Jane, Now More Than Ever
September 13th, 2007
by Laurie Viera Rigler
[BS: The great thing about Jane Austen fans is the myriad of reasons they come to Jane. Some come for the clothes, stay for the satire. Others seek the social skewering but discover the empathy. And, yeah, there a few who figure if it's good enough for Colin Firth... Today, we welcome Laurie Viera Rigler, whose novel Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict captures the beauty of loving Jane while indulging in the ever-tantalizing "what if"]The decision to write Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict wasn't exactly a decision. It happened like this: I was standing in the kitchen of the house I used to rent in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, and I saw, in my mind, the opening scene of my book unfold. I saw a twenty-first-century woman who, like me, reads and rereads Jane Austen's six novels. Unlike me, she wakes up one morning in the body and life of an Englishwoman in Austen's time. I couldn't stop thinking about her, and finally I decided to write down what I saw. Once I opened that door, there was, of course, a good deal more to her story.
It wouldn't take a quantum physicist to figure out why Courtney Stone made her appearance in my head. After all, she embodies all the "what if's" I posed in many an idle fantasy indulged after yet another reading of Pride and Prejudice or another viewing of the 1995 BBC adaptation. What if I could hang out in one of those drawing rooms in Jane Austen's world, pretending to do needlework ("pretending" being the operative word for someone who cannot sew) while stealing glances at some hottie in tight knee breeches? Would it be a dream come true to inhabit that world, or a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for? What exactly do Austen's books tell me about her world, and what do they not tell me? What is invisible to me as a contemporary reader? Just how sanitized are even the most "faithful" of the film adaptations? Why do I, with all my freedom and choices as a contemporary woman, fantasize my way into the world of Jane Austen? Writing this book was an opportunity to explore those questions.
There is another question I keep hearing, and it concerns the current spike in the popularity of all things Austen. That question is "Why now?" It is difficult to imagine topping Devoney Looser's hilarious answer (here). Nevertheless, I'll venture a couple of theories.
Here is the first: Quite simply, it's score one for the snowball effect of the collective consciousness. Like Austen's "one shoulder of mutton, you know, drives another," one could say that "one Austen movie drives another quickly through the development process." It is, after all, the films that are sexy enough to grab most of the headlines. And there are at least six of them, two in theatrical release (Becoming Jane and the upcoming Jane Austen Book Club) and at least four coming up on PBS. The books then gratefully hitch a ride on the pop culture express.
Here is another theory, which came out of something my husband said to me the other day when I was obsessing over something of no consequence whatsoever. "The mind," he said, "is an unreliable narrator." His comment led me to ponder whether we are now living in the era of the unreliable narrator--from our widespread distrust of traditional media and Washingtonian mouthpieces to our own overly analytical and self-helped-to-death minds. Perhaps our need for the reliable narrator is stronger now than ever.
For me, there is no narrator more reliable than Jane Austen, the keenest and funniest observer of human nature of any author I know. It is her all-knowing, all-seeing narrator who holds up a mirror to our human failings as well as our capacity for magnificence. It is she who guides us to distinguish truly trustworthy behavior from the posings of those who have nothing to recommend them but a handsome face and an agreeable manner. It is she who shows us how to spot greed, jealousy, arrogance, and vanity at a hundred paces, regardless of how smartly dressed it is. Most of all, it is she who shows us how to laugh at all of it and not take ourselves so seriously. That is why I can't (and wouldn't want to) stop reading and rereading Austen. For me, her six novels constitute the most reliable set of self-help books I could ever want to own. Add to that her gift for storytelling twists and a love story with a satisfying ending, and you've got the perfect recipe for a much healthier sort of addiction than those in which we humans usually indulge.
Austen's hilarious skewering of the follies and flaws of human beings is what makes her novels timeless. Human nature, after all, hasn't changed at all since Austen's day. Nevertheless, I, like many Austen addicts, do find myself drawn to the period details of her world, the window dressing, if you will. What makes these details attractive has little to do with their inherent qualities. After all, empire-waisted gowns are not as well-suited to my figure as they are to say, Gwyneth Paltrow's. And given the choice between spending five hours in my car driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles, as I did the other day, to four bone-jangling days in a horse-drawn carriage, I'd take the car any day. Nevertheless, I am attracted to those details precisely because they are of her world, because they give me greater access to her stories.
And so in writing Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict I was able to indulge another aspect of my addiction, immersion in the details of Austen's world. And yes, when seen through the Hollywood-tinted lenses of postmodern nostalgia, spending four days on the road in a horse-drawn carriage doesn't sound that bad after all. Especially if at the end of your journey you get to sleep in a four-poster bed in a sumptuous mansion and rest up for the ball where you dance with Jeremy Northam and look just like Gwyneth Paltrow in your empire-waisted gown.
Still, I'd venture to say that our deepest yearning isn't merely to escape the noise of modern technology for the bonnets and balls and carriages of Jane Austen's world. We, like our favorite protagonists, long to escape the unreliable narrators of our minds for an omniscient guide who writes our own story, the one with the happy ending.
[BS: Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is available at bookstores right now, and Laurie Viera Rigler's website is a treasure trove for fans of Jane, ready-to-become fans of Jane, or just people who understand the value that comes from wasting time on a really fun site. Laurie is also making appearances in support of her novel.]