Jane II

The further adventures of Austen wanna-bes
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 29, 2007

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No sooner had I finished last week’s review of The Jane Austen Handbook: A Sensible Yet Elegant Guide to Her World than Shannon Hale’s Austenland turned up on my desk. And with the Anne Hathaway–starring Becoming Jane due in August, it won’t the last Austen item to arrive this summer. Jane has been a cult item — as opposed to a mere high-school and college have-to-read — at least since August of 1995, when Stanford professor Terry Castle’s essay “Was Jane Austen Gay?” graced the front page of the London Review of Books. Biographies have flourished. Pride and Prejudice, a Hollywood movie back in 1940 with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, got remade with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen as “the greatest love story of all time.” Jane Dawkins’s Letters from Pemberley and More Lettersfrom Pemberley attempts to extend Pride and Prejudice into the years of Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Darcy. Stephanie Barron’s “Jane Austen Mysteries,” now up to volume nine, transforms our heroine into a detective. (No suspense, alas, over whether Jane will get married.) There’s even a Jane Austen tarot deck.

Shannon Hale has been on the New York Times bestseller list, but for young-adult novels — and in Austenland (Bloomsbury, 198 pages, $19.95), her thirtysomething heroine often acts like a teenager. New Yorker Jane Hayes is obsessed not just with Mr. Darcy but with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC production. (The book is dedicated to Firth: “You’re a really great guy, but I’m married, so I think we should just be friends.”) Her sympathetic Great-Aunt Carolyn bequeaths to Jane a three-week holiday at Pembrook Park in Kent, where, as “Jane Erstwhile,” she dresses up and acts as if she were living in Regency England. It’s just what a girl needs after 12 abortive boyfriends. Will Jane fall for fair-haired Colonel Andrews? Or the brooding, Darcy-like Mr. Nobley? And what about the tall, off-limits under-gardener, Theodore, who like her is a New York Knicks fan?

Austen fans looking for another vicarious Regency experience won’t quite get it here: Jane has trouble staying in character, and both she and the author seem unclear as to whether the men at Pembrook Park are customers (i.e., Austen lovers looking for their own Jane) or just hired-actor staff. Great-Aunt Carolyn at one point turns into Great-Aunt Caroline, and there are some painful Brit-fluffs, both period (“Tallyho!”) and contemporary (“Long live the Manchester United!”). The funniest, and most Jane-like, parts of Austenland are set back home: each chapter begins with a vignette about one of the 12 boyfriends. For Hale — as for Whit Stillman in his 1990 film Metropolitan — the real Austenland is wherever your heart takes you.

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