Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict
Laurie Viera Rigler
London: Bloomsbury, 2009 (Paperback reissue, 2010). 288 p. £7.99
ISBN 978 1 4088 099 7
Reviewed by D.C. Rose
From the title, one might suppose this to be the testament of a twenty-first century writer’s engagement with Regency England and its most famous literary chronicler. The author, who ‘teaches writing workshops’, is a member, and evidently an active member, of the Jane Austen Society, though whether she is more a ‘Janeite’ or more an Austen scholar may be left open. Confessions certainly does not contain any material that may explain the addiction. For this book, Ms Rigler has invented a narrator, Courtney Hope, to interpose between author and text. Is Hope a fictitious version of Rigler? The biographical information on the author is scanty, that on the narrator can be garnered as the book progresses, and the latter, like the former is a member of the Jane Austen Society. Here, perhaps, post-modernism begins its first stirrings – stirrings that will reach seismic proportions, with a gleeful disorientation of the reader.
At first, however, it is Courtney Hope who is disorientated, and literally so. One morning she wakes up to find herself, not in her Los Angeles flat, but in Mansfield Park c. 1810, now inhabited by a family called Mansfield (what has happened to the Bertrams is not explained). But not only has Courtney been transported in time: her twenty-first century mind now inhabits the body of a daughter of the family, called Jane Mansfield – not, however, the well-exposed body of Jayne Mansfield, as Courtney rather ruefully notes. The idea is not new, of course, for even before ‘sci-fi’ provided us with a full measure of such migrations, a Connecticut Yankee found himself at King Arthur’s court; and there was also the case of a Czech who found himself metamorphosed – but everybody knows that story. What then unfolds in Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is Courtney’s struggle to adapt her body and behaviour to her new surroundings without either going mad or being declared mad. It is fortunate that this somewhat unpolished product of lower middle-class contemporary America has her knowledge of Jane Austen to reinforce her mother wit as she negotiates her way through the maze created by the manners, shibboleths, and taboos, the hygiene (above all, the hygiene), conventions and dominant matriarch of her new life in upper middle-class Regency England.
This not just Georgette Heyer with dry martini, however. The plot allows for a mixture of parallel universe or universes with the conventions of neo-Victorian romancing. Courtney, as Jane, meets Jane Austen and to the latter’s bewilderment tells her that she will be read by millions yet unborn, that her books will be adapted as ‘movies’, and so on. More, in a conversation with a servant, we learn that Jane Mansfield, even before Courtney Hope entered her body, had spoken to him of Abraham Lincoln and Rosa Parkes, so the element of time warp enters the mix. We also learn that Mansfield père is an Impressionist painter. There is comic relief when Courtney misses her way, for example when she denounces at a dinner party ‘that postfeminist Camille Paglia crap’ – a situation of which more could have been made. By having an apparently reliable narrator, the book becomes one written by that narrator, rather than by the author: whose confessions are these? And why ‘confessions’? Thus while all this is competently handled, it is only competently handled: the implications for the narrative are too much or too many to be borne either by the structure of the novel or the novelist’s skill; and while the book is agreeably written, and the characters well drawn (even though drawn from designs made by Jane Austen), little is done to enhance the genre. In fairness, this may also be too much to demand, and a ponderous review would be to miss the point. The (anonymous) reviewers quoted on the back cover who found the book ‘highly diverting’, ‘witty and enjoyable’, ‘great fun’ were probably giving it its due, for the book is in varying degrees all of these things. Nevertheless, it is possible to wish that the book should have provided more than the taste and texture of zabaglione that such comments suggest, and which might have been the result if the Romantic Interest did not overshadow either the historical scholarship or the metanarrative of parallelism. What is demonstrated is how widespread such tropes have become, and how they rescue this book from being a mere bodice ripper in mock Austen prose. How awful this could have been is shown by the Appendix of Acknowledgements, three pages long and full of cringe-making, overheated gratitude.
‘I never knew I had the gift of the storyteller before', says Courtney Hope towards the end of the book, and this reviewer was left wondering whether Laurie Viera Rigler has enough of it successfully to tackle the sequel whose seeds have been sown. Will Courtney Hope continue as Jane Mansfield? Will Jane Mansfield one day wake up as Courtney Hope again? Or as Fanny Hill, Millie Theale or Mrs Dalloway? What became of the mind and spirit of the Jane Mansfield whose body Courtney Hope has entered? We must wait and see.
Cercles © 2011