Jane Austen Ruined My Life by Beth Pattillo

I know we’re not supposed to think this, let alone put it in writing, but I knew when I saw the cover that I’d love this book. Picture this: a forest scene in mostly sepia and muted greens and browns; a bench with a beautiful woman in a red dress and strappy sandals lying in a swoon with one Kleenex-holding arm over her eyes, apparently overwhelmed; above the woman, the words “Jane Austen ruined my life,” with Austen’s name in the red of the fallen heroine’s dress.

The story’s pretty good, too.

Emma is our 33-year-old heroine, an Austen devotee who believed in happily ever after until she arrived home to find her scholarly husband in flagrante with her teaching assistant on the kitchen table. The lovers conspire to ruin Emma’s own academic reputation and get her fired from the university, and, in one foul swoop, she loses her home, her husband, and her belief in happy endings.

If ever a girl needed a trip to Jane Austen’s England  . . .

When Emma arrives, she has a Jane Austen mystery to solve (involving letters believed to be, but not actually, burned by Cassandra and now preserved by a small group called the Formidables), and a handsome male friend who also despises Edward (Emma’s soon-to-be ex: why’d he have to be a Milton scholar?) with whom to reacquaint herself. There are some tasks to undertake before her source will give her the information she so desperately seeks, both to satisfy her curiosity and to salvage career.

I like to think I’m pretty skilled at recognizing the Wickham-type character, the one who threatens to lead our vulnerable heroine astray, but I think, though he looks at Emma as if she “were his favorite dessert” (is that simile borrowed from The Jane Austen Book Club?), the real threat to Emma’s security, both morally and emotionally, is herself. She wants to get revenge on Jane Austen for making her believe in happy endings, but she needs to learn about her own destiny as well as Jane’s before she can realize that such vengeance is not only unnecessary and unmerited, but also useless.

Along that journey, there are several mysteries—so much fun to read!—and several visits to key Austen places in England (Steventon, Lyme, the Portrait Gallery, Bath, Chawton, but notably not Winchester). The Chawton scene is particularly touching. Emma sneaks a touch of the actual table where the original, specially-designed desk rested (my brother Alex built me a replica of Austen’s desk with the slanted workspace and the hidden compartments for a special birthday, so I particularly enjoyed this scene). This encounter helps reinforce the shared bond between Jane Austen and Emma as writers, and, ultimately, helps Emma walk away from evil—her own—into which the Wickham-esque character leads her.

The lesson about happy endings employs both hopeful optimism and practical realism: “Happy endings, lifelong ones, are the products of both effort and luck.” Emma learns that lesson and tries to steer her course properly for effort, but she also knows that luck is part of the equation. Jane taught her that, she says, and she helps teach it to us.

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Published in: on January 24, 2010 at 9:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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