Stephanie’s Written Word (guest post)

August 24, 2009

This guest post was written by Laurie Viera Rigler author of CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT and RUDE AWAKENINGS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT, both which are available now. You can find out more about the author and her books at her website Jane Austen Addict. Please help me welcome Laurie to Stephanie’s Written Word!

Sex and the Austen Girl

In honor of the Everything Austen Challenge, I thought it would be fun to take a look at one of the things that many of us find most attractive about Jane Austen’s world (or our idea of Austen’s world); namely, the romance, and compare it to romance in the modern world.

Have you ever wondered how our dating rules and rituals today might look to someone from Jane Austen’s England?

This is a question I thought about constantly while writing my new novel, RUDE AWAKENINGS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT. It’s the parallel story to my first novel, CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT.

In CONFESSIONS OF A JANE AUSTEN ADDICT, a twenty-first-century Austen fan named Courtney Stone awakens one morning in 1813 England as a gentleman’s daughter named Jane Mansfield—with comic and romantic consequences.

In RUDE AWAKENINGS, Jane, the gentleman’s daughter from 1813 England, finds herself occupying the body of Courtney in the urban madness of twenty-first-century L.A.

For Jane, who was born into a privileged yet proto-industrial world of horse-drawn carriages and candlelit nights, the wired, electrified, and multi-tasking twenty-first century is a shock. So is its lack of servants, civility, or sufficiently modest clothing. There are, however, some very clever little machines, especially a shiny glass box in which tiny people act out scenes from her favorite novel, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE.

Although nothing is familiar to Jane–not even her own face in the mirror–one thing is clear: the technological wonders of the modern world are a lot easier to comprehend than its rules of love.

In Jane’s world, she was forbidden to live alone, travel alone, or even earn her own money–let alone spend unescorted evenings with single men. While she revels in her newfound freedom, she struggles to make sense of how single men and women interact in the modern world. And so, when she finds herself falling for a young gentleman—who may not be a gentleman at all—she’s in over her head.

Good thing she has the wise words of Jane Austen—and the counsel of a mysterious lady–to guide her.

And so I herewith pose the question that my heroine asks herself:

Are we better off now, or would we be better off back then?

(I suppose we’d have to remove from our equation the vision of Colin Firth emerging, dripping wet, from that lake—or that scene where he’s fencing—or Matthew MacFadyen brooding across the moors…Otherwise, who could keep her thoughts straight?)

Here’s a list of the most glaring differences between dating today and courtship in 1813 (which is also the year that PRIDE AND PREJUDICE was published).

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Getting Acquainted, 1813:

Although a ball is an all-important opportunity for singles to get to know one another, a woman is not allowed to dance with a man unless he has been properly introduced to her by a trusted friend. Or the master of ceremonies at the assembly rooms. He certainly can’t just walk up to her on the street and strike up a conversation.

Dancing is one of the only opportunities that single men and women have for a tête-à-tête, and it’s pretty much the only way they can touch. It’s a socially sanctioned way to display the grace and proportions of your body, and to admire those of your partner. Eye contact is very much a part of the dance. The whole ritual of display, chaste touch, and locking eyes with your partner is actually quite sexy, despite how stilted English country dance may look at first glance.

Is it any wonder that ballroom scenes are important in Austen’s novels? Other than balls, your opportunities to meet new people or develop intimate relationships with new acquaintances are limited to the social inclinations and fortunes of your parents and whatever heavily chaperoned parties and dinners they give, or are invited to. Not to mention whom you get stuck sitting next to at dinner. Oh yes, and don’t even think about getting involved with anyone from a lower social class.

Getting Acquainted, 2009:

Any man may approach any woman anywhere he pleases, and vice versa (at least theoretically; how many women make a habit of making the first move?). Class is no obstacle (at least theoretically). Opportunities for alone time are limitless. But does that mean modern singles take advantage of those opportunities to forge more intimate relationships than people did in 1813? After all, there’s always another opportunity to get together—or meet someone else. Why rush things?

Staying in touch, 1813:

If a woman wants to see a man again after their initial meeting, all she can do is wait and hope he’ll visit her in her home or wherever she is staying (with relatives or other chaperones present, of course). Writing letters to the object of your affections is strictly prohibited unless you are engaged. So, if a man doesn’t make his move after the initial meet in person—and soon—chances are he’s just not that into her. Or in love with someone else. Or a twit.

Staying in touch, 2009:

Landlines, cell phones, voicemail, text, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter. Who calls first, how long after a meeting, and by what clever method? Do men still prefer to take the initiative, or do women feel as free to pursue as men do? Such are the great mysteries of modern living.

Gauging a Man’s Intentions, 1813:

When a single man reserves the first two dances at a ball with a young woman and then asks her to dance with him again, that’s a pretty obvious sign of interest. If he then pays regular visits to her mother and father, contrives to sit by her at dinner, and has little conversation for anyone else, a proposal is sure to follow.

Gauging a Man’s Intentions, 2009:

Since anything goes in the flirting and physical contact department, much of it in public, and none of it necessarily indicative of anything more than the ego and physical gratification of the moment, intention is anyone’s guess. Though a man may appear to be in love (or pretty close to it) prior to making love, the woman may never hear from him again after the deed is done. In that respect, things have not changed at all since 1813.

Making Love, 1813:

Something a man does verbally rather than physically, when he declares his affections and proposes marriage—a gentleman doesn’t do one without the other. And despite what he might wish would happen physically before that trip to the altar, he doesn’t expect more than a handshake. Even a kiss isn’t supposed to take place before marriage, but if it does happen it will definitely not be in public. (I don’t care; I still love that PDA kiss in the 1995 film adaptation of PERSUASION.)

Making Love, 2009:

One of the things that Jane cannot wrap her mind around is the inherent contradiction of a society that glorifies brides and marriage with hugely elaborate weddings and an entire wedding industry, but at the same time engages in courtship, cohabitation, and even the sexual act without any matrimonial consequences. The language is also puzzling. At least “making love” refers to a physical act between two people in love. But “hooking up”? It brings to Jane’s mind being lured to one’s death, like a fish, while “having sex” sounds as if it has about as much gravity as “having cake.”