I know quite a few women who’d like to live in an Austen novel. Provided they get to be Elizabeth Bennett, that is. Or Anne Elliott, or possibly Emma Woodhouse. Probably not Elinor Dashwood (too sensible for today’s standards), and Catherine Morland is rarely remembered by name.
Young-adult author Shannon Hale has created Austenland, a themed holiday resort where guests pretend to live as characters in Austen’s nineteenth century world. Resort staff is also in-character, and actors (mostly male) take the part of social companions.
Everyone is promised a happily ever after (i.e. romantic fling) for as long as their visit lasts, though wealthy patrons have the likely privilege of returning to carry on where they left off. Without examining the details, it’s a sweet idea.
Let me clarify, Hale hasn’t actually created this place, she’s written about it in a novel which has now been made into a movie.
Jane, the unmarried thirty-something female protagonist of Hale’s story, has been looking for Mr Darcy all her life, but has only found the fast and commitment-free romance available on the contemporary dating scene. Her great-aunt knew of her secret desires, and bequeathed a three-week stay at Austenland to Jane in her will.
While the romantic comparison between Mr Darcy and contemporary fast ‘n free is a valid one, it is, unfortunately, as deep as the book and movie go into Austen’s philosophy of life. It’s not that Hale doesn’t see the depth in Austen’s novels; Hale’s children’s novels—the Princess Academy series in particular—reflect the importance of a rounded education, an understanding of real friendship and the complexities of romance which requires each character to step outside of themselves to understand another. Perhaps it’s that she somehow doesn’t think it will make as interesting a story for adults as it makes for children. Adults don’t wish to be moralised to, after all.
As a result, the whole Austen aspect is primarily played on the surface: the costumes, the attempt at accents, the ‘brooding’. The main character feels more attracted to a Mr Darcy type, but only because that’s where her romantic inclinations lie. This is somewhat exemplified in the movie by Jane kissing a life-sized picture of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy. I can’t see Elizabeth Bennett doing any such thing.
It’s the comparison between kissing a cardboard cut-out which stands for an ideal, and actually getting outside oneself to learn about the goodness present in a person one has misjudged. For Austen, it’s not just about attraction and ‘how he makes me feel’, but a meeting of minds, a valuing of another person for their own sake. Darcy is not a lifestyle choice.
There’s also the issue of divorce. In Austenland, the Mr Darcy character has actually been married before, not in his role at Austenland but in his fictional ‘real life’. So readers are offered the ‘best’ of both worlds: Austen’s ‘happily ever after’ with today’s disclaimer, ‘UNLESS you’re not happy, in which case you can divorce and start your new happily ever after, UNLESS you’re not happy…’ etc., etc.
Overall Austenland makes for somewhat superficial, feel-good entertainment, but it’s also worth remembering the life-enriching wisdom that can be found in the originals.