Austenland: Prudish Delight

Literature nerds and history dorks have superheroes, too: Edgar Allan Poe, William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Anne Rice, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Ken Burns, The Brontë Sisters, Thomas Jefferson, David McCullough, Miss Savannah Squirrel (of course!) and a whole league of historians and novelists. The standout heroine for the geek girly-girl strain of this genre? Miss Jane Austen, indeed!

As one of this strain, not to mention a long-time member in good standing of the comic genre, I can affirmatively state Miss Austen is our Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman and Scully all wrapped beautifully under a tidy, feathered, grosgrain-trimmed, Regency bonnet. (Yes, Scully is not only a comic book heroine but also has her own action figure; I own both.) Wherein this modern age, sometimes, some feel like a fish out of water, Miss Austen gives us everything we need to cope: literature, vocabulary, historical detail, rigid manners, meticulous décor and blissfully asyndetic conversation. Austen is the It Girl of Britain’s Regency era and, where softer, quieter geeks are concerned, she and her characters are models of grace, gentility and marmoreal skin in what is a surely a more tarnished, gauche, crude and frumpy world. Jane’s superpower? A soft voice and an extensive vocabulary. One must lean in close to hear her pithy, social banter. You must lean into her; therein lies the power. Where there is power, there is also the threat of downfall. Her silver bullets and Kryptonite? 140 characters and scatalogical humour.

If Austen and her characters (Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Catherine Morland, Mr. Darcy) form a high society of superheroes, Snooki and her double-digit IQ, vulgar ilk are their nemeses. With the whip of a bonnet sash, a quick flick of an embroidered, Irish handbag and the lightning-fast scribe of a handwritten thank you note, Miss Jane and her Society could rid the culture of Jersey June bugs, Real Housewives, Kardashians and Hooters. Taste always trumps tacky.

With writing desk and quill of action!
With writing desk and quill pen of action!

If being a bit of a prude is not quite a punishable crime today, it is unquestionably dorky and out of vogue. Jane Austen assuages the modern prude with emergency rations of taste, etiquette and elegance when necessary. She gives us pale, graceful necks sans tan lines, delicate drop earrings, amusing chapeaux, bone china and witty repartee. Jane gives us Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and Keira Knightley sipping English breakfast tea and shading their pearlescent bosoms from the harsh, Yorkshire sun with the prettiest of Battenberg lace parasols. It is like The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Honey Boo Boo never slithered under the garage door and into our house.

Jane leaves her admirers gleefully free of red Solo cups, texting, Twitter, fast food, zombies (with the exception of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith), Facebook, reality TV, Vegas, cell phones, Pandora, 24-hour news, TMZ, gaming, CGI, toe rings, Pirates of the Caribbean V, sailor language, Breaking Bad and stupidly oversized iPads held aloft to Tweet pictures taken at the seashore. To be sure, I enjoy some of the above, minus Facebook, zombies and fast food. Whilst I do have a strong prudish streak, I am not a true prude. In fact, I may be the only one to defend Miley Cyrus’ plushie sex twerking at the VMAs and, if you’ve read my latest novel, The Darlings of Orange County, you know full well I have a twerky side. Still, like spiced rum, Nutter Butters and plushie twerking, everything has its time, place and limits. They do not compose healthy, daily sustenance. Where there is overload, there is overkill and often not enough mouthwash in the world. Is not Miss Austen a lovely diversion, an occasional antiseptic, if you will?

Louisville Austen Festival Photo: Ozzimann
Louisville Austen Festival Photo: Ozzimann

Jane’s world can be a balm, but it can also be a gilded trap: Austenland. Thus, the case for Jane Hayes, a thirty-something Austen addict played convincingly by freshly-scrubbed, natural beauty Keri Russell (Felicity, Running Wilde, Wonder Woman). Austenland is a scrumptious, directorial debut for Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite) and a brilliantly cheery romantic-comedy based on the novel of the same name by authoress Shannon Hale (Rapunzel’s Revenge, Princess Academy).

If audience engagement is any marker, Austenland is running for the roses. Like New Orleans, Disneyland or the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale, if you are not having a great time, you might be a zombie. Replete with, yes, mostly older women en seul, most everyone guffawed, tittered, giggled and ahhhed throughout all posh ninety-seven minutes. The few men I did see had the relaxed look that comes with watching a non-taxing film in comfy, recliner theater seats with their feet up and their Birkenstocks left on the floor. (Decidedly very non-Austen.) To be sure, the men I did see were also accompanied by their ladies. My own Mr. Darcy knew we had to see Austenland after viewing the trailer at a recent showing of Blue Jasmine. “Well, we have to!” he insisted with a chuckle. “That is so you!”

Spot on, in fact! From Jane Hayes’ flashbacks, taking her own tea cup and saucer to a cafe, to her life-sized, cardboard cutout of Mr. Darcy (mine was Johnny Depp), to theme dressing at the airport, Austenland has happy, quiet, dork handwritten all over it.

The casting is polished to perfection: not a bruised apple in the barrel. Jennifer Coolidge (Best in Show, Legally Blonde, 2 Broke Girls) steals the show. Her tacky-but-sweet American with cash is sheer precision. An oversized Barbie in Regency hot-pink, her character of Miss Elizabeth Charming is an absolute hoot. ‘Er ‘orrible, overdone, Eliza Doolittle accent is as amusing as her hats (which I actually covet) and her enthusiasm for the total-immersion English holiday is contagious, making me very pleased with myself that I wore a Regency-inspired, empire-waist, Japanese mini-dress and pewter drop earrings for the occasion.

Lady Amelia Heartwright, played fetchingly by Georgia King, is a fellow Austenland traveller, filling out the triad of ladies on literary holiday. She is a whimsical, living doll reminiscent of silent-era actresses known as much for their pouty lips, porcelain skin and large eyes as their comedic timing and X-CU expressions. Hopping hither and thither like an exquisite, mischievous rabbit, King keeps the laughter cavorting across the vast estate lawns. Keri Russell plays the lead role as Jane Hayes/Miss Jane Erstwhile with a delicate realism any Austen dork knows all too well: social awkwardness, happy oblivion and a nearly overbearing obsessiveness that only the best of friends and spouses will ever understand or tolerate.

In Austenland, run with the icy business head of Mrs. Wattlesbrook, played deftly by Jane Seymour, the men serve as either eye candy or hired soul mates. Ironically, it takes a dose of holiday fiction for Miss Erstwhile to realize that her blanket assessment, “apparently the only good men are fictional”, is wrong … or is it? For it is in Austenland where Jane finds her Mr. Darcy … or is it? Maybe it is only once she is free of the Austen spell … or does the Austen spell indeed prove the very magic she needs? A torrential English rain, a soaked, lovely damsel-in-distress, an impossibly handsome Mr. Henry Nobley (played by the utterly smoldering JJ Feild, known to some as the tragically-fated, beautiful gentleman-officer, Major John André of AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies) on a grey horse and a linen dress ripped by said-Mr. Nobley, exposing a bit of fine, Regency leg, certainly never hurts the start of a romance.

I haven’t clapped aloud in a theater in quite a while. Many moons ago, I did so at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the first of the POTC franchise. Similar to POTCI, Austenland not only provides fun storylines and sympathetic characters, but enough visual stimuli to ensure at least a second viewing: costuming, set design, colours, location, landscape, architectural detail and all the fine points one would only notice when they are omitted. Emerging from POTC I in 2003, my own Mr. Darcy excitedly said, “Now that is what going to the movies should be like! Wow! That was awesome!” He said the same thing as we emerged from Austenland last week. “Maybe it’s because I know you and Lesli so well,” referring to my fellow historical-dorkette, “but that was hilarious!”

True, perchance because he could see my cohort and me in so many situations, he laughed as hard as most of the women in the theater, their laughter also betraying intimate understanding. By the laws of comedy, good writing and production values though, this film is just Plain Jane good stuff for anyone! Certainly, as comedy is relative, knowing the characters adds another layer of humour. I do know these people; it does add another layer.

Many will roll their eyes. “Sounds more superficial than superhero. Where’s the superheroine in all this twaddle? What is so powerful about being prudish, posh and persnickety?” The power lies not in the aesthetics of Austenland or any other pretty mis-en-scène; the power lies in the cheerful confidence it takes bring bits of this old-fashioned life, including the quickly disappearing art of social conversation, to our modern one. The power lies in being true to one’s inclinations, no matter how unpopular. Take a look around, desperately casual, blasé and mouthy is all the rage; quiet, modest and polished is not. Being a geek girl, I am told ad nauseam, means not taking guff from anyone. As far as I can see, ass-kicking can come via Knives Chao, Power Girl and Lara Croft as easily as it can via Elizabeth Bennet, Laura Ingalls and Anne Shirley.

Power can carry a parasol through a gauntlet of terrifying, sniggering, beach teens; power can use far too many words to share a simple link; power can spend years writing about a colonial squirrel, knowing most will only laugh about it while a mere handful will read the tales; and, power can take an hour to sip her tequila shot like it is a Royal Doulton cup of Darjeeling, despite friendly taunts and peer pressure to chug. Some of us do not chug, ever.

Austen Festival, Bath, England 2013 Photo: Daz Smith
Each one proud. Austen Bath Festival Photo: Daz Smith

Being true to oneself is today’s real superpower. If only I had a pearl drop earring for every time someone asked me with a poorly hidden smirk, “Why are you so dressed up?”, “You’re not seriously wearing that?” or “I can’t deal with your emails. Too many big words.”, well, I would have even more pearl drop earrings than I already do. Geeks come in all shapes and sizes. If your shade of pale is lavender-hued, you use a soft voice, too many big words and carry an analog copy of Pride and Prejudice, own it.

Psst … when you see Austenland, stay put for the end-credits. It all gets a little hot in here!


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