Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
Laurie Viera Rigler
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After nursing a broken engagement with Jane Austen novels and Absolut, Courtney Stone wakes up and finds herself not in her Los Angeles bedroom or even in her own body but inside the bedchamber of a woman in Regency England. Who but an Austen addict like herself could concoct such a fantasy?
Not only is Courtney stuck in another womanís life, she is forced to pretend she actually is that woman; and despite knowing nothing about her, she manages to fool even the most astute observer. But not even her love of Jane Austen has prepared Courtney for the chamber pots and filthy coaching inns of nineteenth-century England, let alone the realities of being a single woman who must fend off suffocating chaperones, condomless seducers, and marriages of convenience. Enter the enigmatic Mr. Edgeworth, who fills Courtneyís borrowed brain with confusing memories that are clearly not her own.
Try as she might to control her mind and find a way home, Courtney cannot deny that she is becoming this other woman—and being this other woman is not without its advantages: especially in a looking-glass Austen world. And especially with a suitor who may not turn out to be a familiar species of philanderer after all.
When not indulging herself in rereadings of Jane Austenís six novels, Laurie Viera Rigler is a freelance book editor who teaches writing workshops, including classes at Vromanís, Southern Californiaís oldest and largest independent bookstore. Laurie lives in Los Angeles and is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Q. Why did you choose Jane Austenís world as the inspiration for your novel?
A. Despite my fascination (or letís be honest, obsession) with all those period details, what really draws me to Jane Austen is that she does, in fact, transcend time. Her all-seeing, all-knowing, take-no-prisoners approach to the follies and flaws of human beings makes her books not only timeless but almost eerily contemporary, despite the bonnets and balls and carriages. It is as if she were a modern-day psychotherapist with a wicked sense of humor who time-traveled back to the Regency and wrote novels about everyone who spent time on her couch.
Q. Why are you, and so many others, ďAusten addictsĒ?
A. Because the more I read Jane Austenís six novels, the more I discover about myself and human nature in general. In fact, the Austen canon equates to the best self-help book you could ever have in your library. Feeling self-important? Read Jane Austen. In the midst of an identity crisis? Perhaps, like me, youíll find a little of yourself in all her heroines. Northanger Abbeyís Catherine Morland, who is addicted to scary novels, dancing, and old houses, reminds me of who I was when I lived in a crumbling Victorian that was said to be haunted, or when I could spend all night in after-hours clubs and still make it to work by nine. Sense and Sensibilityís Marianne Dashwood, she of the tear-rimmed eyes and self-destructive tendencies, is who I was when consuming little more than espresso and Big GulpĖsize vodka martinis, and American Spirits was my idea of post-breakup nourishment. Emma is who I am when I get lost in the land of running-your-life-is-so-much-better-than-looking-at-my-own. I still wish I were as eloquent a smartass as Pride and Prejudiceís Elizabeth Bennet, but the more I venture into the minefield of self-reflection, the more I appreciate Austenís less incendiary heroines: the quietly steadfast Anne Eliot of Persuasion, and even the iconically timid Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, whom I used to dismiss as a prude.
Q. How did your obsession with reading and rereading Austenís novels lead to writing a novel yourself?
A. For me it was an inevitable outcome. I can never get enough of Jane Austenís six novels, or of the veritable banquet of Austen-inspired movies. Thereís Colin Firth fencing and working up a sweat in the BBCís 1996 Pride and Prejudice, Matthew MacFadyen smoldering in the 2005 version, and Lostís swoonworthy Naveen Andrews in the Bollywood version. If there were fifty adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Iíd see them all. Iíd buy them all. Iíd play them all till they started skipping and I had to buy a new one.
After all, I am insatiable. Which is why I started writing Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. I could feed my cravings by creating a story of a twenty-first-century party girl who wakes up in the body and life of a woman in Jane Austenís time. Now, thatís what I call an identity crisis. Thatís what I call the perfect excuse to immerse myself in the world of my favorite author.
This book, however, grew into a more complex personal journey than I could have imagined. I found myself exploring fundamental questions of identity, destiny, and the nature of time, such as: Can I really be who I think I am if everyone around me thinks Iím someone else? How big a role does free will play in our destiny? And is time really linear, or is there another way to look at it? These are things that are worth pondering, even if one doesnít wake up in Regency England.
Q. How did you research your novel? And what does B.B. King have to do with Jane Austen?
A. I read everything I could find on the period, and I traveled. I went to London, to Bath, to little country villages frozen in time. I went to the Assembly Rooms where Anne Eliot longed to catch Captain Wentworthís eye. I went to conjure the past through the lens of my twenty-first-century protagonistís mind. While searching for articles on the Internet, I also stumbled across a bunch of Jane-centric groups and fansites. (Apparently there were people as addicted to Austen as I was.) The only group I joined was JASNA, the Jane Austen Society of North America. I never thought of myself as much of a joiner, but they were a scholarly group whose publications were food for my research. Or so I reasoned. So what if some of them liked to dress in period costumes for their annual Regency ball? Was that so wrong? Wouldnít I like to don an empire-waisted muslin and learn English country dancing and pretend I was Gwyneth Paltrow dancing with Jeremy Northam? The very thought was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.
No, I decided, there was no reason for me to actually attend a JASNA meeting, not even when they blew into LA. for their annual confab. Truth is, I was afraid of being in a room with other people who were not only as obsessed with Austen as I am, but who also had no problem labeling themselves as such. Might it not be like going to an AA meeting and admitting publicly I had a problem? Like my protagonist, I didnít know if I was ready for that.
My husband, however, insisted I go. Alone.
After willing myself through the glass doors of the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA and down the grand columned and chandeliered hallway, I made my way to the JASNA registration table. The women at the table were all giddy about B.B. King, who had apparently just passed by, caught sight of the sign, and said, ďJane Austen! I love Jane Austen!Ē Thrilled, they gave him a tote bag.
Picturing the blues legend carrying around a canary yellow bag emblazoned with the JASNA acronym, it suddenly hit me: If B.B. King could love Jane Austen publicly, couldnít I?
And so I came out of the Janeite closet that weekend. I went to every talk and lecture I could, short of cloning myself so that I could attend three at once. I took English country dance lessons and danced every dance at the ball. Most of all, I met a lot of wonderful people who love to read Jane Austen. Over and over again. And my worldís a better place because of it.
- Would you have handled things differently if you found yourself in Courtneyís/Janeís situation? Which things would you have done differently? Which things would you have done the same?
Had you witnessed my behaviour there, I can hardly suppose you would ever have thought well of me again.— Frank Churchill, in Jane Austenís Emma
- How does Courtney/Jane use Jane Austenís novels as a means of making sense of her world? Have you ever turned to your favorite books or films for inner strength, guidance, or comfort?
ďOh! it is only a novel!Ē replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. It is . . . in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.— Henry Tilney, in Jane Austenís Northanger Abbey
- How do you interpret the ending of the book?
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.— From Mansfield Park
- Aside from the societal restrictions on a womanís mobility, career choices, and living arrangements that Courtney/Jane faced in 1813, have parental, peer, and personal attitudes toward unmarried women fundamentally changed since Jane Austenís day?
Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.— Lydia Bennet, in Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice
- One of the ways in which Courtney/Jane defines herself is by what she reads. To what extent do we define ourselves by what we read? To what extent do we form our opinions of others based on what they read?
The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. — Henry Tilney, in Jane Austenís Northanger Abbey
- Like Courtney/Jane, have you ever found yourself in a situation where your very concept of who you are was fundamentally challenged?
Till this moment, I never knew myself.— Elizabeth Bennet, in Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice.
- What are the things you think you would enjoy the most about being in Jane Austenís world? What are the things you might find particularly challenging? Is there anything in the contemporary world that you absolutely could not do without?
One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.— Emma Woodhouse, in Jane Austenís Emma
- If it were possible for you to be someone in Jane Austenís world, who would you wish to be? Would you prefer a round-trip ticket to that world, or one-way only?
The distance is nothing, when one has a motive . . .— Elizabeth Bennet, in Jane Austenís Pride and Prejudice