Beth Pattillo’s “Jane Austen Ruined My Life” made for a conversation starter when I carried the book to appointments.
She had made Edward her Knightley, and he didn’t measure up in the least. How dare Austen fill her readers’ heads with happy endings and perfect love matches!
The novel’s protagonist, Emma Grant, an English literature professor and Austen scholar, believed Austen duped her into believing in happy endings and marital fidelity. With her life in shambles after a divorce, Emma began her mission to discredit Austen. The desire to do so started after she caught her husband, Edward Fairchild, having sex with her teaching assistant on their kitchen table. In one fell swoop, her dreams were shattered. She felt tricked into thinking such men as Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley, and Capt. Wentworth existed.
Worse still, Edward had a hand in the loss of her career. The university let her go on a plagiarism charge. Emma wanted to also salvage her academic reputation. The story opened with Emma on her way to England at the invitation of a Mrs. Gwendolyn Parrott who claimed to have undiscovered letters written by Austen. Only 160 of Austen’s letters were known. The rest were redacted or destroyed by her sister, Cassandra. And yet Mrs. Parrott claimed to have about 500 letters entrusted to her.
According to the flame-haired Mrs. Parrott, Cassandra, formed the secret society, calling the group, “The Formidables,” a name Jane and her sister shared for themselves as maiden aunts. Emma thought the older woman a bit crazy and wanted to make a fast exit. But then, she heard,
“Whatever you do, protect my children from the coarse and vulgar speculations of others, Mrs. Parrott recited, a strange half-smile lighting her face. “The world may know my words, but it has no such privileges with my heart.” (24)
Mrs. P had tasks for Emma to complete before she could read one of Jane’s letters. But Emma had to swear to secrecy. She could not publish her discovery.
And yet that was exactly what Emma wanted to do. She did want to honor Mrs. Parrott’s request, but she also wanted to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of her former disgrace in the academic world.
But then the possibility of romance entered her life. Upon her arrival in the UK, she learned that her cousin Anne-Elise had double-booked the place. Her former best friend Adam Clark, who had dated Anne-Elise at one time, was also staying there. Though his research interest was Sir Walter Scott, Adam’s presence became suspicious to Emma.
Then Emma met Barry, another English professor. He asked her out on the spot. He kept telling her about this invisible traveling companion, Sophie, who never physically materialized. He kept bumping into Emma, sometimes literally. His research interest was Ernest Hemingway, but he too seemed suspicious.
People weren’t as they appeared. Even Mrs. Parrott wore a mask. Emma felt like her life was scripted. She worried that these two men in her life were her competitors. I had to find Pattillo’s quote again and share it because the explanation about the academic world is spot on. It’s “as cutthroat as any you would find in professional sports or among Wall Street suits.”
“Conventional wisdom said that academics were so fiercely competitive because what they fought about was so unimportant to normal people. But then, no one had ever said that academic types were normal” (197).
Sounds about right.
I walked down memory lane a bit with Emma because at one point in my life I could relate to looking for something earth-shattering to say that hadn’t been said about very old texts. I also could relate to the thrill of discovery Emma experienced when she did have the chance to read one of Austen’s undiscovered letters, even in copy form. And I have felt the pull to write as she does.
But I still don’t know how on earth Austen could ruin anyone’s life. How does someone who claimed to study Austen miss the fact that it’s 1. fiction and 2. written for her family’s amusement first. Austen wrote of the people who were true-to-life for her time. Her heroes/heroines were noble, but also flawed. Yes, the stories end with marriage, but not all were happy marriages. I mean, my goodness, Austen created Mr. Wickham and Mr. Willoughby, too. Inconstant men who married for money. Things weren’t always — to quote Ren & Stimpy — happy, happy, joy, joy.
Emma did conclude that for Austen to have six published novels was nothing short of miraculous for her time. Her father encouraged his daughter to write, and her brother sought publication of her novels. She had a loving, supportive family. Her novels were her legacy.
I had to suspend my disbelief of the plagiarism charge. I believe we all have a certain way we write, our own unique way of expressing ourselves. I would have fought that charge. Set the kitchen table on fire for good measure. But then, Emma did seem to think people thought highly of her abilities only in relation to those of her ex-husband.
Guideposts published this book, so I waited for Emma to talk to God sometime in her journey. She seemed to have a faith earlier in her life, but she never did pray. It’s possible she didn’t have an authentic faith yet. She was raised in the church as the daughter of a minister, something she had in common with Austen actually. Regardless, I felt like that was a missed opportunity to show how God wastes nothing in our lives. He uses all our hurts. “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 147:3
But then, at the end, I thought Pattillo needed a sequel. Some threads weren’t knotted at the ends. That said, I enjoyed learning biographically details about Austen’s life. while tagging along with Emma on a fictional scavenger hunt. Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of entertainment while learning the history or people, places, and times?
For more on this novel, go here. For information on author Beth Pattillo, visit her website here.
Let me know if you read this book and what you think.
I wish you Happy New Year and happy reading, friends!