Reviewed by Danielle Marshall
In the last ten years, there have been a plethora of books, both fiction and memoir, published in a newly formed genre: books about women who love the works of Jane Austen, examining how the classic Regency England author's work has affected their lives. Made even more prevalent and popular by 2004's novel The Jane Austen Book Club, many more books with this chief plot ingredient show up in bookstores every year.
Laurie Viera Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict takes that premise one step further and places her protagonist, in dreamlike fashion, right in the middle of a classic Jane Austen setting. Courtney, a modern L.A. woman, wakes up from a drunken evening of lamenting her fiancé's infidelity and finds herself in the body of Jane Mansfield, a nineteenth-century unmarried woman, recovering from a fall off a horse that resulted in a nasty blow to the head. Struggling to wake up from her "dream," Courtney quickly realizes that, despite her protestations, she now inhabits the body of Jane, but with her own 21st-century mind intact. Reluctantly deciding that she has to play along, she begins the living the life of a woman whose choices consisted of little more than finding an appropriate husband and maintaining her social propriety.
How did this turn of events occur? Well, maybe it was due to Courtney's using Pride and Prejudice as her "number-one drug of choice." She states, "Men might come and go, but Jane was always there." She's a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and she has read and re-read each one of Austen's novels dozens of times to medicate herself in a crisis or as a treat in more celebratory moments.
While Courtney tries to adjust to life in 1813, she must, as Mansfield, rebuff the advances of Mr. Edgeworth, an eligible bachelor that her mother sees as the perfect suitor. Internally, Courtney privately laments her luck with men in her own life and is determined not to let Edgeworth have the upper hand. Courtney eventually meets her much-idolized Jane Austen on a London street, but she bungles the conversation as she tries to navigate the discussion with her own knowledge of how Austen is regarded in the 21st century. In examining her talk with her hero, Courtney comes to some very important realizations about love, trust, choices, and self-respect. Although Rigler lets her main character question herself quite literally (at times entire paragraphs are comprised of questions) the revelations seem genuine and the family relationships quite plausible (and surprisingly contemporary) despite the somewhat delusional plot.
Rigler does an excellent job of conveying the shock of Courtney's transition to life in the nineteenth century, complete with the smells, sounds, frighteningly archaic medical practices, and domineering social protocol. There is restrained passion in the descriptions of the strict courtship rituals that Courtney must endure as Jane, as in this passage of her interaction with Edgeworth at a ball,
I can feel him watching me as the other man turns me. I am conscious of displaying the movement of my body as Edgeworth watches....I am as heated by Edgeworth's gaze as I am by the exertions of the dance itself.
Misunderstandings, frustrations, sexual yearning, and other characters determined to manipulate social situations abound in Confessions like in the very best Austen novel.
As Jane gives in to her feelings for Mr. Edgeworth, Courtney is melted back into the present and into the arms of her best friend, illustrating that love can be right in front of you when you learn to trust yourself and surrender.
Rigler dedicates her book to "...Austen addicts past, present, and future; and most of all, to Jane Austen, whose bit of ivory is an endless source of wisdom and joy for this humble admirer." In reading Laurie Viera Rigler's homage to her literary idol, I became an admirer of both her and the cult of Jane Austen.
Books mentioned in this post