Writer Shannon Hale's new novel, Austenland, creates a theme park where Jane Austen fans can find their own Mr. Darcy -- or some other romantic equivalent.
I find the idea of the book almost as appalling as I would find such a theme park. I confess I have not read it, but only heard the report about it on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, so perhaps I'm not being fair. But the tone of the radio report makes me think Hale has written yet another romance-centered book that completely misses the point of Austen's novels.
I did not find it a selling point when Hale said she'd dedicated the book to Colin Firth, the actor who played Mr. Darcy in the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Firth may have done an excellent job of bringing Mr. Darcy to life, but he's an actor playing a role. And actors bring their own interpretation (as well as that of the screenwriter and director) to a part, one that may or may not be the one that Austen intended.
(I recall when I saw the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, I had trouble seeing what Marianne Dashwood saw in Willoughby, the supposedly romantic choice, when she had the fascinating Colonel Brandon, played by Alan Rickman, also seeking her hand. "Why doesn't she like Alan Rickman's character?" I whispered to my sister, a thorough Janeite. "He isn't Alan Rickman in the book," she replied.)
But what really bothers me is that some women -- including Hale, apparently -- are so fixated on the romance in Austen's books that they're blind to the whole world she wrote about. Haven't they noticed how many women in Austen's novels are forced to make compromise marriages, or live in straightened circumstances, depending perhaps on the charity of a brother-in-law? Hasn't it occurred to them that the culture so limits Austen's women that their only real opportunity in life is a good marriage -- and that a good marriage is not necessarily the most romantic one?
Austen was a brilliant writer. In the guise of writing love stories -- a suitable occupation for a woman -- she gave us a stunning critique of her society. I rather think Austen would be appalled by the idea that people crave the romance of her times -- a brief experience that only few could experience -- in lieu of the many opportunities of our own.
But then, I find it hard to even read Jane Austen, much as I admire her wit, her beautiful sentences, and her powerful evocation of her times. I cannot get through any of her books without wanting to throw the book across the room because I see woman after woman trapped in a society that doesn't really appreciate her skill or worth.
Truth is, I think Jane Austen wrote horror novels. And personally, I wouldn't choose to spend my vacation in a horror theme park. Or to read a book about women who would.