If you’re any sort of Jane Austen fan, you likely will have read and/or seen Austenland, the book by Shannon Hale, or the movie starring Keri Russell (Felicity, August Rush). Are Austen addicts crazy spinster women? Some, perhaps, and both book and movie are a half-warning against women delving too much into fantasy that they forget the very real men beside them. The between-the-lines message of the story being that most men don’t care much for romance, daydreaming, or fantasy, and that women have to be more practical in their approach to romantic love. And then both book and movie turn that idea on its head with a revolutionary thought: A woman, not only in body, but mind and spirit, can be the answer to a man’s fantasy. An intriguing thought, and likely a fantasy in itself, but I’ve known many men who are at heart very romantic and prone to daydreaming about the ideal woman, though one would not guess so upon first meeting them.
What is it about the Pride and Prejudice love story that both women and men like so much? In this day and age, their wordy banter is a novelty to us, a society that leaps into bed with the first person we find attractive. As much as we may poo-poo the societal physical restrains on romance from back in the day, our love of these kinds of stories show that we sort of miss those restraints, even if it’s just a little bit. It’s like poetry. Today, we have free verse, free verse, and only free verse, and although the poetry can be very good, it’s not quite as awesome as mastering the rules of a sonnet. Rules can be a great way of shaping art, focusing the artist or writer to really hone their work. Splat painting vs. the Mona Lisa, as one example. Both can be admired, but only one is truly great art and precisely because it follows certain rules. Perhaps we, with our very modern ways, secretly feel the same about romance.
Into the fray: The book vs. the movie. I enjoyed both, though, the book delved far deeper into this question of fantasy vs. reality. Taking the movie first, it was cute, full of the appropriate fluff, and had some great performances. Keri Russell plays a good everywoman, Jennifer Coolidge (Legally Blond) is hilarious as always, and Georgia King (Little Dorrit) was born to play period roles. And Jane Seymour is still just as stunning as she was on Dr. Quinn. Does this woman not age? 🙂 The standout character is Bret McKenzie’s (Flight of the Conchords) gardener. He’s wickedly handsome, funny, charming, and far more appealing than the Mr. Darcy stand in of Mr. Nobley. That’s not to say that Mr. Nobley played by J.J. Field (Captain America: First Avenger), doesn’t also have his charms, but he’s not given enough screen time to adequately nudge him to the head of the line. I found myself wishing that, although he’s nothing like a Mr. Darcy, that McKenzie had had the main role (I love funny guys). But that’s not the point, the point the of whole story is: Don’t give up on Mr. Darcy, he’s real.
Who is a Mr. Darcy, exactly? Is he merely a hunk in a wet t-shirt? The movie seems to indicate that for most women that’s all Darcy is, a daydream about a good looking man a la Colin Firth (or Ricky Whittle) in tight pants and a billowy shirt that tends to look best when damp as to outline his manly features. The 1995 BBC version of Pride & Prejudice was a revelation in its time. As for me, when I first read the novel in college, I just didn’t get the appeal, and didn’t even want to finish it. Neither did my friends. So we rented this super long miniseries in the hope that we would be sufficiently caught up on all plot points enough to pass the test. We subsequently ended up falling head over heels for Firth’s standoffish, irritating Mr. Darcy. Jane Austen was a genius, and the miniseries made that clear, showing her wit and plotting to full effect.
Other standouts in the movie: The scenery, house, and rooms are gorgeous. Everything is done with a wink, wink, and we often get to see the male actors of Austenland in their downtime. The various plots of Austen’s stories are woven well throughout, and the ball at the end is stunning. This sort of theme park wouldn’t be entirely bad and could be a lot of fun if one went with friends — something similar to a murder mystery weekend at an old Victorian mansion.
To the book: Austenland has so much going for it. It’s sweet, the main character is appealing, neurotic, and vulnerable, and the story walks the line between reality and fantasy well, yet ends where we all want it to, in the fantasy (or is it the truth?) that there are men out there who like the other parts of romance just as much as they do the physical parts. That there are men out there who want to be the hero, who want to battle their lady love with witty dialogue, those who sort of wish they could be someone’s Mr Darcy, or at least a Willoughby. Mr. Nobley is given a bit more time to breathe and to woo Jane, and Martin the gardener is a bit more obvious as to his intentions.
Which brings me to the ending (spoilers, or, er, more spoilers ahead). I have always liked Mr. Darcy, but I like him for Elizabeth Bennet. I like him in his place in Pride and Prejudice. Enter Jane Hayes, or Miss Erstwhile of Austenland. Should we cheer Jane on for landing her proverbial Mr. Darcy? Warm fuzzies say yes, but reality…there’s always reality, isn’t there? Speaking of reality, although many, many woman love Austen’s Mr. Darcy, he’s not necessarily someone they could stand for two minutes in real life. Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s revelation about Martin the gardener being an actor is kind of a let down. But that’s probably the point. As a reader or audience member, there are several clues to catch in both the book and film that this guy isn’t exactly on the up and up, yet I found myself cheering Jane on from ridding herself of this Darcy fantasy that no man could measure up to. It’s a catch 22: Do we wait years on end (getting older, grayer, and more neurotic in the process) to meet that ideal man or woman of our dreams, or do we put those dreams aside and settle for the sweet, kind people beside us who leave the toilet seat up, have morning breath, and fumble when speaking of feelings? Are there some awesome love stories out there where the guy or girl waits for the person of their dreams and gets them? Sure, but it’s not common. True love is the stuff of heaven…and maybe The Princess Bride. Isn’t it just better to “love the one you’re with?” In conclusion, I don’t know what to think of the ending. I’m thrilled by the fantasy of it, but shamed that it is still, a fantasy, a novel, a movie, a dream. Austenland is a Disneyland, no more, no less.