It’s not swine flu, but I have a cold - so I have cosseted myself this afternoon with a delightful comic novel, Laurie Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, which is the charming literary equivalent of a cup of camomile tea.
Why haven’t I read this before? Have I been resisting each new comedy with a Jane Austen title simply because nothing could be better than the real thing? In a world of Jane Austen sequels, mysteries, and a Pride and Prejudice vampire best-seller (scary concept!), this is the first time-travel Austen novel I’ve come across. Rigler's charming cocktail of fantasy, Regency romance, and chick lit is addictive, as the heroine discovers that love affairs of the past are as enthralling and unfathomable as those in the 21st century.
The premise is original: the witty narrator, Courtney Stone, falls asleep rereading Pride and Prejudice, and awakens in in the body of one Jane Mansfield, another Jane Austen reader, in Regency England. Like Courtney, Jane is 30 and unmarried. Like Courtney, she doesn’t have the best taste in men (Courtney has just broken up with a cheating fiance, whom she caught in flagrante delicto with the wedding cake baker). Jane also has a match-making mother who believes it is a disgrace to be single.
Courtney doesn’t know if she is dreaming or crazy. But reality gets solider and weirder: when she regains consciousness in Jane's body three days after the real Jane had a fall from a horse, a doctor bleeds her for “brain fever” -and she is lucky to get away with that, because her 21st-century witticisms convince him that a permanent move to a mental asylum is the answer. She is appalled by 19th-century underarm odor, which is inadequately masked by perfume. And she frets over the social mores for ladies, which require her, even at 30, to be chaperoned. The details of everyday life for women are not as romantic as those in her Austenian imagination.
Rigler comically interweaves the narrative of Courtney'’s trials and tribulations with reminiscences of her free but lonely life in 21st-century L.A. In Austen's England, Jane’s pushy mother acts as a quasi-procuress for her eager suitor, Mr. Edgeworth, a minister: shades of Emma, but he is completely unlike Mr. Elton, though Courtney broods on the similarity of the situations. She learns, by flashbacks and a friend’s warnings, that he may be a libertine who has impregnated the maidservant. Yet he’s so handsome and sophisticated that Courtney admits that her “palms are sweating and (her) throat is dry.” So she muses on blind dates in the 21st century.
It’s not like I’ve never been in blind-date situations before. But I’m one of those people who hates them and always has to be tricked into it by being invited to some gathering at which I just happen to be introduced (as if it hadn’t all been planned ) to the potential man of my dreams. These particular MOMDs have ranged from the computer nerd with the handshake that felt like a limp sea anemone to the performance artist whose magnum opus was licking dry a dozen opened cans of smoked oysters. Even though I usually feel not the slightest bit of interest in the man who has been summoned to the party, the dinner, or the art opening by the well-meaning friend, I always stupidly agonize over what kind of impression I’ve made on the would-be suitor.
There are countless clever allusions to Austen's novels; there is even a trip to Bath (what is a Jane Austen novel without a trip to Bath?). Rigler’s humorous light romance has got me hooked - I keep thinking it would make a great movie. The sequel, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, about Jane’s experiences in Courtney’s body in the 21st century, will be published next month.