Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Libertines, West Wycombe Park and Austenland
Summers in Austenland are strange and confusing. No sooner had we passed the temples at West Wycombe Park in the heart of England than a fairground hove into view in the fickle early afternoon sunshine.
Zara has an inbuilt device that hones into bouncy castles. “Bouncy castle, bouncy castle,” she yelled before the inflatable turrets had even revealed themselves above the trees. Soon we saw the fairground in all its glory. Boats with the necks of swans were drawn up in the lake and a merry-go-round turned slowly in front of the façade of West Wycombe House. Pink streamers flew from pink chairs on the hillside. In short everything was pink, which happens to be Zara’s favorite color.
But this pink dream started to unravel before our eyes as we walked up the hill towards the house. Soon it became clear this was not a working fairground but a film set. In other words here was a bouncy castle that was not for bouncing on. In the world of a six-year-old this is the equivalent of presenting a child with a large bar of sparking candy and whipping it away. In most circumstances the whole day would have dissolved into a flood of tears. Fortunately, we had also taken Zara’s cousin James along, and she didn’t want to be seen in fully fledged strop mode in front of her cousin.
We breezed through the fun fair and asked a man dressed in period costume about the movie. It was apparently called Austenland and starred the hairdresser from Legally Blonde. I may be naive and out of the loop but this didn’t sound like an advertisement for an A-list movie. I was hoping he’d at least have said Kate Winslet or Helena Bonham Carter – I’d have settled for Meg Ryan, to be honest. Further research suggests he may have been referring to Jennifer Coolidge whose breakthrough was in American Pie (oh dear).
I would have been slightly more impressed had he mentioned Keri Russell who has won a golden globe and is also in the movie and Jane Seymore, who I have heard of.
The plot of the romantic comedy revolves around a 30-something, single woman who is obsessed by Mr. Darcy-as played by Colin Firth in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. She decides to spend her life savings on a trip to an English resort catering to Austen-crazed women.
(pause for Jane Austen to perform a few dozen somersaults in her grave).
Ironically the past of West Wycombe hall probably provides a better plot that this movie. It was built in the 18th century by the notorious libertine Sir Francis Dashwood. It was built in an era when rich young men, known as dilettante returned from an almost obligatory Grand Tour and realized Italy was so much better than England in the rain. They would then set about getting second rate Italian artists to recreate the ceiling of the Sistine chapel back at home and filling the grounds with as many faux Roman temples as they could hold; presumably so as they could smoke as much opium as they could get their hands on and pretend they were back in Tuscany.
(Why does smoking opium always sound a lot more exotic and innocent than "taking heroin?")
Dashwood, who shows up in one portrait in a funny turban with a large glass of claret in his hand, appears to have been a fun kind of guy.
"Sir Francis Dashwood built West Wycombe to entertain, and there has been much speculation on the kind of entertainment he provided for his guests. Judged against the sexual moral of the late 18th century, Dashwood and his clique were regarded as promiscuous; while it is likely that the contemporary reports of the bacchanalian orgies over which Dashwood presided in the Hellfire caves above West Wycombe were exaggerated, free love and heavy drinking did take place there,” Wikipedia states.
Strangely enough the wizened old guide who gave us a tour of the house, neglected to mention sex once, although she was horrified to find some props from Austenland peppered around the house including a furry pink telephone.
“I, gosh… I’ve never seen anything like this,” she complained picking up the telephone with the air of a nun who has just pulled a large vibrator out of her wimple.
When I visit National Trust properties In usually get more pleasure from the grounds than the house itself and this was certainly the case at West Wycombe park, although five-year-old James was starting to get a big frisky for my linking.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked Zara in the Temple of Venus, only to be met with a scowl. There had been too many dubious goings on at the Temple of Venus in the past for my liking. It might not be allowed in Austenland but as soon as I got back to America, I realized I might have to take advantage of the Second Amendment.