Austenland – Shannon Hale

9462728I might have given this another star if I had rated it sooner, after finishing it but before a night’s sleep. It was cute (charming, even), and nicely written (except for a few typos, like “snuggly” for “snugly”). I liked Jane and her list of “boyfriends”, some of whom weren’t, and her bemused adventures in Austenland. I liked the characters in general. I liked the concept of a sort of an exclusive Jane Austen theme park, I liked the flow of the book.

Austenland has a lot of the advantages of a time travel novel without such drawbacks as (for the characters) a lack of modern conveniences or (for the writer) such a wide array of anachronistic pitfalls. The reader can enjoy an Austen-esque novel without having to suppress a modern POV. The characters can enjoy (or not) the atmosphere of an immersive Regency environment, while still being able to take hot showers and sleep on modern mattresses. And anything that crops up which does not belong in a Regency setting is actually kind of a good thing; the characters, even the actors, aren’t necessarily going to be 100% flawless, and some anachronisms are built into the place. (For example, paint in tubes (not “pain in tubes”, as I keep typing, which is a whole other kettle of fish) was not invented until 1841, over thirty years after the setting for Austenland – but am I complaining? Nope.) So, well done.

But a deeper realization of the concept is disturbing. Austenland is a place where women (exclusively women?) spend a great deal of money to wear a corset and an Empire waist and pretend with all their might they are strolling through a Jane Austen novel. But by the end it becomes clear that the majority of women who come into the experience are married, looking for … something. And that something may include soulful gazes and genteel flirting, or it might include a non-Regency level of necking, and indeed seems to be supposed to include a proposal of marriage.

248483“We do not run a brothel here, miss,” says the proprietor of Austenland near the end of the book, and no, technically, I guess not … But someone’s comment about “a locked hotel room with [one of the Austenland actors] spread out on the bed” comes shortly after, so given everything, I am tempted to disagree. Does Austenland dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out for sex? Not as such. But it does dress actors in tight breeches and hire them out to pretend deep devotion and affection, and that’s just sad.

That lack of diversion annoyed me, a little. How is it that the patrons haven’t complained about that, and indeed how is it that that hasn’t been planned for? 21st century people need more stimulation than those living in the actual early 19th century; why aren’t the actors playing the hosts trained to keep the evenings a little more lively? Even an occasional game of charades might have been helpful. Drawing should have been encouraged among the guests, not something that Jane had to have help to get back into. If I planned to try opening (or writing about) a Jane Austen Experience I would do my damnedest to be a little more creative in the recreational activities available to clientele – boredom is deadly. (Perhaps literally, judging from the description for book 2.) Boredom is something a good hostess would not allow. Also, boredom could lead to … unauthorized activities.

Another ball might have been helpful.

And I can’t help finding it odd, very odd, that while most things down to clients’ underwear is strictly a la mode for the time period, there is a combination of oil lamps and electricity in the house. Why both in the same room? Why not either make life easier on everyone and go all flame-like light bulbs, or go all-in for authenticity and make them light candles and lamps (and make the servants clean and fill the latter)? Why allow showers, but not something as subtle as air conditioning? Granted, it’s England, which is rarely as hot in summer as more southerly climes, but if the clientele is generally rich and spoiled they are going to be as used to air conditioning – and heat in the winter; is that out too, or is Austenland strictly summery? – as they are to breathing oxygen; I was very surprised there wasn’t at least air conditioning in guests’ rooms, or in the ballroom for the final ball. I get allowing makeup – these women are out for flirtation (at least), so they are not going to be seen without their cosmetics. So why not allow modern undies instead of bloomers?

I think my rating slid downward a bit because, overnight, the froth and giddiness of the (really very sweet) ending wore off, and the patheticness at the heart of the program. Austenland isn’t something like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, intended as pure entertainment for fans of the books – – and that’s kind of what I was hoping it was. I’d love to see that, in reality or fiction. No, though, it seems it’s not really designed to entertain, given from the amount of sheer boredom everyone experiences in the Regency-authentic evenings. It’s designed to make rich women feel loved by a handsome man from another age for a few weeks. That’s horrifying. It’s degrading to the women, even if they’re doing it to themselves (and why on earth would Jane’s great-aunt think this was such a great idea?). More, of course, it’s degrading to those men in tight breeches … “Back to work.” In slightly other circumstances, they’d be called gigolos, no? Ew.

Really, the whole concept doesn’t do Jane Austen any favors, either. So, yeah. Four stars because it was a fun read on the surface; downgraded to three because thinking too much about the whole thing makes me a little queasy.

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5 Responses to Austenland – Shannon Hale

  1. pooks says:

    This one stays on my radar and yet I still haven’t read it. Your description is definitely distasteful.

  2. stewartry says:

    I did enjoy the read; it was fluffy. It just didn’t bear much thinking about after the fact…

    (I’m working on my review of This Crumbling Pageant, by the way – and thank you again for letting me read it. I loved it – I just need to put my thoughts in order!)

  3. pooks says:

    I tolerate lots of stuff in romance that ordinarily would annoy me too much, when characters, relationships, major elements are working so well I can dismiss annoyances, so I’ll probably give Austenland a shot eventually.

    And thanks so much for the kind words about This Crumbling Pageant. I love your reviews so am looking forward to your thoughts, pros and cons.

  4. You know me and Austen. So, of course, I have read this book before.

    Actually, twice now I’ve taken it out from my local library. I wasn’t sure what I was thinking the second time. Overall, I thought the book was OK, but as your review pointed out, it wasn’t great.

    I think I ended up giving it the Goodread’s three star review.

    What I will say is that, Midnight in Austenland was slightly better. At least, I thought so.

  5. stewartry says:

    I did enjoy it enough to give it another try. I liked the concept – mostly.

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