Our protagonist, Jane Hayes, lives in a fantasy world—a world where women are swept off their feet, find love for life with handsome and intelligent men, and have a happily ever after, cutely abbreviated as HEA (But what happens after the HEAs? Like, when the trials and tribulations of real-life marriage set in?). She puts herself into the world, watching Pride and Prejudice on DVD over and over again, optimistically hoping for a Mr. Darcy of her own, while the divorce rate in the real world rises. She wants to be Elizabeth Bennet, but with a cell phone and photo-editing software.
If she were actually a character in a Jane Austen novel, Jane Hayes' inner workings would make sense. She desperately feels that she needs to find a man, but at the same time sees the futility of it all. "I've decided to give up men entirely" (2.81), she declares on one page, before saying, "My ovaries are screaming at me" (2.86) on the next. Men: what a conundrum. Can't live with them, can't have babies without them.
In the modern world, however, Jane sticks out like a sore thumb. Her best friend, Molly, and her Great-Aunt Carolyn confront Jane about her ridiculous, lovelorn ways. But at the same time, they hold out hope for Jane, enabling her to embark on her fantasy vacation to Pembrook Park, a.k.a Austenland. Maybe the lesson here is that if you hope hard enough, your dreams can come true. Hey, it worked for Lizzy Bennet.
Quick, Someone Get This Girl a DeLorean
In Austenland, Jane Hayes is redubbed Jane Erstwhile by the proprietress, Mrs. Wattlesbrook. Erstwhile is a word that means belonging to a prior time. Thus, the name really hits the Jane on the head, as far as we're concerned. Jane's men (and ovaries)-focused mindset definitely belongs in the 19th century.
As the days pass, Jane frets about how boring it is to be a lady of leisure (just ask the rich kids of Instagram), while simultaneously obsessing about the local male suitors. After hooking up with Martin The Gardener, she thinks about him every second of the day, "wonder[ing] how early she could slip away to see Martin again" (7.26) every night. If she were in your middle school math class, you'd definitely have seen Martin's name scribbled in pink bubble letters all over that girl's notebook. Pretty much every chapter concludes with Jane falling into the same "woe is me" traps she did in her modern life. When her fling with Martin burns out as quickly as it began, she thinks, "She finds the one man on campus who's in a position to reject her and then leads him into it. Typical Jane" (8.39).
However, she also displays a fierce wit that Elizabeth Bennet would be proud of, confidently engaging in verbal jousts with the broody Mr. Nobley. At one point, she says, "Together we must be Impertinence and Inflexibility" (15.78)—which we think would be a great title for a lost Jane Austen novel.
Austenland has some other upsides. It allows Jane to reconnect with her love for painting, which had been supplanted by the modern-day necessity for… slick graphic design done on a PC instead of a canvas? Turning an artist's lens on the world also allows her to paint things the way she thinks they're supposed to be, rather than the way they are. It's also a heck of a lot more interesting to her than horseback riding. (We're guessing that Jane didn't share our childhood obsession with Black Beauty.)
Despite finally connecting with the playhouse atmosphere of Austenland, Jane still has trouble thinking she's constantly being played. Maybe her bad relationship history is tainting her view of the place. But, in Austenland, where all the gentlemen are paid actors, it's hard for Jane to believe their love is true. "Mr. Nobley was perfect, but he was just a game" (18.99).
This distrust enables her to turn down Mr. Nobley the first time he confesses his true feelings for her, just like Elizabeth did to Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Dating in the days of Jane Austen was tricky business; courtship involved an elaborate set of social customs that seemed a lot like a game anyway. So it's only appropriate that Jane has to jump through the same hoops—and make the same mistakes—en route to her happy ending.
Luckily, Jane's happy ending is as dramatic as she could have hoped. Mr. Nobley declares his true love for Jane just as she's leaving Austenland, and then jumps on a flight back to New York with her. We can only hope the rest of her love life unfolds with such excitement. Maybe Jane's ardent dedication to old-fashioned romance will save her from all that normal long-term relationship stuff, like arguments over who was supposed to do the dishes this week or why there's no toilet paper left in the bathroom. A girl can dream, can't she?