Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Austenland by Shannon Hale/Lost in Austen, 2008 ITV series (Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge: May/June)

on June 29, 2013

pride-prejudice-bicentenary-challenge-2013-x-200Well, hello again, after almost two months of struggling through colds and other bugs (not all mine, although it sometimes felt that way!) and generally not having time to do an awful lot besides keep the essentials ticking over!  In view of the fact that I’m now a month behind on my Pride and Prejudice Bicentenary Challenge posts, I thought I’d do a sort of two-in-one this month, with a review of two Pride and Prejudice spin-offs set in modern times.  They don’t actually have that much in common, story-wise, but by chance I ended up reading/watching both this month and as they both concern a young woman thrust into the Regency world I thought I’d review both and possibly compare and contrast a bit.

“I’m not hung up about Darcy. I do not sit at home with the pause button on Colin Firth in clingy pants, okay? I love the love story. I love Elizabeth. I love the manners and language and the courtesy. It’s become part of who I am and what I want. I’m saying that I have standards.”

So speaks Amanda Price, at the start of ITV’s 2008 series, Lost in Austen.  She’s a single-ish, twenty-something resident of modern-day Hammersmith, who loves to immerse herself in Austen’s novels and feels as a result that she can expect more from her romantic future than her lacklustre relationship with Michael, who seems to love beer and bikes more than he loves her.

Her claim not to be hung up about Darcy is not something that could be echoed by Jane Hayes, protagonist of Shannon Hale’s novel Austenland.  She’s similar to Amanda in some ways, but slightly older and lives in New York.  Although she’s read almost all of Austen’s novels (with the exception of Northanger Abbey – “of course” says the narrative, which, as one forum contributor put it, “lets you know she’s one of Those People”!), her real obsession is the 1995 BBC adaptation starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle.  She has watched it countless times and has become caught up in the love story, which has had detrimental repercussions on her own love life to the extent that she has decided to give up on relationships altogether rather than settle for anything less than Firth’s Darcy.  An elderly relative, who dies shortly after discovering Jane’s obsession, bequeaths her a curious legacy in the form of a Regency-themed holiday in an English stately home, where actors are employed to enhance the visitors’ experience.  Jane goes along intending to lay her obsessions to rest but finds it difficult to “play along”, especially when some of the other visitors’ attempts at authenticity leave a lot to be desired.  She cannot fully immerse herself in the experience but constantly wonders, for example, what purpose each of the actors is serving (whether a particular gentleman has been brought in “for” someone in particular, etc) and whether she is being sidelined because she’s been told by the very strict and disapproving holiday manager that she’s not their usual type of guest.

Surreal as this may be for her, it’s nothing compared to the shock Lost in Austen‘s Amanda receives when, one day, she discovers Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, and learns that a small door in the wall (which seems just to cover up some pipework) is a kind of portal between Amanda’s world and Elizabeth’s.  On going to investigate, Amanda finds herself trapped on the Pride and Prejudice side and must explain her presence in the Bennet house (she’s a friend of Elizabeth’s), along with Elizabeth’s absence (she has gone to stay at Amanda’s house in Hammersmith whilst she writes a book).  Unfortunately, Amanda finds she has arrived just at the beginning of the novel’s events and, try as she might, she’s unable to prevent them from going off course from time to time.  She finds the whole situation quite stressful and initially responds to this in a very 21st century way, for example getting drunk at the Meryton Assembly and snogging Mr Bingley who comes out to check on her and who subsequently becomes infatuated with her.  Small mistakes set off a chain of unintended events and, just as everything seems to have got hopelessly out of hand, she finds herself unexpectedly back in modern times and realises she must find Elizabeth so that everything can be rectified.  In the meantime, however, both Amanda and Elizabeth have acclimatised to their new surroundings and find it more difficult than Amanda had envisaged to return to normal.

My responses

I found Austenland very difficult to get into, which came as a disappointment because I’d heard great things about it and I know it’s about to be released as a film featuring some actors I really love, so I wanted to like it.   The main problem was that I really didn’t like the character of Jane.  I’m all for escapism in the form of books, films, or whatever takes your fancy, but I have little sympathy for anyone who allows it to take over their life – especially to the extent of giving up on relationships because they’re not fulfilling the standards set by the fantasy.  I also found the first half or so rather disjointed and confusing, although I later wondered whether that might be intentional to some extent, to reflect Jane’s own state of mind.  My other problem was with the unconvincing portrayal of an English character.  I don’t want to come across as all snobbish and exacting, but it just sounded so wrong!  Now, it’s complicated because many of the characters in the book aren’t all they seem, and this one was no exception, so you might say in Hale’s defence that it could be deliberate.  But I don’t really buy that – even with that in mind, it just didn’t convince.  It was made more grating by the fact that the author had chosen to include another character who tried to be English and failed miserably.  If you’re going to poke fun at that sort of person, you need to be confident you know what English people are, and are not, likely to say and do, and this didn’t really seem to be the case in Austenland.

Anyway, for the sake of knowing I was going to review the book, I persevered and eventually settled into the flow of the story (as Jane settled into her surroundings, which was what prompted me to wonder if it was deliberate!) and actually quite enjoyed the end.  I did like the accounts of Jane’s relationship history interspersed throughout the book, which was a clever approach and tied in neatly as the book drew to a close.  There were some surprises towards the end which cheered me up, just when I thought I knew what was going to happen.  I never really warmed to Jane herself though (maybe I just couldn’t get past her aversion to Northanger Abbey!) and I’d be unlikely to bother with any more in the Austenland series.

Lost in Austen seems to me a much more entertaining approach to twisting a story.  The sudden and surprising way in which Amanda finds herself in Longbourn and the Pride and Prejudice world means that the audience is swept along with the storyline, and despite lacking some of the freshness it had had when I first watched it, it still held plenty of surprises in the small details I’d forgotten.  The dialogue is witty (and in some places, laugh-out-loud – Darcy in particular is given some hilarious lines) and the way the story persists in going off course, despite Amanda’s efforts to salvage the situation, is lots of fun.  However, Amanda’s early insistence that her interest in the novel is more than superficial meant that I felt extremely let down by her decision to ask Darcy to jump into his lake (despite the comedy value in seeing him standing in a much smaller and more ornamental pond than in the BBC version) and I didn’t really think it fitted with the overall story of her dawning realisation about where she truly belonged.

My favourite part by far was the final episode, there are some wonderful comic occurrences involving Lydia’s elopement (not at all the way it turns out in the book!) and in particular Darcy’s assessments of modern-day London.  I also enjoyed the way in which the writers had played with the back story so that not everyone turned out to be what they’re portrayed in the novel – particularly George Wickham, who’s full of surprises!  What’s really interesting, for an Austen fan, is the way little elements from other novels sneak into the storyline.  Obviously Amanda is referred to as Miss Price throughout the series, which brings echoes of Mansfield Park, but there are other moments too, such as when Amanda berates Darcy for his snobbery and uses Mr Knightley’s “badly done”, and when a rumour circulates that Amanda has exaggerated the extent (and source) of her fortune and is turned out by the Bennets in a very similar way to Catherine Morland’s experience at the hands of General Tilney.

Lost in Austen is currently available on Lovefilm Instant in the UK, as well as DVD, and I’d recommend it as an interesting and lighthearted watch if you haven’t already seen it.  It features some long-established British actors such as Hugh Bonneville, Alex Kingston and Lindsay Duncan, as well as some who have gone on to make more of a name for themselves in the past five years, like Jemima Rooper, Gemma Arterton and Tom Riley.  Guy Henry (whom I first saw in a play in Stratford when I was an A-level student, and whom I generally love to bits) is marvellously vile as Mr Collins (but, like the BBC P&P, far, far too old!) and Ruby Bentall (who has since turned up in Lark Rise and The Paradise and who, it turns out, is the daughter of the wonderful Janine Duvitski) makes a refreshing change to the usually unlikable character of Mary.

For my July review I’ll probably either be discussing Georgiana Darcy’s Diary or the audiobook version of Love, Lies and Lizzie, because I have both of those already and can just get onto them.  If something crops up, however, I may change my mind – both of the titles I’ve reviewed this time turned up completely unexpectedly but seemed like too good an opportunity to miss!

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Thankful for…

Keeping going through a long period of minor illnesses

A lovely weekend last week with our church family, plus the Boy and the Baby and their mum

Some answers to prayer regarding my grandmother who was struggling to care for herself and now has the support she needs

Repairs to our leaky roof!

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