As part of my sub-project for my book on Jane Austen movies, I'm exploring time-traveling books in order to understand Lost in Austen, and what better time-traveling book could I have chosen -- so I thought to myself -- than one which is also a Jane Austen sequel. I hoped Laurie Rigler's Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict would shed some light on Lost in Austen. For all I knew Lost in Austen was influenced by this book.
In the event it rather shed light on the outlook and kind of book Diane Philips in her Women's Fiction 1945-2005 says dominates the woman's book marketplace, one she shows is hard sometimes to tell from say wonderfully humane and finely moral books like Margaret Drabble's Seven Sisters. This I think accounts for its wide sale as much as its surface references, uses of some Jane Austen situations, and title. From my reading of this book I'd put Confessions of a JA Addict into the "resentful daughters" category.
First, its strengths. For it has some: I was able to read it. Most of these sequels I can't process through my brain they are too vague, vacuous, cloying pastiche in style. Confessions of JA Addict has the strength of using real modern idiomatic English so the author's voice comes out, and there is an idea here that makes for arresting reading at first. As in Kafka's Metamorphosis, the main character wakes up to find herself in a new body, with traces in her brain of memories of this creature from the past. In this case not a cockroach (which is horrible) but an elegant tall brown-haired female from Austen's time. Part of the suspense generated is to be in this young woman's mind as it slowly begins to make sense of her environment, remember the last scenes of her previous life and begin to become acquainted and deal with this new one.
There's feeling her new body, getting into these strange clothes and memories of her first one: so text reaches out to Courtney's pain over having too large breasts in our society, being too short. Not funny as in Bridget, but something lived with for real -- and the lack of selfhood here imposed. The mirror of society as the thing we live in our bodies through.
This is quite different from Zeff and Andrews's Lost in Austen where Amanda Price, body, mind, spirit, walks into the 18th century knowing what she's doing as she walks, is seen as sexy and pretty herself (so no critique or problems with being a woman there -- duller, less interesting and more conventional really). Amanda also walks into a specific novel. Lost in Austen is not just a time-travelling tale, it's a disruption of a specific novel-world. She's continually working to make the novel unfold as its "supposed" to -- part of the frisson of the film. There is no moral harrowing of the heroine, no understanding of life's compromises, nothing of the beautiful humility of moments in LIA, nor its sly humor.
Nonetheless, the world generated in Confessions is not the 18th century but rather fragments familiar to anyone who has read Austen's novels or say a few of her contemporaries who are better known (Burney, Edgeworth): the names of the characters recall Austen's characters and places and books, and Mr Edgeworth, the suitor Mrs Mansfield wants her daughter, Jane Mansfield, to marry is a sort of improved Bingley. There is nothing of the outside real full world of the 18th century -- as in Austen's novels 98% of the world's types, most other milieus are left out, or thus far only faintly suggested by two servants in the house, one of which a male (Barnes, Jane's maid's brother) may have been having a relationship of some sort with Jane -- we are to stay tuned to see if there was a hidden mesalliance you see. (Nokes's England nowhere to be felt at all.)
Our heroine's name in the 21st century is Courtney Stone, she's working young woman from LA, who has been having troubles with her boyfriends (one is unfaithful and called Frank and the incident as described a modernization of what one might imagine Frank Churchill might get up to once he marries Jane Fairfax). Unlike Amanda Price again, Courtney has not (she thinks thus far) wanted to time-travel. She wants to get back to her century and only by about Chapter 8 does she begin to think what happened to Jane Mansfield and have they been swopped?
It's through this central consciousness that the book's egregiously distasteful and mean attitudes emerge. The central heroine, Courtney Stone, is a philistine who buys into all the shibboleths someone like Margaret Atwood (for example, take her Edible Women or Lady Oracle) as well as Drabble sends up. Courtney really believes in being princess for a day for the wedding and other nonsense. She blames people for not adhering to society's agenda; when they are not socially successful, she despises them. She refers to sensitive type people as creeps.
You might say, well, doesn't Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones -- well not sensitive people are creeps. The choice of target is wise and decent and humane, and Helen Fielding is ironic. Fielding keeps a real distance from Bridget; these stereotypes are sent up, not believed and bought into. Fielding is at quite a distance as the implied author (as is Atwood from her heroine in these three heroine's texts we've been reading and discussing). Riger's heroine is snarky, sarky, abrasive, cold, and the depiction of Mr Edgeworth (her suitor, a kind of Mr Bingley figure further emasculated) crude or oddly hollow. I'd say the tone of mind in the book is flat. The way Courtney despises Mrs Mansfield (Jane's mother) is a case in point. It's as if someone had watched Alex Kingston as Mrs Bennet or Alison Steadman as Mrs Bennet (95 P&P) and simply believing this at some level as real and then without making any examination, bad-mouthing her. The book's perspective makes no difference between Austen's characters and those in movies.
On the surface what you notice first is how impolite she is. In this she is unlike most heroines in romances I usually read: most heroines of romances are sincere, deep feeling, assume sincerity on the part of others, are not playing roles. This central persona is hard and cold assumes others are the same. Indeed this is a major theme:
"If there's anything I've learned as a single woman in search of the holy grail, a decent relationship, it's that I have no right to assume anything. I have no right to assume I am in a relationship with a man, even if that man is someone I'm regularly sleeping with. I have no right to assume fidelity ..." (p 68).
She's no right to assume her mother loves her in the 21st century or this and it's plain her father in the 21st century didn't (he left her mother when she was 9). The hard modern world of dysfunctional personal relationships and abuse of social ones is central to this book if put there apparently lightly (so it resembles Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones with her heroine's problems with emotional fuckwits). Still I have to admit I don't like Courtney Stone very much and might not have read on but for the intriguing situation, connection with Austen and my own project of reading time-traveling tales especially those connected with Austen. But the book goes beyond this: the heroine hates Mrs Mansfield as the mother figure. The book seethes with dislike. It begins to frighten me at times because of the unexamined nature of this resentment and the lies the heroine as a matter of course tells about this in public. I admit it's because I am a mother myself. (Bridget by contrast is fond of her mother, feels for and laughs affectionately at her, if irritatedly.)
It does give the book a 21st century feel. The contrast of language is well done: the 18th century characters do speak another linguistic register and in turn Courtney is often sharp and hard and abrasive -- far more than Amanda Price again. She gets punished for it: she is bled. Feminism is mentioned but it seems thus far not to be a brand of feminism anything like say Lilian Robinson's; more a compound of ideas common today (like independence for women, self-esteem &c).
There are themes too that belong to Austen's books and her eras, and these are reshaped. Such as can someone love twice. It's put in 18th century idiom: Mr Edgeworth is a widow (p. 67). And here and there Rigler does manage a real gothic frisson: Mrs Mansfield threatens to have Courtney-Jane committed if she keeps saying she's not Jane and to then tell everyone she died as a result of her riding accident (this is where the bump that threw her into the 18th century and perhaps the "real" Jane into teh 21st probably occurred). Buried alive you see. Her characters have read Udolpho too.
What's very clear is time-traveling as such is not her interest (nor as yet the two different eras), it's rather a device. Mark Twain's Prince and Pauper and Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's court is the kind of thing this is (as Twain ultimately is behind Lost in Austen). A great irony here as Twain loathed Austen.
The "hook" is Courtney is in a predicament. She wants to "get out" of this Regency world and return to her 20th century one, though why I can't say. Unlike Lost in Austen there is no critique of the 20th century world as far as I can see. Again she simply buys into presenting her best friend as her hidden enemy rival and being indignant that her boyfriend went to bed with said best friend without any explanation other than this kind of empty outline which invites readers I suppose to identify generally without particulars. It appears that Jane Mansfield (the character who we are to suppose took Courtney's place) was having some sort of relationship with her male servant and thus did not want to marry the eligible Mr Edgeworth who is too soft and kind, self-abasing to be at all real. Perhaps he resembles the Twilight book vampire heroes (also I gather with no aggression whatsoever, polite?)
Renee Zellweger as Bridget Jones in the film adaptation of Fielding's book
Some specific issues:
The book occasionally startles with its brash shameless crudities of outlook. I would say I feel like an anthropologist exploring some unknown subsection of my tribe, except I experienced the same sort of thing when I tried to read Ellen Wood (Mrs Henry), wide-selling Victorian novelist whose East Lynne is not yet forgotten. At the time I saw Wood's remarks as a sign of her tactlessness and obliviousness to real kindness or humanity or understanding how she's say things she didn't seem to know she should be ashamed to think or feel. Since this is a 21st century book I'm inclined to see her remarks as often manifesting the lack of public support in our time for communal responsibility and obligation, no perspective of social equality or justice here. I see this in blogs on the Net.
The impoverishment of social imagination can be extended to think about what goes on in women's prisons and so much else to women in the world.
It appalls and fascinates. It will have good moments, very good. For example, the heroine, Courtney-Jane (I'm beginning to think of her) is taken to Bath by Mr Edgeworth's sister, Mary. This occasions an entertaining and at times intelligent-feminist section. Courtney-Jane remarks that life for "women of the privileged classes" is both an "endless vacation" which is at the same time "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."
That last line is electrified by her hatred of her mother. "No wonder the women whose lif I've in was desperate for a new one." Narrowly, boy does the heroine hate Mrs Mansfield as the mother figure. The book seethes with dislike. It begins to frighten me at times because of the unexamined nature of this resentment and the lies the heroine as a matter of course tells about this in public. I admit it's because I am a mother myself. It was here I realized the book fit in with Diane Philips's type of pop woman's books, resentful daughters (White Oleander is a classic case)
And again; "If her only possible career option, i.e., marriage, offered such perks as constant pregnancy [and the chance of horrible death I'd add], and child-rearing, and submission to a philanderer [which we've learned the apparently Bingley-like ideal Mr Edgeworth is], no less, who wouldn't? (p. 138).
She takes us on a trip shopping. "No such thing as fingered racks of finished products, let alone trying anything on." WE get a picture of bolts of cloth, requiring patterns and imagination. "A dearth of immediate gratification". She does not add how limited the colors and types of cloth could be. A harsh satire on drinking the waters (yuk) and she too falls for this idea everyone in the 18th century stunk and was dirty. The obsessions of 21st American hygiene where women ritually grease themselves and call this cosmetics.
There continues this coarse hard mean attitude towards people and the other characters. She has now learned (as I surmised) that Jane was in love with the servant, James and comes across him in Bath. Nothing could be less congenial as the encounter of these two -- life as sheer manipulative performance is hard to make a romance out of. Rigler is trying. I must say that I had ever thought these sequels would come partly of out a desire to go back in time.
One way in which this is not a time-traveling tale is Rigler while becoming accustomed to her new body and clothes, has no portfolio for this era. No nostalgia here. If sequels are often exercises in that kind of sentimental nostalgia, this is not one of them.
A genuinely witty juxtaposition of post-modern half-fantasy history (California 1890s) with today's worlds
The implied author's obsessions and self-exposures:
The heroines (Courtney Stone/Jane Mansfield, Mary Edgeworth, sister to Mr Edgeworth who wants to marry Jane Mansfield) are betrayed by their boyfriends; this is talked of as "cheating" in the most coarse way, without any feeling for people as individuals.
The heroine does what Austen's Darcy accuses Bingley of doing: presents as a fault what she's boasting about. Her manipulations and subterfuges to get what she wants are called "passive-aggressive behavior." The term is meant to arouse contempt but she is showing off on how she can pretend to do X while working to do Y: some of this behavior rouses strong distaste in me when I remember this kind of manipulation done to me and when I confronted the person boldly it was just denied (p. 195)
Sometimes the author quotes Austen senselessly (p. 194): this occurs around the time we learn that Mary Edgeworth's love, Will Templeton is a real shit (pp. 197-99), so her brother, Mr Edgeworth (for all it seems he pressures girl servants to have sex with him) was (we are to think) right to separate them even if he did it for the 'wrong' (unromantic reasons) . This scene sickened me because the young woman on Templeton's arms is presented as a sexpot who is somehow powerful and she lears, and preens. Rigler clearly has ambivalent feelings about such a woman -- admires her you see.
By contrast, Margaret Drabble's moving Seven Sisters (see Frisbee: a Book reading Journal)
Another contrast is Graham Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: see The Queering of Jane Austen
I was relieved last night when I finally came to the end. I recommend it to anyone who wants to read what might be centrally popular unexamined chick-lit literature. You won't really see what is meant quite when you read the humane and intelligent criticism of it (say Diane Philips) or those examples where wit and irony do more than redeem, almost overturn the outlook of such books (say Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones or Emma McLaughlin's Nanny Diaries), much less those that contain the species within their texts in order to engage wittily, critically with them (say Karen Joy Fowler in her Wit's End).
Why did I read on? Well, I did want to know how the story would be resolved. I was curious to see what Rigler would do to imagine Jane Mansfield in the 20th century, what jars and contradictions might emerge, and to be told how this transformation of Courtney Stone had come about. I could see that our heroine, Courtney-as-Jane would not be left in the 18th century, she disliked it so, and had figured out some of the mystery subplots of Jane's life (her romance with a servant) by mid-point. I was disappointed. The author simply parked her book when she thought she had enough pages and didn't want any more lest it not sell. What happens is suddenly our heroine is having lessons (the heroine tells us she had never known herself before) and is humbled (sort of, not really) and realizes her true love in the 20th century was Wes, the brother-friend figure type we have heard so much about. Then as she's seeing having this great insight (her love for Wes) as she's walking along Edgeworth and (get this anyone who's watched Lost in Austen) listens to his willingness to marry her not that he realizes his Jane had not lost her virginity. She's startled and Edgeworth by a process of instantaneous desire I suppose turns into Wes and she back into the old Courtney in the 20th century.
Less than a page and a half.
Then in italics there is a letter by Jane Mansfield, now Mrs Charles Edgeworth now back in the 18th century, written in the more usual vacuous vapid style of these sequels which I can't get my mind to process. I tried a little and found complacency was presented as happiness and gorged on the regency romance verisimilar details familiar to anyone who's tried say a Georgette Heyer.
Nothing about time-traveling, just a punt and then vapidity of the usual suspects.
At the close of Lost in Austen Mr Darcy is apparently all set to marry or set up bedding with the non-virgin, Amanda, Wickham has apparently taken up with the lesbian, Caroline Bingley (who knows what adventures this liar has had), and Bingley going to America with Jane soon-to-be annulled or divorced or whatever'd. From them we get the line I heard so strongly in the 2007 MP: who cares what Society thinks, I want nothing to do with it. We do have an attempt at time-traveling in reverse; there is an attempt to seriously critique from humane values the position of women in the 18th century.
Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Atherton) and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) say goodbye: he must let go, and she wants the challenge and freedom of the 21st century
Rigler's book has no pornography; there are no scenes of physical cruelty and none of severe humiliation. I'll give the book that. She does not participate in the Sexing Up of Jane Austen.
It's rarely readable sequel: most of those I've tried I've been unable to process in my brain and skimmed when I did, e.g., Hazel Holt's My Dear Charlotte. I could and did read JA Book club and Bridget Jones. Also Reginald Hall's "poor emma." and one pastiche type, Mrs Darcy's Dilemma. Like these, Confessions of a JA Addict is not vacuous barely imagined words on a page, patches of Austen reserved -- which many of them are. This is (as I suggested) modern chick-lit (Diane Philips) in disguise as sequel and time-traveling. So I see attitudes that shape our culture and make of feminism (online and elsewhere) a crude parody of a movement for social and sexual and economic justice. That this is what widely sells makes Radway's Reading the Romance and Juhasz's Reading from the Heart too generous in their outlook. Someone off list told me popular books are often cold and hard like this; I know Kelley's recent over-the-top spiteful book about Ophra Winfrey got a huge advance because she sells so widely.
To be more positive, I refer the reader to the book's strengths. The situating this character in this predicament, and the way she struggles to understand all around her and her body is well done, it's somehow graspable. But I would not recommend this as either a sequel about Austen (Fowler's book, JA Book Club, although almost cut off from real troubles as in need of money and jobs, is reacting to Austen's text and she shows a keenness about it) or a modern good novel (I do recommend say Emma Donoghue's Room or her historical novel, Slammerkin) or witty one (Atwood's Edible Woman and/or Lady Oracle come to mind).
The cover illustration by M.Mellet of E.H. Young's Jenny Wren ( a modern intelligent moving rewrite of Austen's Sense and Sensibility)