“I am Miss Mansfield. Jane is my Christian name. I neither look nor sound like this. When last I went to sleep I was in my own bed, on my father’s estate in Somerset, and it was the year thirteen. 1813. Not” –and there it is, on her desk, a leather-bound book open to the frontispiece, a calendar topped by the numbers 2009. “It was not 2009. I am not ill, Dr. Menziger. I am simply lost.”
It is a fun exercise for the modern Janeite to imagine herself suddenly waking up in Jane Austen’s world—her real world, not the somewhat sanitized version presented in films of her novels. This has been fertile ground for novelists, with varying success; Laurie Viera Rigler’s previous novel, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, is easily the best of the crop, fresh and smart and more literate than the others. Thus we had high expectations for Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict, a companion piece in which we experience the other side of the body-switch: Jane Mansfield (yeah, we know), willowy Regency brunette maiden, waking up as shapely, blonde, 21st century and decidedly not virginal Courtney Stone. If Courtney, well-versed in Jane’s time from her Austen addiction, had difficulty adjusting, just imagine what poor Jane is feeling.
Courtney’s friends are understandably alarmed to find her dressed in the wedding gown from her recently broken engagement (the only garment in Courtney’s closet that Jane considered sufficiently modest to wear), her habit of speaking like someone in a Jane Austen novel, her insistence that she shares a name with a dead movie star, and her failure to recognize any of them, but have a convenient excuse in her accident of the day before, when she hit her head diving in a too-shallow swimming pool. But like her Regency counterpoint, Jane must explain herself to a physician and be subjected to the outrages of contemporary medicine.
Jane struggles to understand Courtney’s life, including the broken engagement (and her attraction to the perfidious ex-fiance, Frank), which reminds her uncomfortably of the circumstances of the romance she has left behind; her amazement at a woman being able to have independent employment, and the disappointing realization that Courtney’s job stinks; the way her world has simultaneously contracted from a large estate house to a one-bedroom apartment in a bad neighborhood, and at the same time has expanded to give her a job, a car, and the power to determine her own life—and her amazement at how Courtney has wasted what she considers such a gift. She is confused and bemused by an encounter with a fortune-teller—seemingly the same fortune-teller she encountered in her former life. And she’s not at all sure what to do about Wes, Courtney’s best friend, who is concerned and helpful and has the face of an angel, yet, according to the hints dropped by her girlfriends (and the memories she shares with Courtney), should not be trusted, for he had more to do with Frank’s betrayal than a friend should have had—and, Jane thinks, he would despise her if he knew that she had compromised herself with Frank, a deeply embarrassing (to Jane) circumstance inflicted on her by Courtney’s crossover memories.
Fortunately for her, Jane’s curiosity overcomes her distress at her situation. She begins to adjust and even to learn that life in modern times has its compensations: hot and cold running water, electric lights, easy transportation. As she is in Courtney’s body, muscle memory gives her the ability to swim, touch-type, and drive a car. Anything she does not understand is explained by the ever-valuable Google. Her assumptions about our world are illuminating and at times hilarious and touching, and her discovery that there are four more novels by Jane Austen than have been published in her own time—and that there are entire societies dedicated to discussing her favorite author’s work!–will give any true Janeite a shiver of sympathetic delight.
Jane comes to the realization that, like herself, Courtney was deeply unhappy with her life and wished for something different—something very different. She understands, with the help of the fortune-teller, that she has the opportunity for a fresh start, not only for Courtney but for herself, and that she must shed not only Courtney’s emotional baggage but her own to find the happiness that is truly within her reach.
Like Confessions, the author’s understanding of the Regency period informs the story beautifully without being oppressive; no infodumps, no bizarre side plots designed solely to show off that the author did a lot of research, and just enough mystery and metaphysics about the body switch to keep the reader guessing, since the “how” doesn’t matter in this story as much as the “why.” We are fooled into thinking that the setting, and the setup, is the story, but the plot goes deeper, touching on the reason why we still read Jane Austen’s novels today. It goes beyond the romance, beyond the manners, beyond even the irony and the humor and the beautiful prose: it goes to the truth that while society changes, while the trappings of life change, while the circumstances of our lives that we often take for granted change, people do not change. The human heart does not change. Love and friendship do not change. That which brings us joy and contentment does not change.
I do not know how I have come to be in this time, in this place, in this body. But I do know that any place where there are six novels by the author of Pride and Prejudice must be a very special sort of heaven.
And that is a truth universally…oh, you know.
A lucky AustenBlog reader will win a signed copy of Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. Send an e-mail to austenblog AT gmail DOT com with your full name and mailing address by 8 p.m. Eastern time on Wednesday, July 8, and let us know what part of modern life you think would be most confusing to a Regency lady.