Jun 272007

Salon reports on the Jane Austen mania gripping publishing, and the less-than-progressive fantasies it reflects.

In Shannon Hale’s “Austenland,” the author goes for broke, bypassing the dream sequence conceit in favor of full-bore fantasy immersion. Her heroine, Jane Hayes, attempts to quash her [Colin] Firth obsession once and for all by vacationing at a Jane Austen theme park. No, it’s not one in which if you don’t marry a man of means by 25 you’re branded a spinster and forced to live off the kindness of family for the rest of your life! (Coming soon: Woolf-Wharton Water Park, where visitors wade into a stream with pockets full of rocks and can be swept down a river of laudanum! Wheee!)

No, Hale’s Austenland is simply a place where lonely, desperate women — unfulfilled by the romantic opportunities available in a post-feminist universe — can go to dress up in pretty clothes and play whist with handsome actors who simulate roguish grumpiness on command.

By phone, Hale said that she always loved Austen’s novels, but that “it wasn’t until I saw the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth that something changed and I fell completely in love with it — with him.” She added that she had friends who would watch the tapes twice in a Saturday “to the point where it was interfering with their normal relationships.”

I asked Hale, who is 33 and lives in Utah with her husband and children, but calls her book “an ode to my single self,” if she finds it odd that single women would fantasize about a period during which their freedoms were so limited. “It makes no sense at all,” she said. “It’s completely ironic and disturbing to me as a feminist that I still daydream about that era.”

Hale, who talked about her single 20s as a time in which she couldn’t even afford to purchase BBC videos, suggested that class fantasy plays a part in Austen fascination. “Especially for Americans, the idea of living in England, as part of the gentry, where you dress up in the morning and you have a maid do your hair and you put on a corset and there’s this leisure living … we fantasize about that!”

So … corsets and a rigid class system. All those regressive bindings we have managed to slough off, at least to some extent. Who wouldn’t want to live back then, anyway? (Also? No plumbing!) “It must speak to some more primal desire,” said Hale. “It must speak to something inside of us that we lack.”

Hmmm. “Corsets and a rigid class system” sounds familiar. Maybe this is all just a masochistic fantasy for heterosexual women, a temporary, liminoid vacation into a simpler gender role.

The reason that Austen is still read (and still readable) today is precisely her lack of sentimentality. Her early 19th century books are actually a critique of late 18th century sentimental fantasies and romance. This isn’t the first time I’ve run across readers of a given work who read into it something quite at odds with what the author intended. Fans of Samuel Richardson wanted Clarissa to reform Lovelace. Freud’s 1919 essay “A Child is Being Beaten” cites beating fantasies as inspired by works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin (which probably would have horrified Harriet Beecher-Stowe) and the Bibliotheque rose series of French children’s books by the Comtesse de Segur.

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