Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart by Beth Pattillo

This story starts steamily at Christ Church (Oxford), where heroine Claire Prescott participates in a Jane Austen seminar on behalf of her very pregnant sister, Missy Zimmerman, who stays back home in the States. Claire quickly meets the “handsomest man” she has “ever seen,” in the form of James Beaufort (a Dickensian name), who is attending the seminar because “Jane Austen books are selling so well—we [publishers] can’t afford to ignore them” (9). The discerning reader can tell, perhaps, that this is not the most romantic of blokes, but Claire is distracted by many other happenings that cloud her judgment.

She makes a new friend, Martin Blakely, for instance, and lies to both men about being a pediatrician. Pattillo quickly reveals the key unhappy facts of Claire’s life: her parents died when she was young, she has since devoted herself to her younger sister and said sister’s husband and children, she never herself attended university, she has a distant boyfriend, and she was recently fired from (not her dream) job.

Then she meets Harriet Dalrymple. Harriet takes a liking to this young woman who shows her compassion as she tries to hawk wares outside the school, and though Claire suspects the old lady isn’t quite right mentally, Harriet makes a few intriguing comments about her own familiarity with Jane Austen that lead us to believe it is Claire who is about to benefit from this relationship. The old lady has a first draft of First Impressions, and, in it, there are many key differences from the final Pride and Prejudice, including the detail that Mr. Bingley doesn’t visit the Bennets, who are observing their year of mourning for Mr. Bennet. Snippets of this version appear through the text.

I found it exciting to read a different version of the events we know so well, and several elements in it seem worthy of Austen. A conversation between Elizabeth and Mrs. Bennet, for instance, reminds me a lot of the one in which Elinor Dashwood discusses with Mrs. Dashwood which home would be appropriate for them given their new, reduced income. Mrs. Bennet, like Mrs. Dashwood, is displeased, but she gives Mr. Collins trouble about moving in, unlike Mrs. Dashwood, whose hand is forced by the cruelty of John Dashwood’s heartless wife.

Several mysteries arise in Claire’s world, and Pattillo plants enough seeds that we are suspicious of every character, except largely Mrs. Dalrymple. We’re also always trying to figure out if Claire is our stand-in for Elizabeth, and who is Darcy (all signs point to James, but some of the signs sway a bit in the wind.) Then the real mystery hits me: I have read this before.

Pattillo uses the same key plot detail—the Formidables, a group of women who protect Jane Austen’s secrets—as she used in Jane Austen Ruined My Life! In this text, too, there is a secret manuscript, a lost heroine, and a major decision to make, both with respect to Jane Austen and to the heroine’s own life.  I certainly enjoyed this story, and it’s not exactly the same, but that central focus struck me as Pattillo stealing her own good idea, without any acknowledgment that we have seen this before.

Published in: on February 27, 2010 at 6:40 pm  Leave a Comment  

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