It's not that kind of obsession


Alert Janeites Marmee, Jane, and Marion sent us a link to an interview on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Shannon Hale, author of Austenland. Shannon talks a bit about how she came up with the idea of the book and why she wrote it.

Thirty-two-year-old Jane Hayes — the protagonist of a new novel — is one of those devotees. In her mind, no man can measure up to Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. And specifically, the Fitzwilliam played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of the book.

In Austenland, novelist Shannon Hale tells Hayes’ coming-of-age story as her character grapples with her obsession at Pembrook Park, a British resort that caters to Austen-crazed women.

Hayes sees the trip as her final indulgence of her obsession before she gives up her fantasy world permanently. But as she delves into Pembrook’s world of proper etiquette, donning corsets and empire-waist gowns, she finds herself torn — in true Austen fashion — between the Darcy-esque Mr. Nobley and the resort’s enticing gardener.

The trick for Hayes is figuring out if the targets of her affection are sincere, or just actors in a show.

It’s a nice little interview, but what surprised us was that the author talked about readers who have contacted her and want to go to Austenland. For those who have not read the book, it’s not just about dressing up and hanging out at a country estate; “Austenland” is stocked with actors who will flirt with the women. We found that last part a bit much. Getting dressed up in Regency gowns and hanging out at a country estate sounds like a fine time, especially if some of our Janeite friends (men and women) come along. But if some actor started to flirt with us–and it’s not like these women don’t know they’re actors–we would probably demand more tea and then sit there mocking them. How degrading is that? To have to pay someone to flirt with you? Is that really what people think Janeites are all about? When we go to “Jane places,” it’s to learn more about her, and when we imagine ourselves a character in a Jane Austen novel, it is because we want to better understand the motivations and actions and emotional journey of that character. We’re not hiding the DVDs in houseplants, as the protagonist of Austenland did, because we are somehow ashamed of our obsession. We’re here, we’re Janeites, get used to it!

At least, we thought so. Is it just us?

We would like to extend a warm AustenBlog welcome to readers who found us via NPR and Blog of the Nation. Dorothy’s just made a pitcher of iced lemon chiffon rooibos. Have a seat and join in the conversation.

Ambling Along the Aqueduct wasn’t real happy with the interview.

But what really bothers me is that some women — including Hale, apparently — are so fixated on the romance in Austen’s books that they’re blind to the whole world she wrote about. Haven’t they noticed how many women in Austen’s novels are forced to make compromise marriages, or live in straightened circumstances, depending perhaps on the charity of a brother-in-law? Hasn’t it occurred to them that the culture so limits Austen’s women that their only real opportunity in life is a good marriage — and that a good marriage is not necessarily the most romantic one?

Austen was a brilliant writer. In the guise of writing love stories — a suitable occupation for a woman — she gave us a stunning critique of her society. I rather think Austen would be appalled by the idea that people crave the romance of her times — a brief experience that only few could experience — in lieu of the many opportunities of our own.

This is a good point; but as we said above, it’s not so much escapist as trying to better understand the world of her novels.

But then, I find it hard to even read Jane Austen, much as I admire her wit, her beautiful sentences, and her powerful evocation of her times. I cannot get through any of her books without wanting to throw the book across the room because I see woman after woman trapped in a society that doesn’t really appreciate her skill or worth.

We would recommend that one not be so defensive about it; that one re-read the books and instead of railing against the system, admire those women for finding their place within it, much as Jane herself did. She realized her place was not as wife and mother but as a sister, a friend, an authoress. With the approach of the U.S. release of Becoming Jane and the late controversy over the Rice portrait, we’ve been seeing media commentary along the lines of “Jane Austen didn’t marry because she wasn’t pretty enough.” Not only is that silly, but it’s rather patronizing to think that Jane felt she suffered for not being married. She had her books and her family and we would submit that she was well satisfied with her place in life.

Shannon Hale, in her own blog, talks about the portrait controversy.

And while I’m at it, another curious thing—with all the focus on Jane Austen lately (new movies, new Austen-inspired books, general Austen love fest), there’s emerged much speculation on her looks. I’ve read more than one snarky journalist bemoan the fact that Austen wasn’t a looker. They say such things as, “Isn’t it a shame that the writer of Pride and Prejudice herself wasn’t attractive enough to bag a husband? Her fans mourn the fact that she didn’t look like her movie-version heroines.”

[. . .]

All this speculation and lamenting Austen’s looks is pointless. We her loyal readers don’t wonder whether or not Austen was beautiful—we already know. She wasn’t a starlet and she wasn’t a hag. She was a woman, just like us, sorta pretty and sorta plain, who sometimes caught an admiring eye but often didn’t, who mostly spent the party at the side of the room, observing, exchanging witty remarks, and laughing herself sick with a best friend. Us. Whenever we’re reading her books, we shamelessly claim Jane Austen as our best friend. And if she were ever to ask us, “How do I look?” We’d say without hesitation, “Jane honey, you look divine.”

Nicely said! (But we still think that Jane was pretty.)

And speaking of obsession with Mr. Darcy, The Times has news for Team Cranky McJerkpants.

But the irony is that narcissists, just like all those sexy vampires in the movies, are often very successful at attracting women. That’s because the aura they give off conforms to some of our stereotypes of the dark leading man. Who, for example, could be more of a romantic hero than Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy?

The qualities that have made him the object of feminine drooling are also the qualities that psychiatrists define as being characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder. Here’s Darcy as described by Jane Austen: handsome and conscious of his appearance; proud, giving the appearance of being above everyone else; emotionally self-contained. Now let’s look at some of the characteristics of the narcissistic personality, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association: “grandiose sense of self-importance”, “requires excessive admiration”, “shows arrogant, haughty behaviour”. A resemblance?

And what is it about Darcy that makes Elizabeth Bennet fall in love with him? It’s a side that no one else can see – a sensitivity and vulnerability. It’s part of the thrill of romance. “You do not know what he really is; pray do not pain me by speaking of him in such terms,” says Elizabeth. All this is characteristic of falling in love with a narcissist. The accounts of modern women who’ve fallen for these narcissistic types show that the relationship often ends in tears.