Jane Austen Society of North America, Southwest

An Interview with the author
(Jane Austen Society of North America, Southwest Region Newsletter)

At the recent JASNA-SW Spring Meeting, members were treated to a sneak preview of Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict by author Laurie Viera Rigler. Laurie recently joined the JASNA-SW board as our Webmaster, but I first met her at a meeting of the Pasadena reading group. She is friendly, funny, and passionate about Jane Austen. Consequently, it was no surprise to me that JASNA-SW members were vastly entertained when Laurie shared a hilarious excerpt from her forthcoming novel.

The book will be available in stores August 2007, but I have had the pleasure of reading a review copy. I was happy to discover that the excerpt Laurie read to us was only a small sampling of a comical romp through Jane Austen’s England. Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict tells the story of a modern-day Los Angeles woman who loves Jane Austen novels and film adaptations (I can definitely relate to such a heroine!). Courtney gets transported into Jane Austen’s England, where she assumes the body and the life of Miss Jane Mansfield. Aside from briefly running into Jane Austen herself, the heroine does not come into contact with any other Austen characters. But there are many allusions to Austen’s novels in the book.

While reading the novel, I jotted down several questions for Laurie about her writing process. The questions I asked, along with Laurie’s answers, are printed below. I was forced to edit our conversation down due to lack of space, but if you are interested in learning more about the book, please visit the JASNA-SW’s website (jasnasw.org). Under the “Book Groups” tab, you will find information about our local authors, including a link to janeaustenaddict.com.

I’m wondering about inspiration and influence. What about other Austen sequel-type texts? Do you read any? Do you have any favorites? What about other time travel books (such as Jasper Fforde’s stuff?)? Anything inspiring about those?

My biggest inspirations and influences, aside from Jane Austen herself, are Helen Fielding, whose comic homages to Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion (Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason) are brilliant; and Nick Hornby, whose voice, in my opinion is the closest to that of Jane Austen of any contemporary author. With the exception of Daphne DuMaurier’s House on the Strand and one of Jasper Fforde’s books, I am not typically a reader of time travel books. Nor am I typically a reader of Austen sequels. I did, however, read and greatly enjoy Diana Birchall’s Mrs. Darcy’s Dilemma and Elizabeth Aston’s The Second Mrs. Darcy, but after I finished writing Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.

You mentioned your first JASNA AGM in your recent talk, and you mention JASNA in your acknowledgements. How has your JASNA participation helped you with this book? Did it change the plot at all? Did it help with the creative process?

Although my participation in JASNA did not have an influence on the plot of the book, it did have an influence on my confidence level, as well as on a few details of character action. The 2004 AGM was the first JASNA meeting I ever attended, and seeing the range of interest in all things Austen, from scholarly papers to panels on film adaptations to a speech by Karen Joy Fowler, made me believe that there was indeed a readership out there for my novel. And when fellow JASNA member Margery Rich graciously consented to read my novel for accuracy of historical detail, I was relieved to find out that I had done as thorough a job on my research as I hoped I had. In addition, my book benefited from Margery’s vast knowledge of costume and sewing. For example, she pointed out that my protagonist might not exactly “sink into a chair,” since she was wearing stays, and that another character might not be able to sew in a moving carriage, as I had imagined her doing. Most of all, my participation in JASNA introduced me to a warm and welcoming community of people with whom I could celebrate the life, times, and works of my favorite novelist. If only my protagonist knew what she was missing!

You mention that JASNA-SW member Margery Rich helped you vet the historical details. Can you tell me a little bit more about the historical research that went into this book?

My sources were manifold: In addition to my travels and walking tours, I perused dozens of books, museum exhibitions, museum catalogues, illustrations from the period, and online articles. I corresponded with museum personnel when I had questions that my other sources couldn’t definitively answer.

Research is a favorite pastime of mine and a perfect way to procrastinate when I should be writing. As for process, the story drove my research; as I wrote the story I did my research to make sure my characters’ actions and the settings were historically appropriate and accurate. Research, however, contributed to story in unexpected ways. For example, I am particularly fascinated with the minutiae of everyday life in Jane Austen’s time. Which is why I enjoyed the London Museum, where there were exhibits of a variety of everyday items, from toothbrushes to mouse traps. The mouse trap came in handy when Courtney/Jane was searching through Mansfield House for Jane’s cache of letters. Suddenly in my mind I saw that odd box of a mousetrap I’d seen in the London museum, and that’s how it arrived in the story.

Another idea occurs to me regarding research. According to my story’s timeline, the meeting between my protagonist and Jane Austen takes place on September 17, 1813. I figured that if my protagonist was to run into Jane Austen in London, it had to be on a day when I was fairly certain that JA was actually in London. Even though I was writing a novel, this little detail was important to me. Ideally I wanted the meeting to take place during a gap in the letters, for in my fictional universe I pictured Cassandra destroying a letter that not only may have talked too explicitly about the symptoms of Jane Austen’s illness, but which also mentioned the lunatic she ran into while picking up some packages from her favorite linen-draper. There is a week-long gap in Jane Austen’s correspondence to Cassandra (Deirdre Le Faye indicates “[Letter(s) missing here]”) between Letter 88 on Thursday 16 September 1813 from Henrietta Street, London and Letter 89 written Thursday 23-Friday 24 September 1813 from Godmersham (Letters, Deirdre Le Faye). I figured the earliest JA may have traveled from London to Godmersham was on Saturday, September 18, 1813, as the 9/16 1813 letter makes no mention of her traveling the next day. There is also no letter from JA letting Cassandra know she arrived at Godmersham along with an account of her journey, as was typical. Therefore, I agree that there must have been at least one missing letter. All of this is, of course, conjecture and might fall apart in the hands of a bona fide historian. Luckily for me, I did, after all, write a work of fiction.

Another thought about research and historical detail: Although I wanted there to be enough sensory detail in my novel to get the reader immersed in the story and setting, I did not want this book to be weighed down by too much description. In fact, a judicious use of description is one of the things I admire about Jane Austen’s writing. Like certain spices in food, it’s my belief that a little goes a long way.

You also mention your research trip to England. What did you do on the trip?

In some ways, I approached my research in England as I would a location scout for a film, or maybe I’m thinking of it this way because I come from a film background. I was looking for environments in which I could picture my characters, and I was searching as well for the accoutrements (or props, if you will) of their daily lives. My travels included the following: In London I took fascinating walking tours offered by London Walks, including tours of Jane Austen’s London, Old Marylebone, and Old Mayfair. I visited the City of London Museum, Apsley House Museum, and an oddity of a house called Sir John Soane’s Museum. For country villages I toured Lacock (the village of Meryton in the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice) and Castle Combe. Bath was, by far, my favorite destination. Unlike the frozen-in-time feeling of Lacock and Castle Combe, once-prosperous villages that fell on hard times and which now feel more like set pieces than vital communities (at least to this traveler), Bath is a living, breathing city that is energetic and youthful, and at the same time gave me the feeling that, like Courtney, I had traveled back in time. I drank tea in the Pump Room and tried the nasty-tasting Bath water. I went to a perfectly preserved townhouse of the period in the Royal Crescent, furnished as it would have been in Jane Austen’s day. And of course there were the various delights of the Assembly Rooms, the Museum of Costume, the Jane Austen Centre, the Building of Bath Museum, Victoria Art Gallery, Sydney Gardens, Milsom Street, and walking tours of Regency and Georgian Bath.

I was intrigued with the scene (set in Bath) in which the heroine looks out of the window of the Pump Room and sees the bathers’ clinging outfits. I never thought of that as being the case because I assumed the baths were more private. However, when I think about the way the Pump Room is set up today, you are right to point out that the windows do indeed look out upon that big bath that was used in the nineteenth century. How did you find out about the way the Pump Room and the baths were set up back then? And was that a bath used by both sexes?

The baths in Bath were a particularly challenging puzzle to solve, since there are literally layers of history in those baths, including several re-designs of the various baths at different points in history. I too was struck by the idea of idlers in the Pump Room being able to see bathers in the King’s Bath. Surely, I thought, the windows overlooking the King’s Bath could not have been there in Jane Austen’s day. It just sounded so, well, undignified. Nevertheless, the tour guide for the walking tour of Jane Austen’s Bath indicated that the baths were indeed visible from the Pump Room windows. So did Susan Fox, MA AMA, Collections Manager, Roman Baths and Pump Room.

However, according to an excellent publication entitled Stewing Alive: the story of bathing in Bath (Victoria Art Gallery/The Roman Baths, 2002), which was a major source of information for me, “private baths and changing rooms were added to the King’s and Queen’s Baths” in the 1790s. According to Stewing Alive, that private facility was called the New Private Bath. In that same publication there is an illustration by John Nixon, dated 1800 and called The King’s Bath, Bath, in which one can see male and female bathers in what was then an open-air King’s Bath, clearly visible from the windows of surrounding buildings and from what looks like a walkway; and the new, discreet, and enclosed Private Baths off to the side. I could only conclude that some of the bathers were on display and others weren’t.

At least one of my sources indicated that if one wanted a degree more elegance and fashion, one would go to the fashionable Cross Baths, which is where Courtney/Jane, Mary, and Mrs. Smith go to bathe. The Cross Bath was more expensive in the daytime than at night, and thus, one would assume, there would likely be a degree more privacy as well. Nevertheless, the term “privacy” is a relative one; every illustration I’ve seen of bathers of the period shows both men and women in the baths together. However, an eighteenth-century account I read of the Cross Baths speaks of men on one side and women on the other. I do not know whether that tradition continued after the rebuilding of the Cross Baths in the 1790s. And at least before the 1790s redesign of the Cross Bath, there were spectator galleries in it.

Another little detail that nagged at me was that lovely fountain in today’s pump room with the sculpted stone fish. I wanted it in one of my scenes, but was it there in Jane Austen’s day, I wondered? It was not visible in the few illustrations I could find of people drinking the water in the Pump Room. Again, Susan Fox cleared up that mystery: “The fountain’s stone basin was put there in the early twentieth century. The fish sculpture and urn on the fountain was fitted in 1988.” Good thing I asked.

Are there any (good) sources you would recommend for local JASNA-SW members who might be interested in some of the historical details you include?

Here is a listing of some of my favorite sources, alphabetically by author (or publisher):

Ordnance Survey Historical Map & Guide: Georgian Bath (Bath Archaeological Trust)
Number 1 Royal Crescent, Bath illustrated guide (Bath Preservation Trust)
The Building of Bath Museum guidebook (The Building of Bath Museum)
Textiles for Regency Clothing 1800-1850 by Lynne Zacek Bassett
Jane Austen Fashion by Penelope Byrde (Excellent Press, 1999)
Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels by Deirdre Le Faye (Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2002)
A Charming Place: Bath in the Life and Novels of Jane Austen by Maggie Lane (Millstream Books, 1988)
The Museum of Costume/Assembly Rooms, Bath exhibition catalogue (Museum of Costume/National Trust)
The Last Promenade: Sydney Gardens, Bath by Brenda Snaddon (Millstream Books, 2000)
Stewing Alive: the story of bathing in Bath (exhibition catalogue) (Victoria Art Gallery/The Roman Baths, 2002)
London Bodies by Alex Werner; introduction Professor Roy Porter (Museum of London, 1998)