It is a truth universally acknowledged that a thirty-something woman in possession of a satisfying career and fabulous hairdo must be in want of very little. (Prologue.1)
Set on a Jane Austen themed resort, there are tons of Austen references sprinkled throughout this book. A character even alludes to Pride and Prejudice's original title, First Impressions, when he says:
Can you tell me that within the first few moments of knowing each person in this room, you had not formed firm judgments of their character, which up to this very moment you have not questioned? (4.111)
There are sly in-jokes about Austen, too, like when Jane observes:
She understood why Austen often left these [small talk] conversations up to the narrator and spared the reader the grotesquerie of having to follow it word by word. (10.29)
While the novel doesn't entirely capture Jane Austen's timeless voice, it does a good job of transporting us into her world. Please check your seatback container for any personal belongings, as we will be deplaning shortly; we have arrived in Austenland.
Jane spends a lot of time thinking about her super romantic, happy ending. That seems to be all that matters to her. Not the journey it takes to get there, just how she's going to end up. We're even told "[Jane] needed a good ending, the best ending, though her imagination couldn't dredge up exactly what that should be" (3.73). Yeesh, what is she going to do if she doesn't get this ending?
Her friend Molly even calls her out on her call-every-man-a-potential-husband craziness, and Jane realizes that "entire relationship[s were] condensed and reformed in her mind to be solely about [the] ending"(3.74). But despite her excessive zeal, Jane does eventually get the happy ending, and the man, she hopes for.
Our Jane is blessed with a melodramatic showdown in the airport between Martin and Henry, her two rival suitors. They quite literally engage in fisticuffs for her affection. And Henry storms onto the plane at the last minute, pledges his undying love for Jane, and flies back to New York with her. Predictably, Jane eats it all up.
We know that our favorite novel characters never truly "meet their ends" in the books we read. Somewhere out there in literary land, Jane's story is still going on. We wonder if she and Henry are happy, watching TV and eating take-out, or if Jane is focused on her next ending. Marriage. A baby. A mental institution. Who knows? Only time (and some devoted fanfiction) will tell.
Jane describes Pembrook Park as "the Area 51 of vacation resorts" (2.40). It's veiled in secrecy. Non-disclosure agreements must be signed, and clients are accepted strictly through referrals. Jane colloquially refers to it as Austenland, which is appropriate given that it's one big Jane Austen-inspired fantasy world.
But it's not all fantasy. As in the rest of England, it rains a lot in Austenland. No technology is allowed there, but the women do wear makeup and some of the lamps are electric, taking away the feel of authenticity. One way the staff attempt to maintain the old-timey feeling of the place is by treating servants like the help. They're meant to be seen and not heard.
In a way, Austenland kind of feels like a prison. Mrs. Wattlesbrook is its merry warden, dictating how the men and women should behave on its grounds. She confiscates televisions and threatens to kick out Jane for defying her rules. If Austenland weren't a romantic comedy, there would be something sinister about it. "You will live out your fantasy in Austenland… or else."
Reading a Jane Austen novel is like taking a trip back in time. Not only are the clothes and customs archaic, but the language is, too. Forget Urban Dictionary, we need a Regency Dictionary to translate this stuff, lest we think the phrase "making love" means something a lot more scandalous than it actually does.
However, reading a Shannon Hale novel is as fun as a trip to Austenland. Or at least a leisurely weekend on the beach. While the Austen references fly fast and furious, it's not necessary to be an Austen scholar to enjoy the book. And Jane is basically in our shoes; she's no Regency scholar either. She's just faking it until she can kinda-sorta make it.
During her stay at Austenland, Jane is unable to separate fiction from reality. All of Austenland is a stage, and all its gentleman merely players. So what does she often focus on? The paintings. They're definitely not real, but Jane acts like they might as well be. This isn't that surprising, considering she's lived her whole life fixated on fictional characters. She muses, "all the people in those paintings know that they're significant. You have to envy that kind of self-assurance." (14.40). That's right: Jane goes from envying actors to envying unknown people in paintings.
She does grow a bit during her stay, though. She even starts doing her own paintings. The paintings then become a metaphor for her own life. "She wanted to love someone the way she felt when painting—fearless, messy, vivid" (15.8). But she has a problem getting the eyes of her paintings right. Like the eyes of the gentleman of Austenland, her paintings have actor's eyes, a sign that nothing is what it seems, and she can't ever tell what the men are thinking.
Heck, Jane has a hard enough time figuring out what Jane is thinking. She describes the eyes of her self-portrait as "too cautious, measuring everything, taking away the spontaneity" (17.52). Okay, maybe she does have a good idea of herself, even if she doesn't realize it. Those eyes are a pretty spot-on description for Jane, for better or for worse.
In case you've never read Pride and Prejudice we'll let you know one thing: it was written before cell phones existed. So Jane Austen's characters corresponded with letters, not texts, Facebook messages, or e-mails. Jane Hayes, however, smuggles her cell phone into Austenland in order to maintain some connection to the outside world.
It serves as a reminder that this Austenland thing is all pretend. The guests of Austenland are modern women living in bygone times. But Jane can't let go of certain modern conveniences, like the cell phone. This unwillingness to truly submit to the rules of Jane's fantasyland both helps and hurts her.
It helps, because she's able to use her phone to e-mail her friend Molly. As a result, she gets a background check on Henry Jenkins, the actor who plays Mr. Nobley. Without this Private Eye-style info, she might never have believed Henry when he says he loves her.
However, the phone gets her in trouble when her traitorous maid finds it and turns it in. It almost gets Jane booted from Austenland. However, Mr. Nobley convinces another Austenland guest, Miss Heartwright, to take the blame. Hm, we guess it ended up helping her in that respect too, because knowing that Mr. Nobley stood up for her makes Jane really, really believe in his love for her. We guess having a cell phone is always a good safety measure, even when pretending to time travel.
Elizabeth Bennet loved to walk. Dramatic things always happened to her when out for a walk, like meeting Mr. Darcy soaking wet on Pemberley's grounds. Well, it happened in the movie anyway, and that's the version of Pride and Prejudice Jane is obsessed with. Perhaps she thinks something similarly dramatic will happen to her on her walks.
And it does. She runs into Martin multiple times, and gets invited to his cabin. She eavesdrops on other people, and she almost karate chops Nobley in the neck as well. In Jane Austen novels, things happen on walks, so it's no surprise that walks are happening events in Austenland as well.
Although Austenland focuses on Jane Hayes, the story isn't told from her perspective. We thinks this helps the story be less confusing. All of that flip-flopping back and forth and sideways between dating Martin, and dating Nobley, and dating nobody at all would make us feel awfully dizzy.
But the main reason Austenland is told from a third-person point of view is because that's how Austen told her stories. Don't believe us? We have proof: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park are all told from a third-person POV.
Hale does limit things to Jane's perspective, however. Mainly because the thoughts of the gentlemen are guarded in secrecy. A man can't be brooding and mysterious if the narrator can read his mind, right?