hen Shannon Hale set out to create a story about a young woman who finds romance, fun – and maybe even a little bit of wisdom – in a Jane Austen-themed vacation resort, she made a few false starts. § Such as naming her heroine Lydia. § And making her rich. § That was all early draft stuff, though. § Once Hale rewrote her main character – making her an everywoman named Jane Hayes, and giving her little in the way of money or assets – the book began to take off. § “[U]ltimately Lydia just wasn’t as interesting as Jane,” Hale told The Buffalo News. “Jane was geekier. And her investment in Austenland was greater.” § “I needed to raise the stakes, to make her experience at the resort mean more to her life afterward.” § The result can be found in Hale’s new novel, “Austenland.”
The fictional tale has won many fans – among them, lots of Austenphiles, or “Janeites” as they are sometimes called – and has been turned into a Hollywood movie that opens in Western New York this month. Keri Russell stars as the heroine, Jane.
“Austenland” is the September selection of The Buffalo News Book Club.
Hale, a mother of four who lives with her husband and children near Salt Lake City, Utah, in a place called South Jordan, responded to questions from The Buffalo News by email over the past few weeks, as she made publicity appearances related to the opening of the feature film based on her novel.
Hale said she invented out of whole cloth the singular setting of “Austenland”: a Jane Austen-centered vacation retreat in England.
There, paying customers – among them Jane Hayes, the novel’s plucky heroine – immerse themselves in a Regency-inspired lifestyle, down to the shoe buttons and bonnets and petticoats, the lengthy dinners and candlelight and society balls.
“I dreamed it up,” said Hale, in an email. “We used to do those how-to-host-a-murder parties where everyone takes a part and you solve a mystery, and I grew up doing theater.”
“So during the Great Darcy Obsession Era, I used to wish there was a place you could go to just try out living in an Austen story and see if it really would be as ideal as it seemed. And I thought of making it a vacation with actors playing parts. I never thought of it as chick lit. I just followed the story.”
Hale’s other books include “Midnight in Austenland.” She has also written young adult books including “Princess Academy” and “Palace of Stone.”
Hale’s books on the Jane Austen fantasy world both capitalize on – and poke fun at – the current phase of cinema-driven Austen fandom.
In “Austenland,” the heroine, Jane Hayes, a 32-year-old American woman who is “pretty enough and clever enough,” as Hale writes in the novel, is riveted by the film version of “Pride and Prejudice” starring actor Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy. Jane has seen many of her own romantic relationships run aground on the rocks of her Austen-influenced ideas (and ideals) of what a suitor should be.
When an older female relative visits Jane in her New York apartment and notices her Darcy DVDs, perhaps pityingly, Jane is embarrassed.
But, when the old great-aunt dies and leaves Jane a small bequest, it is an unusual one: admission for a stay of several weeks at the pricey, picture-perfect English getaway known as “Austenland.”
The message for Jane – and the fun in the story that follows – is simple:
It might be high time for a young woman of marriageable age to get over a fixation on Firth – er, Darcy.
Or is it?
The rest of the novel centers on the amusing efforts of Jane Hayes to fit in, on the posh Austenland estate, and stay in character, in an early 1800s setting in which a slip into modern times – such as having a forbidden cellphone or watching TV with a friend – can be punished by being asked to leave Austenland.
She wears the dresses and the caps, not to mention the undergarments. She strolls the gardens, plays the socially approved card games and makes polite conversation with new acquaintances.
Along the way, Jane befriends a few men on the Austenland campus who might be love interests.
Or, she asks herself, are they just very good actors – playing parts?
Along the way, Jane Hayes meets other women – the stern overseer of the retreat, Mrs. Wattlesbrook; Miss Charming, another enthusiastic guest at the resort – who shape her new ideas of what a fascination with Austen and her fictional worlds really means.
Hale, who said she loves Austen’s works, told The News that the Darcy phenomenon is one that captives women because the story of Elizabeth Bennet is one that most women can relate to.
“I think you can’t separate the Mr. Darcy phenomenon from Elizabeth Bennet,” said Hale, in an email.
She said Darcy, of all Austen’s heroes, is the one who sears into our memories because of the woman he is fictionally paired with.
“I absolutely adore Henry Tilney from Northanger Abbey. He’s so funny! And charming and sweet! However, he doesn’t get as many props as Darcy, because women don’t identify (or maybe want to identify) with Catherine Morland,” Hale told The News. “In Elizabeth, I think my friends and I saw the story of ourselves – the story we told ourselves, anyway.”
“Here’s a girl who isn’t as pretty as her sister, isn’t talented and accomplished as many think women should be, isn’t wealthy or have social connections. Yet despite nothing to recommend her, Darcy can’t help falling in love with her.”
Hale said that Darcy – whether embodied by Firth or not – appeals to women because he recognizes the value in a woman others might have overlooked.
“I think we wanted a guy who could see past the glitzy, beautiful, fantastically talented girls we weren’t to notice us – the smart ones, the clever ones,” Hale wrote. “Mr. Darcy was smart enough to fall for Elizabeth Bennet. My friends and I became obsessed with that ideal – a guy smart enough to fall in love with us!”
In real life, Hale adds, “I did find him, by the way.” (Her husband, Dean Hale, has collaborated with Hale on novels for young readers.)
Hale said she loves “Pride and Prejudice” and has likely read it 10 times.
On the other hand, she offered a “confession”: she has only made it through “Sense and Sensibility” once.
“I need to reread that one again to see if I’ve grown up enough for it now,” she wrote The News.
Of Austen’s heroines, Hale said she has trouble picking a favorite.
“One thing I love about Austen, and something that greatly influenced my own writing, is she doesn’t write the same character twice,” Hale wrote. “Six different heroines in her six main novels, and all of them so different!”
When she began writing, the author continued, she swore she would do the same.
“The world can use lots of different kinds of female characters, especially as some books and lots of movies want to reduce us to three basic stereotypes,” Hale wrote.
“Elizabeth Bennet is just so great. When I read her, I get that sense that she’d be great on a road trip. You could talk for hours. I have a great fondness for Anne Elliot too. Emma bothers some, but I think she’s a riot. I admire Elinor, but I do want to shake her and tell her, just talk to your sister already! And who wants to be Fanny Price?”
Hale said she has a strict schedule of writing, due to her growing family. Her four kids, all younger than 10, include 2-year-old twins.
“When I had one and two kids, I wrote during naps, but now I have four and there are too many moving parts, so I have a baby sitter for three hours a day,” she told The News. “It’s not enough time, but I have to make it work!”
Hale said that her memories of childhood reading inform the writer she is today.
“Childhood reading is always the most magical,” she wrote to The News. “Those stories etched into my brain, I think, and formed in part who I am. Starting at age 10, I fell in love with reading.”
Her favorite authors, as a child, included C.S. Lewis, Robin McKinley, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia McKillip, Lloyd Alexander and Joan Aiken.
She also learned to love Austen during this time.
“What amazes me about Austen is how her books grow with you,” Hale wrote. “When I first read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ as a teenager, it was a romance. When I read it in college, it was a biting social satire. When I read it later as an adult, it was a comedy. And of course, it is all those things.”
Hale said that when she was a teen, she stopped reading for pleasure and fun for a period of some years.
“I didn’t even realize it at the time,” she wrote. “Based on the assigned reading in high school English classes, I assumed that all books I should read as an adult had to be realistic fiction with well-crafted prose but no genre, no romance or comedy or fantasy or mystery, and always with dark, hopeless endings. It took me years to shake myself free and give myself permission to read for pleasure again.”
For those reasons, according to Hale, she is hoping that “Austenland” becomes the kind of book that lures people back into a pleasurable relationship with fiction.
“I wanted ‘Austenland’ to stay short, a nice, trim, humorous novel that people who had fallen out of love with reading like I had might pick up and discover they still liked reading after all,” Hale wrote.
“It’s been so gratifying to hear for how many adult readers it’s been a gateway book back into reading again.”
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