Recently, my boss and I were talking about our mutual and undying love for Persuasion when she mentioned Jane Austen Ruined My Life. Because I was intrigued by the title, she was kind enough to lend me her copy. I know that Austen-inspired fiction is a strangely huge genre; every time I enter a bookstore I seem to come across a new book with some play on ‘Mr. Darcy’ in the title. As an Austen fan myself, I certainly understand the appeal of such a genre and respect that it reaches so many readers, but I’ve never had much interest in any of these types of books. While I did mostly enjoy reading the breezy Jane Austen Ruined My Life, it certainly didn’t change my mind on its genre.
The book follows Emma (what else?) Grant, an Austen scholar from an unnamed prestigious American university who has been betrayed and abandoned by her cad of celebrity-scholar husband and subsequently fired from her teaching position. Falsely accused of plagiarism and shamed in the academic community, she escapes to England to meet with a bizarre hermit who sets her on a trail throughout the country that will, she says, lead to hundreds of Austen’s lost letters. As Emma attempts to complete the tasks she is set, she visits Austen’s own England, runs into an old near-flame (of course), and reflects on how Austen indirectly contributed to the failure of her marriage.
Though far-fetched, Pattillo’s imagined fate of the letters is interesting and entertaining, especially in light of my recent visit to the Morgan Library. Though many of Austen’s letters survive (and are currently on display at the Morgan), far many more do not. She was a prolific letter writer, and apparently upon her death had her sister Cassandra destroy or edit the majority of her correspondence. The book proposes that she did not actually do such a thing, and that these lost letters have been protected by a secret society of ‘Formidables” since her death. Patillo nicely arranges the reasons for the secrecy of these letters around actual and unexplained facts about Austen. This is what I enjoyed most about the book; the biographical information on Jane Austen that provided the basis for the plot. And even though I was rolling my eyes almost every other page (there are only so many fluttering hearts and Austen metaphors I can take), I did sometimes find myself identifying with Emma. I’ve had many conversations with friends about how things we love – whether they are Jane Austen novels or Disney cartoons or romantic movies I watched on TV when I was probably too young to be doing so – have ruined us by raising our expectations so high that we are only set up to be disappointed. Case in point: I will settle for nothing less than Captain Wentworth. It is nice to know that there are others out there with the same problem, but I think that in the future if I am in the mood for some Jane Austen, I’ll be reading one of her own novels rather than one inspired by her. In fact, I think it is about time for a rereading of Persuasion.
While we’re on the topic of Jane Austen, here are a few recent articles on her: