The titular Austenland is like Channel 4’s Regency House Party historical/reality TV re-imagined as an upscale vacation experience: a handful of wealthy women hie themselves to “Pembrook Park,” a country house where they indulge in a properly reserved and G-rated flirtation with actors playing the part of Regency gentlemen. Hale makes a lot of extremely smart choices in portraying these environs. Our viewpoint character, perhaps inevitably named Jane, is perennially unlucky in love and has a longstanding crush on Darcy as embodied by Colin Firth. But she arrives at Pembroke via a bequest; she’s not rich, she’s keenly aware of the class tensions in play, and she’s deeply uncomfortable with the requirement of her role to treat the servants as non-entities. Hale has a lovely gambit for establishing a level of historical authenticity without burdening the reader with a ton of exposition: well-versed Jane notices a few tell-tale anachronisms at Pembrook — and thereafter any detail that might make a history student wince is Pembrook’s fault, not Hale’s.
Hale’s prose is modern, direct and frequently quite sharp — the decision to use the character Jane’s vernacular and not to mimic Jane Austen’s is a good one. (On the other hand, the cast of characters at Pembrook includes some who come in for quite Austenian ridicule, as well as some priceless attempts by some of the less clueful participants to imitate Regency speech.)
Hale also managed to keep me wondering until the final pages if she (and her Jane) were cynical enough that a fish-needs-a-bicycle denouement was in the offing or a more traditional pairing off would wrap things up.