Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict
Laurie Viera Rigler
London: Bloomsbury, 2009 (Paperback reissue, 2011)
304 p. ISBN-13: 978-1408813065. £7.99
Reviewed by Nicole Terrien
Université de Haute-Bretagne Rennes II
Never has a title so aptly described the sensation of the reader. A series of “rude awakenings” it is indeed for whoever thought that no author would dare reduce Jane Austen's novels to a simplistic, repetitive plot, an early version of chick-lit in which appearance and sex would be the two main preoccupations not just of the protagonists but of the narrator as well.
But there you are: “A piercing sound like a ship's horn but higher, shriller, shakes my frame”. In twenty-first century L.A., a young woman suffering from a concussion wakes up to the sound of an alarm-clock, a modern device we all take for granted and the reader encounters the first comparative in a long list meant to convey the feeling of displacement experienced by the heroine. The stylistic process is simple, could be effective if it did not turn into a series of clichés. The first-person narrator who takes in charge the story describes her discovery of the new world through references to what is supposed to constitute the stock-experience of an early nineteenth-century English upper-class woman. The attachment to the navy so apparent in Mansfield Park probably justifies the choice of comparison here.
The young woman thinks that her name is Jane Mansfield, that her father's estate lies in Somerset, England and that her latest experience was a meeting with a fortune teller at the local fair in her village before she went for a ride—understand horse-ride of course—and, as she later remembers, took a severe fall. Meanwhile her friends notice the language she speaks sounds outdated, although she pronounces it with a genuine American accent. They call her Courtney and attribute her blank reaction to any mention of phone-calls, e-mails or other new commodities to her loss of memory after her head hit the bottom of the swimming-pool. The reader is asked to accept a few stilted phrases as the evidence of her being the victim of some uncanny translation in time rather than the victim of a physical accident. There is nothing subtle in the use of language here and when irony becomes too obvious it loses its effect at debunking. One of the major defects of this novel is indeed the incapacity to endow the heroine with a consistent voice, most of the time she sounds like a modern teenager enjoying provocation: “How incensed my mother would be if she could hear me speak like a barbaric American. Delightful thought.” How Jane Austen would have characterized the American accent of her time is probably besides the point, but too many perspectives ignore anachronism although it is supposed to be a major object of the narration. As a consequence the artificiality of the process kills the comic of situation.
The heroine's mind is that of a nineteenth-century gentlewoman who has to face in the mirror the unknown, curvy body of Courtney Stones. First surprise for the heroine, for her friends—and most importantly for the targeted reader—she likes her slightly plump body and even voices her admiration for it. First lesson taught to encourage us to like ourselves just as we are—why does this sound more reminiscent of The Diary of Bridget Jones than of any of Austen's novels?
Right from the beginning Courtney has to deal with the difficulty of dressing herself without the help of a maid. The difficulty resides mainly in identifying garments and understanding how they should be put on (with a strong focus on undergarments). While Jane Austen features heroines with a mind of their own, Riegler insists on the female body. The discovery of the shower, of soap and shampoo is as good an opportunity as any to represent the naked woman, before she wrangles to get into some diminutive underpants to finally contemplate herself in revealing dresses, see-through materials or clinging clothes of various sorts. The whole wardrobe of a modern Californian is thus presented as one of the key features of the plot, till the heroine dons a bathing-suit and finally accepts her new identity. And the protagonist who has convinced her to accept this magic change is an exotic, half-Indian character who vindicates there is a life after divorce and women can survive on their own—especially if the divorce settlement has left them with a fortune in the shape of a successful club. Although the story is never developed as such, it is hinted that Deepa can understand and believe Courtney because she has experienced some similar transformation.
This mixture of traditional romance and T.V. series features might work on the screen but does not make literature. The encounter with the modern reincarnation of the witch/fairy in a dark backroom of the club called “The Awakening” and owned by the beautiful Deepa, is an interesting updating of the fairy-tale scene in which the heroine is granted her wish before she can realize what it really implies. It serves as the clever link between the heroine's past as Jane Mansfield meeting the fortune-teller and Courtney's present facing the fortune-maker. The identity between this powerful, albeit discreet, character and Jane Austen herself is not original however since something very similar takes place in Mr Darcy and I. The role of the author as an enabler who transcends the limitations of time and space has indeed become rather cliché. Allusions to theories about the memory of the cells, of the body supplementing the memory of the mind offer an opening onto a new form of story that the author does not choose to develop however.
Instead, the story quickly turns into a thorough checklist of the inventions we should feel thankful for, even when they poison our daily lives and our sense of independence. We may experience with the heroine the ambiguity of progress and some of the situations could have been rather funny if they were not hackneyed. But we cannot help resent the systematic presentation and the moralistic tone of the narration. T.V., telephone, computers, electricity, running water, flushing toilets, cars, elevators, cocktails.... the heterogeneity of the list of modern features is probably meant to amuse the reader, but can it? And when mascara is put on the same level as all the other inventions that have freed the human being from the burden of daily chores, the reader might even decide that teenage girls should be protected from such nonsense.
If there is humorous distance on the author's part, the narrative voice does not make it clear. The haunting memory of Edgeworth, for instance, is evoked through a series of sexual images involving the ill-named Frank, which take all the fun out of the narration. The story becomes too graphic to entertain any kinship with Austen's. The reader is not invited to share hesitations or construct his own understanding, he becomes a mere spectator of temptation. The angel-like figure of Wes, the too perfect husband-to-be cannot redeem the false dilemma. The reader knows from the beginning that Courtney will see the light and prefer the blond Californian to the more traditional embodiment of the rake, whose wickedness can partly be explained as a lack of self-confidence and a need to prove himself.
So the denouement comes as no surprise. When given a choice between going back to the hardships of the nineteenth-century and the easy-going modern love-story with a man who allows her complete freedom, the heroine decides to remain Courtney and let her alter-ego Jane fight for herself in the past. The notion that time is not a linear succession of events but rather a superposition or interweaving of moments, thus making the experience of reading the true experience of time, is not enough to save the novel because it is not a new idea. The celebrated story Kate and Leopold (script by Stephen Rogers and James Mangold, directed by James Mangold) pictured the intricacies in a much more convincing way. What is baffled here is the belief that a Jane Austen addict would find happiness in a Jane Austen love-story. So unlike Lost in Austen (written by Guy Andrews and directed by Dan Zeff), Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict in fact denounces the fallacy of any “suspension of disbelief” and pays the price for it: we do not believe in the story at all.
Cercles © 2011