The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Written by James Zborowski.

Photo from the article (This Alternate Take focuses on endings and therefore contains spoilers - for both Austenland itself and two Jane Austen novels: Pride and Prejudice and Emma.)

Austenland, like other recent fictions involving a character who is substantially invested in Pride and Prejudice (such as Alexandra Potter’s 2007 novel Me and Mr Darcy, Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, and ITV’s Lost in Austen (2008), to name just a few), is in some ways sustainedly self-reflexive. The ideal reader/viewer of these stories will be aware of the Darcy-Lizzy-Wickham love triangle, and will be using it as a template from which the text at hand will deviate enough to generate some suspense and surprise; but it will not deviate too far, and especially not with respect to the ending and the romantic union it delivers. Stories in which a contemporary female reflects upon her attachment to a story set two hundred years ago also inevitably involve some degree of reflection upon the socio-political distance between Regency England and late-twentieth or early-twenty first century Britain or North America.

However, this self-reflexivity has its limits, and as Marilyn Francus observes in a very useful critical review of (primarily) Shannon Hale’s 2007 novel Austenland (upon which the film is based) and Potter’s Me and Mr Darcy, ‘neither Potter nor Hale pursues their critique of readers who read Austen solely for romance.’ This dimension of Austenland emerges clearly if one compares the closing paragraphs of Hale’s novel with those of two Austen novels.

Here, first of all, is the final paragraph of Pride and Prejudice:

‘With the Gardiners, they [Elizabeth and Darcy] were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.’

The final paragraph of what many would consider one of the greatest love stories of all time is as much about a pair of Lizzy’s relatives as it is about Lizzy and Darcy themselves! Emma’s closing paragraph is somewhat less surprising, and its closing words are more easily paraphrased as ‘and they lived happily ever after’, but note again the perhaps-surprising focus on the social world that surrounds the happy couple:

‘The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby and very inferior to her own.-Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!-Selina would stare when she heard of it.’-But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.’

In both Emma and Pride and Prejudice, these final paragraphs are of a piece with the chapters they conclude, which are very concerned to detail not the personal feelings or actions of the romantically-united man and woman, but to explain what the marriage means to the broader social circle - in the case of Pride and Prejudice, we hear, for example, about how well Lizzy gets on with Darcy’s younger sister, and about the relationships between Lizzy and two of her recently-married sisters.

Here are the final two paragraphs of Austenland:

‘We met on an airplane (economy class) and kissed most of the flight home. Over the Atlantic, we decided to fall in love. When the plane touched down at JFK, he hadn’t changed his mind. When he carried me over the threshold of my apartment, no Mrs. Wattlesbrook lurked in the shadows. While he was in the kitchen, I picked Pride and Prejudice out of my (miraculously) still-living houseplant and tucked it into a harmless spot beside all the other DVDs, spine out and proud.

We’re going to order in tonight.’

Like much contemporary romantic comedy and popular literature, Austenland (both the film and the novel) demystifies only to remystify - or, one might say, allows its reader to have her or his cake and eat it. Darcy is debunked, but then heterosexual union is duly delivered before the end. One must judge such a manoeuvre on a case-by-case basis, and sometimes I would mount a defence of it, but not here (I am referring to both the film and the novel). My main complaint, though, is that in comparison with Austen (and, I might add, with Helen Fielding, which never loses sight of Bridget’s circle of friends), we have what we might call romantic solipsism. The marriage vow ‘to the exclusion of all others’ is extended far beyond sexual monogamy, almost to every thought and action of the couple. What the protagonist Jane apparently wishes to hear is her chosen man telling her ‘if I don’t make you feel like the most beautiful woman in the world every day of your life, then I don’t deserve to be near you’. In Pride and Prejudice, Lizzy and Darcy certainly possess and express strong feelings towards one another, but such declarations are never long-unaccompanied by outward-looking reflections upon their social conduct, and the place of their relationship within the network of relationships that constitute their lives (the novel’s title is no accident).

In fact, Hale has found a perfect plot structure for her romantic solipsism, one which the filmic adaptation of her novel does not alter to any significant degree. The Austenland leisure resort conceit at first gently satirises Austenmania, then becomes a clever means of updating the deceptions and performances of Pride and Prejudice, but finally, it serves to make everyone except the central couple ancillary, inauthentic, and ultimately, irrelevant. This is about as far from Austen as it is possible to be.

This Alternate Take was published on November 18, 2013.

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