BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

An L.A. Woman in Jane Austen’s England

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, a novel
By Laurie Viera Rigler.
Dutton, 2007. 293 pages.
Hardcover. $24.95 U.S./$31.00 Canadian.
(Also available in an unabridged audio CD)

Reviewed by Alice Marie White.

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict tells the story of a modern-day Los Angeles woman with a self-professed “ungovernable addiction to Jane Austen novels.” The novel begins in medias res as Courtney Stone awakens to find she has assumed the body of Miss Jane Mansfield—a thirty-year–old woman living in Jane Austen’s England. While Courtney attempts to navigate Miss Mansfield’s life, she also considers the details of her own circumstances in the twenty-first century. The heroine’s mental and physical crossings between the two time periods ultimately constitute a journey towards discovering her own identity.

Jane Austen’s novels play a vital role in the heroine’s consciousness about both Courtney and Jane’s romantic entanglements. The narrative unfolds to reveal that two months before her travel back in time, Courtney walked into Weymouth Wedding Cakes and Confectionary (chosen by Courtney because Weymouth is the site where the characters Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax become engaged in Emma) to find her fiancé in the arms of the wedding cake decorator. At that moment, Courtney “remembered Frank Churchill too was a liar.” Well-versed in Austen’s plots, Courtney looks to the novels for advice with regard to Jane’s romantic dilemmas. For example, when the wealthy Mr. Edgeworth proposes to Jane, the heroine asks herself,“What do you say to a man you are supposed to know but don’t but he proposes to you anyway and he lives in a different time period? I peruse my mental catalogue of Jane Austen dialogue for possibilities.” After deciding that lines from Elizabeth’s initial refusal of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice and Emma’s refusal of Mr. Elton in Emma are “too harsh,” Courtney realizes that Austen’s novels are not going to provide her with the advice she requires: “Even if I wanted to say yes, I couldn’t expect Jane Austen to do all the work. After all, what did Emma say to Mr. Knightley? Just what she ought, of course.”

The heroine’s experiences compel her to reconsider the situations of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novels. She rants in her journal about the “position of women in Jane Austen’s world”: “What did Anne Elliot say in Persuasion? We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us. That’s right, Anne. And it sucks.” Later, the heroine shares her take on Regency courtship rituals: “It is all an elaborately structured ploy to lure women into marriage, rob them of financial independence, turn them into breeders, and keep them in a luxuriously padded cell while they raise the heirs to the family fortune.” Like popular novels that recreate contemporary versions of Austen’s plots—such as Paula Marantz Cohen’s Jane Austen in Boca and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary— the heroine of this novel reflects upon the similarities between women living in Jane Austen’s time and women living in her own time: “I resent it being a truth universally acknowledged, no matter what era I find myself in, that a single woman of thirty must be in want of a husband.”

The heroine definitely enjoys some aspects of Regency England, particularly the lack of telephones, PDAs, and computers. More often than not, however, she is horrified by society’s rules and regulations, at one point even asking herself, “How could I have romanticized this world?” Day-to-day life in Austen’s time is also scrutinized, particularly health and hygiene practices. The heroine refers to her doctor as a “scalpel-wielding henchman.” And her twenty-first century mind cannot consider Bath—with its “sweltering” pools filled with “body odors rising from the boiling flesh”—to be “a preserver of health.” The heroine nicely summarizes her experiences as a Regency woman at the beginning of chapter twenty-one: “It’s like one of those vacations where you’ve fantasized about going somewhere like a Caribbean island or Paris or even Las Vegas, but instead you were guilt-tripped into spending your meager vacation time visiting your parents. The big difference here is that the so-called family vacation is a life sentence. There’s never any job or apartment of your own to go back to, just an endless basket of sewing and endless days with Mom in the drawing room.”

This book, filled with allusions to Jane Austen’s novels, is definitely written for Janeites. JASNA is also featured (Courtney is a “closeted” member, but her creator is an active member.). Although she briefly runs into Jane Austen herself, the heroine does not come into contact with any of Austen’s characters, so those who have grown weary of sequels need not fear this story. The novel offers readings of Austen’s works while covering timely topics, such as women’s position in contemporary society, in a very entertaining way. I enjoyed this thought-provoking romp through Jane Austen’s England.

Alice Marie White is writing a dissertation on “Women Readers and the Victorian Jane Austen” at the University of Southern California. She is a Co-Vice President of the JASNA Southwest Region, and she was the 2006 JASNA International Visitor.

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