After nursing a broken engagement with Jane Austen novels and Absolut, Courtney Stone wakes up and finds herself not in her Los Angeles bedroom or even in her own body, but inside the bedchamber of a woman in Regency England. Who but an Austen addict like herself could concoct such a fantasy?
Not only is Courtney stuck in another woman’s life, she is forced to pretend she actually is that woman; and despite knowing nothing about her, she manages to fool even the most astute observer. But not even her level of Austen mania has prepared Courtney for the chamber pots and filthy coaching inns of nineteenth-century England, let alone the realities of being a single woman who must fend off suffocating chaperones, condom-less seducers, and marriages of convenience.
This looking-glass Austen world is not without its charms, however. There are journeys to Bath and London, balls in the Assembly Rooms, and the enigmatic Mr. Edgeworth, who may not be a familiar species of philanderer after all. But when Courtney’s borrowed brain serves up memories that are not her own, the ultimate identity crisis ensues. Will she ever get her real life back, and does she even want to?
“A devotee of all things Austen.. discovers the reality of life in Regency England: rampant body odor, sexual and class repression and a style of medical care involving bloodletting.. Little in [her] current lifestyle – including most of the men – can compete with the erotic charge of dancing in a candlelit ballroom.”
– USA Today
“..who among us hasn’t nurtured a desire to leap into our favorite books? ..a delightful comic romp.. Jane Austen makes a cameo appearance that is pure pleasure.”
– The Times-Picayune
Like my protagonist, I am a Jane Austen addict. Until a few years ago, I kept the depth of my addiction largely to myself. Participating in walking tours of Jane Austen’s London and Bath with an anonymous group of tourists was about as public as I got. At the end of one such tour in London, I noticed that my watch was gone. Perhaps I’d been too distracted, not only by the various sites where Jane Austen slept, shopped, worshipped, and got published, but also by the tour guide, who was decked out in an empire-waisted gown, white gloves, and a plumed bonnet. Despite her outfit, or perhaps because of it, I still felt like I was searching for Austen’s world. It was one thing to hear about cobblestone streets with a depression in the center for water and refuse, or to imagine Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility rolling her eyes while Robert Ferrars bought customized bling where Gray’s of Sackville Street once stood. It was quite another to see past the determinedly modern façade of twenty-first-century London, which the guide’s Regency dress only underscored.
As I walked back to my hotel, annoyed about losing my watch and having to buy a new one, it occurred to me that perhaps my searchings were too literal. Perhaps I would get a new concept of time with my new watch. Perhaps I would get to the chronological essence of my book; namely, that time does not exist. Here I was, digging for the 200-year-old London under the modern metropolis, but if I could just stop thinking of time as time, it would rise up from beneath the veil.
And so, very gently, the world of my book began to reveal itself. Especially when I got to Bath, where I toured the ancient Roman bathing complex. Although accessible to me, the magnificent Roman baths had been hidden beneath the baths of Jane Austen’s time, which I could see from the windows of today’s Pump Room, the same Pump Room my twenty-first-century protagonist visited in 1813. That was as tangible a glimpse of timelessness as I could have imagined.
Despite my fascination (or let’s be honest, obsession) with all those period details, the truth is that Jane Austen does, in fact, transcend time. Her all-seeing, all-knowing, take-no-prisoners approach to the follies and flaws of human beings makes her books not only timeless, but almost eerily contemporary, despite the bonnets and balls and carriages. It is as if she were a modern-day psychotherapist with a wicked sense of humor who time-traveled back to the Regency and wrote novels about everyone who spent time on her couch. What draws me back to Austen again and again are the mind-blowing moments of self-revelation. The biting Austenian wit tempered with an absolute love for humanity. It’s the kind of love that sees human beings, warts and all, for what they are and what they can be.
For me, and for the protagonist of my book, Austen’s six novels equate to the best self-help book I could ever buy. If I’m feeling self-important, all I need to do is read Jane Austen and have a good laugh at myself. If I’m having an identity crisis, I can find a little of myself in all her heroines. And, if I’m being really honest with myself, in some of the supporting characters as well.
Catherine Morland of Northanger Abbey, who is addicted to scary novels, dancing, and old houses, reminds me of who I was when I was proud of living in a crumbling Victorian that was said to be haunted, or when I could spend all night in after-hours clubs and still make it to work by 9. Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, she of the tear-rimmed eyes and self-destructive tendencies, is who I was when consuming little more than espresso, Big-Gulp-size vodka martinis, and American Spirits was my idea of post-break-up nourishment. Emma is who I am when I get lost in the land of running-your-life-is-so-much-better-than-looking-at-my-own. I still wish I were as eloquent a smart-ass as Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, but the more I venture into the minefield of self-reflection, the more I appreciate Austen’s less incendiary heroines: the quietly steadfast Anne Eliot of Persuasion, and even the iconically timid Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, whom I used to dismiss as a prude.
There are other rewards in Austenland, not the least of which is that girl always gets boy. In fact, girl always marries boy. If you’re a single woman of no fortune, which is what I was when I first started reading Austen, it’s easy to get hooked.
Then there are the movies, a veritable banquet of which offers its own set of pleasures, from Colin Firth trying to fence away his passion for Elizabeth Bennet to Matthew MacFadyen’s smoldering gaze to Lost’s swoon-worthy Naveen Andrews in the Bollywood tribute to Pride and Prejudice. If there were 50 adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, I’d see them all. I’d buy them all. I’d play them all till they started skipping and I had to buy a new one.
After all, I am insatiable.
Which is why I started writing Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict. I could feed my cravings by creating a story of a twenty-first-century woman who wakes up in the body and life of a woman in Jane Austen’s time. Now that’s what I call an identity crisis. That’s what I call the perfect excuse to immerse myself in the world of my favorite author and create my own personal homage to her work.
And so I had gone to London, to Bath, to little country villages frozen in time, to the Assembly Rooms where Anne Eliot longed to catch Captain Wentworth’s eye. I went to conjure the past through the lens of my twenty-first-century protagonist’s mind.
Back home, I continued my research and stumbled across a bunch of Austen-centric groups and fansites on the Internet. (Apparently there were people as addicted to Austen as I.) The only group I joined, however, was JASNA.
After all, they were a scholarly group whose publications were food for my research. Or so I reasoned. So what if some of them liked to dress in period costumes for their annual Regency ball? Was that so wrong? Wouldn’t I like to don an empire-waisted muslin and learn English country dancing and pretend I was Gwyneth Paltrow dancing with Jeremy Northam? The very thought was enough to make me break out in a cold sweat.
No, I told myself, there was no reason for me to actually attend a JASNA meeting, not even when they blew into L.A. for their annual confab. Truth is, I was afraid of being in a room with other people who were not only as obsessed with Austen as I am, but who also had no problem labeling themselves as such. Might it not be like going to an AA meeting and admitting publicly I had a problem? Like my protagonist, I didn’t know if I was ready for that.
My husband, however, insisted I go. Alone.
After willing myself through the glass doors of the Biltmore Hotel and down the grand columned and chandeliered hallway, I made my way to the JASNA registration table. The women at the table were all giddy about BB King, who had apparently just passed by, caught sight of the sign and said, “Jane Austen! I love Jane Austen!” Thrilled, they gave him a tote bag.
Picturing the blues legend carrying around a canary yellow bag emblazoned with the JASNA acronym, it suddenly hit me: If BB King could love Jane Austen publicly, couldn’t I?
Author’s Note: In this excerpt from Chapter Ten, Courtney/Jane is at her very first dinner party in 1813 England and takes her conversational cue from Henry Tilney’s famous line: “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”:
Susan Randolph, who’s been eyeing us for some time, says, “Mr. Edgeworth, I counsel you against such pursuits, though your name may account for your tastes in reading.”
“Thank you for your hints, Miss Randolph, though I bear no relationship to the Mrs. Edgeworth to whom you allude.”
“Nevertheless,” says Susan, “the authoress of Pride and Prejudice would have you believe that women think of nothing else but marriage.”
“You do not approve of the book?”
“There is nothing to approve in a book wherein all the females spend their days dreaming of being married, scheming to be married, or lamenting because they are not married. That is a narrow and confining portrait of my sex of which I certainly do not approve.”
I take a long swallow of wine to calm down. I don’t buy this burst of sisterhood, not from a woman who could look at another woman with that reptilian chill.
Edgeworth glances at me and clears his throat. “Well, then. Did either of you ladies find The Mysteries of Udolpho amusing?”
I am unable to contain myself. “It is obvious to me, Susan, that the author means to take a humorous stab at the cold and calculating marriage market for which women are bred, and at the same time acknowledges that marriage is actually one of the few career choices for women of her time. Nevertheless, I believe she prizes love, and marriage for love, above all else.”
Susan laughs. “And I believe she condones a woman’s right to aspire to a situation far above what she was bred to do. First there is marriage above one’s level of fortune. Then there is marriage above one’s rank.”
I roll my eyes. “Dear me. What’s this world coming to?”
“Exactly. The more silly novels young women read, the more silly notions fill their heads. If you ask me, cousin, I believe you read too many novels for your own good.”
“And if you ask me, cousin, I’ll tell you what a clever character in a clever novel I read once said: ‘The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.’ As for that post-feminist Camille Paglia crap, you twentysomethings seem to forget that if it weren’t for women aspiring to situations far above what they were bred to do, we’d still be pumping out a kid a year and squeezing ourselves into corsets. If I were you–”
Suddenly I realize the table has gone completely silent. I look around me, and everyone is staring. I catch the eye of Mr. Mansfield, whose wineglass has frozen halfway to his mouth. He clears his throat and raises his glass to Mrs. Randolph. “What spirited young women our daughters are, eh, sister?”
Mrs. Randolph laughs feebly, reaching for her wineglass but knocking it over instead. In the ensuing bustle of footmen mopping up the mess, and Mrs. Mansfield offering to tell a story of how she once got a wine stain out of a white gown, the tension is broken.
Ah well, in vino veritas.
Author’s Note: In this excerpt from Chapter Twelve, Courtney/Jane responds to her first proposal from a nineteenth-century gentleman.
What do you say to a man you are supposed to know but don’t but he proposes to you anyway and he lives in a different time period? I peruse my mental catalogue of Jane Austen dialogue for possibilities. Emma’s I have no thoughts of matrimony at present might lead Edgeworth to attribute it, like Mr. Collins, to my wishing to increase his love by suspense, according to the usual practice of elegant females. And Emma’s Believe me, sir, I am far, very far, from gratified in being the object of such professions is far too harsh. As is Lizzy Bennet’s You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it. Even if I wanted to say yes, I couldn’t expect Jane Austen to do all the work. After all, what did Emma say to Mr. Knightley? Just what she ought, of course.
Edgeworth’s squeezing my hands snaps me out of search mode. “Allow me to interpret this interesting silence as a favorable reply?”
Oh my God. He is practically quoting Mr. Elton verbatim, and Emmahasn’t even been written yet.
He raises my hands to his lips, but I extricate them before he can seal the deal. “I don’t mean to be rude, but — are you out of your mind?”