Book Chat: Austenland

By Hannah Lee

“Jane Austen fever” is heating up, as the Bank of England has announced plans to feature the image of the beloved female novelist on their ten-pound note. The auction of a ring with Austen provenance prompted a public outcry, and the British Minister of Culture stopped its sale to the American singer Kelly Clarkson. The movie premiere of Austenland has rolled out in Los Angeles and New York last Friday. There are no dates for Philly showings yet, but I am preparing by taking the 2007 novel off my bookshelf.

Written by Shannon Hale, winner of a Newbery Honor medal for Princess Academy, the novel is about a single New York career woman, Jane Hayes, with an obsession for Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or specifically, Colin Firth’s depiction of Mr. Darcy in the 1995 BBC adaptation. When her great-aunt bequeaths her an all-expenses-paid vacation, to a resort where the regency world of 1816 rules, the heroine accepts the gift, with the hope of getting her obsession out of her system.

Pembroke Park is where cell phones are banned, and modern garb is switched for Empire-style gowns, bonnets, and garters (although mascara and modern toilets escaped the rule of authenticity). Going further than your typical costume ball and fan convention, this is a place where patrons live out their fantasies of a bygone world of servants, carriages and horses, and games of whist. The added bonus of a romance — under strict regency guidelines on modest behavior — detracted from the innocence of the fantasy play. The predicament for the heroine is assessing what is real and what is acting.

What was difficult for me was the concept of patrons paying for romance, which falls just within the legal boundary. What about the players who embody the regency characters they meet? This is no mere acting gig, because they spend days and nights with their roles.

Humorously drawn are the cast of characters, including the proprietress Mrs. Wattlesbrook, who grills her patrons on the proper regency rules of conduct; the charming Amelia Heartwright, who returns for a repeat vacation; and the farcical Miss Charming, embodying the tone-deaf patron, who sprinkles her language with the anachronistic “what, what” and “jolly good.” The male players include Colonel Andrews, with “a decent set of shoulders;” the disapproving Mr. Nobley; and the gardener Martin, with a taste for American basketball, although it is off-limits and out-of-time.

The $4 million film was produced by Stephanie Meyers, who channeled her earnings from her successful Twilight series of book and film. In a highly unusual move, the advance screenings are shown to women only, following the Sundance Film Festival, where women viewers praised the movie, and men trashed it.

While I am waiting for the movie to arrive in my neighborhood, I can review my copies of An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England by Venetia Murray, and What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool. I would learn much, without any complicated plotting.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3445/book-chat-austenland

 

 

 

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3445/book-chat-austenland

Book Chat: All Roads Lead to Austen

By Hannah Lee

I’ve finished All Roads Lead to Austen: A Year-long Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith and I’m in love!  This memoir details the author’s sabbatical from teaching English literature.  Giving herself a final creative project as assigned to her students, Smith traveled to six countries in Latin America and led reading groups on Jane Austen’s novels.

I learned that Chilean Spanish is the hardest accent to master and Buenos Aires is the best city for booklovers. Smith’s difficulty in adjusting to the different accents in the six countries reminded me that my elder daughter had great language pedagogy in high school, where each teacher had an accent from a different part of the Spanish-speaking Americas. When the author first referred to herself as estadounidense, I thought she was mocking herself, but this is now the way to say you’re from the United States. In high school, I’d learned to identify myself as, americana or de Estado Unidos, but a politically neutral phrase has evolved in the 34 years since I’ve studied the language.

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Last year, my book group read A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter by William Deresiewicz and we were disappointed. (No, we’re not members of JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America, and we do read other authors.)  That book offered hardly any new insight for us and we disliked how the author disparaged his family and friends in print, although we noticed that he’d waited until his father had passed away.

In Smith’s memoir, she traveled to six Latin-American countries — Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Chile, Paraguay, and Argentina — where by intent or by happenstance, she found readers to discuss Austen’s novels.  What is marvelous to me is that people from humble backgrounds had just as much insight into Austen’s motivations and her characters as those of the literati.  What was delightful to Smith was finding that readers in Latin America had just as much a visceral response to Austen’s writing as her students in California.  Austen does translate well into Spanish-speaking America!

The Latin-American readers all connected to the “believable happiness” of Austen’s protagonists, where they “all find love, but it’s embedded in situations we can identify with: money woes; frustrating relatives; unavoidable personality clashes.”  Smith recorded arguments in Spanish over the characters, including the loud one by the Chilean readers over the relationship between Marianne and Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility, because it was the most implausible liaison of the Austen heroines.

Smith discovered to her dismay how often and quickly she made assumptions about the people she encountered in each country — and she met her own Señor Darcy.  If every one of us can learn to withhold judgment of others, then it would be a worthy journey of the soul.

Travel as transformation is depicted in The Tao of Travel, edited by Paul Theroux, in which Mark Twain is quoted thus:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts.  Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2375/book-chat-all-roads-lead-to-austen