. It's all a game, Jane knows. And yet the longer she stays, the more her insecurities seem to fall away, and the more she wonders: Is she about to kick the Austen obsession for good, or could all her dreams actually culminate in a Mr. Darcy of her own?

My Review:
Jane Hayes has a lot to recommend her, but she is sadly very unlucky in love.  By her recollection, she has had a lot of boyfriends, but they never lasted very long and all seemed to be completely wrong for her.  Of course, it would seem every boy she has been on a date with was counted as a boyfriend.  She is a sensible woman with old fashioned ideas of love and an unfortunate infatuation with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy.  That is an ideal that most men just cannot live up to.  So the more the men in her life fall short of her ideal, the further she immerses herself in the fantasy world of Mr. Darcy and Jane Austen's England.

She tries to hide this side of herself, but she is seen through by an aunt, who when passes away bequeaths to her an all expenses paid vacation to Austenland which is an immersion experience.  She is not happy with her life and decides to use this experience to get Mr. Darcy and all that goes along with him out of her system so she can start to feel like she is living again.  So, off she to England she goes.

When she gets there, she is given a wardrobe for her three week stay and a character to become.  Mrs. Waddlesbrook, the proprietress, holds Jane in thinly veiled contempt as she is not the "usual type of guest", but is assured that there will be no lack in her experience.  She spends one evening acclimating herself to the Regency era and the next day takes off for the Big House where her real experience is to begin.

She finds she has been given the persona of the niece to Lady Templeton, that she has been living in America and she is now an orphan.  She is introduced to Colonel Andrews, a friend of Lord Templeton's and his acquaintance, Mr. Nobley.  She also finds there is a Miss Elizabeth Charming staying in the house as well and the party is rounded out by a Miss Amelia Heartwright who is staying at the cottage on the property with her poor, ailing mother.

Lady Templeton as the hostess must keep everyone engaged and so is quite often on the tired side.
Lord Templeton spends his time drinking and not being very engaging at all.
Colonel Andrews is intent on being pleasing to everyone.
Mr. Nobley is intent on being surly to everyone.
Miss Charming is only there for the men and become listless when the men are not around to entertain her.
Miss Heartwright is an open, engaging individual and Jane begins to resent her once she shows up as she draws the attention of the men away.

Prior to Miss Heartwright's appearance at the estate, there was an even ratio of men to women.  Once Miss Heartwright showed up, there were five gentleman to four women, so Jane would have to take the rear alone as they walked into dinner.  Finding she was often the one without an escort, she strikes up a friendship with one of the gardeners named Martin Jasper.

Finding him to be an oasis of reality amidst the pageantry of play-acting Jane spends more and more time with him, keeping her grounded.  When a misunderstanding pushes Martin away, Jane decides it is time to take control of her character and her experience, so she can leave with no regrets, to firmly and finally put Mr. Darcy behind her.

Assuming Mr. Nobley is meant for Miss Heartwright, Jane shifts her attention to Colonel Andrews, but it would seem that Miss Charming has set her sights on him as well.  Match-ups are further complicated when Captain George East joins the party.  He seems very attentive to Jane while Miss Heartwright seems to become withdrawn at his late arrival.  And why does Mr. Nobley keep looking her way.  The more Jane plays the part, the more difficult it becomes to discern fantasy from reality.  Will she be able to navigate the turbulent waters of love and be able to leave the fantasy behind for once and for all?


  1. It was a sad, sad day when we lost our bookseller discounts. And what's even sadder is that losing my discount didn't slow down my book buying!

    Think I would like the movie version of this better than the book, as I can get impatient with stories like this. Especially if it stars Keri Russell!

    1. The movie version was awesome despite Keri Russell being in it, but she was a good actress to play the Plain Jane. The movie is worth it for Mr. Nobley alone, at least for me.

      I picked up 3 books at the bookstore this weekend. And I realized, if I managed to read one book a week, I would only be able to read 52 in a year and that is no where near fast enough. I either need to drastically reduce the books I'm buying or read a heck of a lot faster.

      As I just got the Christmas stuff up in the attic today, I feel like I will have the time I need for reading and blogging moving forward. And I really need to get back to both.

      BTW, I get my bonus next week, so I'll be registering for BEA. (Hint. Hint.) I really hope you can make it.