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Jane Austen is my dirty little secret. In feminist theory classes, I read her novels side-by-side with modern Harlequin Romances, and the comparisons are vast. Without fail, there must always be a man, a manor, and a marriage. But, as manipulated as I feel by Austen’s novels, I cannot help but become swept up in Regency England with its empire waist dresses, piano fortes, and strongly-held assumption that “a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Imagine my delight when I came across Shannon Hale’s Austenland, a fun romp through Austen’s England and the expectations it has created in a subculture of women.
Of course, Austenland is formulaic. It’s a contemporary Pride and Prejudice, and we readers want nothing more or less than the Austen version. The novel’s heroine, Jane Hayes, is a thirty-something professional woman with a secret. Stuffed behind a dying potted plant is the BBC double-DVD version of Pride and Prejudice. At the end of many dismal days, Jane “dimmed the lights, turned on her nine-inch television, and acknowledged what was missing.” Just when Jane’s obsession with Mr. Darcy (or the Colin Firth-in-breeches-version of Mr. Darcy) seems to be so consuming that it is threatening her ability to interact in the “real world,” her eccentric aunt dies and leaves her an all-expense paid trip to Pembrook Park. Pembrook Park is a place where wealthy women who dream of a Regency romance come to live out their own Austen plot. It is a place of no scripts and no written endings. Here “on scholarship,” Jane hopes to exorcise her Mr. Darcy fantasies once and for all. Surely, you see where this is going, right? And, even though they know where this is going, Austen fans will fret and swoon with every twist and turn of the comforting (some might daresay predictable) plot.
Austenland is not high brow literature; it is a guilty pleasure, much like watching the six-hour BBC double-DVD version of Pride and Prejudice. And, were I in full confessional mode, I would have to disclose that I am halfway through this delicious version and feel no shame whatsoever!