1.18.2010

Review: Jane Austen Ruined My Life, by Beth Pattillo

When I set out to read this book, I didn't bother to read the back. It left me in anticipation of what kind of disheartening conclusion the narrator must have come to, to inspire the title and events of this quick 270-page read.

As most people would expect, it begins with the aftermath of a romantic betrayal. I say it is expected because many people credit Jane Austen with being their rock and resource in the world of courtship and love, and the betrayal of something that Jane would have inspired would indeed lead to ruin. Our narrator, Emma Grant, has recently divorced from her husband whom she found, shall we say, "laying the table," and as a direct result she has also been ousted from the academic community. She determines then and there to take up the hopeless task of discovering the lost letters of Jane Austen and exposing her as a fraud who lived a sad and depressing life, despite what her novels touted. Through a series of coincidences she manages to take an old friend along for part of the ride.

At first I thought that the book would follow the line of A.S. Byatt's Possession in which the two main characters are tracing the history of two different authors (in this case it would have been Austen and Sir Walter Scott) and discover a common history and eventually a lineage between the two that leads directly to one of the main characters. This was not to be so. It does however focus on a period of time from which we have no letters at all from Jane Austen (similar to the situation in Possession), which is akin to Barbara Ker Wilson's The Lost Years of Jane Austen which has Jane travel to Australia during this period. Instead of going a little too far into fantasy, though, we remain in England and the "excerpts" that are eventually discovered do fit in rather well with what history and what letters we do have.

In the end, to me, it felt a little more like reading Lauren Willig's The Secret History of the Pink Carnation while already knowing the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel: I already knew most of the facts, it was simply the introduction of an alternate theory that went along with the facts that was intriguing. The state of things in the novel makes sense because the truth is so very mysterious. We know that, in her adolescence, Jane made up fake entries in the church register, having herself married to three different persons. We are told that Jane's sister Cassandra burned most of Jane's correspondence after her death. We are told that Cassandra passed on a story (to a niece) about Jane having cared for a man on one of her visits by the sea. But that is all we know. Serial hearsay.  Ms. Pattillo takes us through a course of what-if's following that mystery.

Almost every new "fact" that she gives us is very plausible. The book made for an easy read not only because I already knew the facts, but because I wasn't stumbling over new ones. They felt real. They felt as if I were reading them right out of the collection of her letters that we do still have. And along the way we go on a course of healing with the narrator. She mends her heart in a very Jane way and life goes on, just as Jane would have had it. The only bit of material that tripped me up was a "letter" included towards the end in which Ms. Pattillo has Jane writing to Cassandra, from her bed in which she died three days later. "Jane" reassures Cassandra that she has been very happy to have Cassandra by her side for her whole life, that she does not regret living as such, and she goes on to tersely state how the heroes out of 5 of her 6 novels have factored into her life. To me this seemed a bit much. I can't imagine Jane lying in her bed in immense pain, citing herself--and leaving out Edmund altogether at that!

All in all it was a very quick read but very enjoyable. The characters in our narrator's life make one somewhat hopeful. Especially Adam. Adam does not quite fit in to any of Austen's molds, but we know that he functions well as a means to a happy ending. But if there's anything to be taken from this book, it's a reminder of what, to me, Mansfield Park is about (even though Ms. Pattillo seems to ignore Mansfield Park for almost the entire novel): that one should not always go about seeking that happy ending, and ignoring the view along the way. Make sure you appreciate the people taking the journey alongside of you.

Speaking of Mansfield Park, next up, The Matters at Mansfield (Or, The Crawford Affair), by Carrie Bebris - the 4th installment of Bebris' Mr. & Mrs. Darcy Mysteries.

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