Books: austenland
  austenland begins

In 1996 (or possibly 1997), my little brother Jeff came to me with a problem—he had to read Pride and Prejudice in his high school English class and could make no sense of the words or the world. Austen’s most popular novel had always been one of my personal favorites. I’d read it for pleasure at least three times by then. I tried to give Jeff some context into Austen’s world to aid his reading, I tried reading it with him, but he struggled. Some books just aren’t meant for everyone.

My friend Shauna had raved about a BBC miniseries of the book, and thinking that seeing the film would help Jeff get a handle on the reading, I rented a copy. We watched it in my parents’ basement—Jeff, me, and my college boyfriend Dean (who after some break ups and distance would later became my husband. Now THAT’S a story, but I digress...).

Well. It was a rather intense and awkward experience. Imagine sitting next to your boyfriend while you’re rapidly and completely falling in love with another man. For those of you who haven’t seen it, this isn’t an experience like lusting after a shirtless Matthew McConaughey in some romantic comedy. This is real love. This is painful, aching bliss. This is Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.

The next time Jeff and I watched an installment of the six hour show, I chose a time when Dean wasn’t there. And a time AS SOON AS POSSIBLE, please.

I was plagued by Darcy-mania for days. I went back and watched certain parts again. I reread the book. I dreamed and daydreamed. It was intoxicating, and awfully inconvenient since Colin Firth isn’t actually Mr. Darcy and Mr. Darcy doesn’t exist, and if he had he’d have lived 200 years ago. Talk about a doomed relationship.

It was kind of embarrassing, but I was soon to discover that I was far from the only one so afflicted…my own closest friends were harboring the same secret. And all I had to do was mention Mr. Darcy to perfect strangers and their own obsession was revealed. We were all Austen book fans, but something about that movie transformed the story from a witty, delightful classic into a cloying, relentless fantasy. Mr. Darcy. Ah, Mr. Darcy. How could any of us ever achieve the satisfaction of Darcy-love that plagued us?

It wasn’t long after first viewing the videos that I had the idea for a story where women would go to an Austen-inspired estate and experience a Regency-immersion vacation. I have new story ideas almost daily, but this one wouldn’t go away. I remember in the fall of 1999 walking across campus at the University of Montana, contemplating writing it into a short story. But the story I wanted to tell wasn’t the kind of thing we were writing in a literary fiction MFA program, where Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, and Marcel Proust were royalty. I could just imagine what some of my fellow grad students and professors would’ve made of Jane, Martin, and Mr. Nobley. Laughter AT (not laughing WITH) would’ve been a real possibility. Or worse—quiet scorn.

But the story idea stayed with me, and in fall 2000, between drafts of the goose girl, my first young adult novel, I began to write Jane’s story down. It took me six years to finish.

I started creating the story for this book when I was in my early twenties—sassy, single, aching for love, and completely obsessed. I completed it when I was thirty-two, happily married, a mother of a toddler and pregnant, and somewhat more mellow (though still quite sassy). In some ways, I felt as if I were writing it to my slightly younger self, the self that would still be open and available if that darling, unreachable man came along and insisted on sweeping me off me feet.

If Mr. Darcy offered me his heart today, I’d have to say thanks, but I’ve found my man. But I might let him kiss my hand first and romance me. Just a bit. A tiny bit. You understand.

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