It’s the late 1990s, and everyone I know is obsessed with the Pride & Prejudice miniseries starring Colin Firth. I don’t use that word lightly. Obsessed. We hum the songs from the ball. The words creep into our everyday dialogue—we say things like, “Make haste!” and, “Now that’s a fair prospect!” We have daydreams about a fictional character and sigh out loud.
We are completely and utterly ridiculous. But it’s so much fun.
I just wish that there were a way to actually step into Austen’s story, try it on and see how it would fit. Would living in the Regency era, being loved by Mr. Darcy, really be as ideal as it seems? I start to write a book about a character like me and my friends, who goes on vacation to an English resort where tourists can put on the corset and empire-waist gowns, live in a manor house, and interact with actors playing gentlemen who woo them in their own custom storylines.
(By the way, no such place actually exists—but it should, shouldn’t it?)
I spend seven years, off and on, composing Austenland, trying out different characters, writing and rewriting different endings, before I come to the story of Jane Hayes and her jaunt in an immersive Austen resort. It is completely and utterly ridiculous, and also so much fun.
Jumping ahead a few years, I meet screenwriter Jerusha Hess, who co-wrote Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre. She reads Austenland and wants me to collaborate with her on the screenplay. Jerusha responds not just to the Austen obsession but more generally to Jane Hayes’ geekiness. Everyone has their own geekdom—Star Wars, Twilight, superheroes, science, Dr. Who, classic Greek literature—whatever it might be. She’s sure most anyone could relate to Jane’s trip down the rabbit hole, even the un-Austen-ed.
We spend a year and a half on the screenplay (and laughing, usually while eating milk shakes). Jump ahead again.
I’m in England, sitting on one of those camp chairs with members of the film crew. It’s our first day
filming on the grounds of the English estate that will be our Austenland. And across the lawn walks the actor JJ Feild in full costume. Boots. Breeches. Cravat. Riding jacket. Top hat. I’m amazed at how much he looks like the character of my imagination. The resemblance is uncanny.
But then the most extraordinary thing happens. This figment, this character I dreamed up in my brain, turns, sees me, looks right at me, and smiles.
I no longer feel the camping chair beneath me. I seem to be falling into my own story. I watch the scene play out on camera—Keri Russell, Jennifer Coolidge, James Callis, speaking lines I wrote, just the way I’d imagined and yet adding so much more. It is almost real. Surreal.
Later, I find out the costume coat and hat JJ Feild is wearing are the same ones Colin Firth wore in Pride & Prejudice. Somehow, I’ve managed to enter Austenland. It’s ridiculous. And it’s so much fun.
The photo is of me and Jane Seymour on set, dressed for the ball scene. The film is in limited release now in US, UK, and Canada. The book is available online and from fine booksellers everywhere.