A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
After Jane Austen’s death, nearly three thousand of her letters were supposedly destroyed, taking with them the secrets of Jane’s life. But what did they hide? Austen scholar Emma Grant has always lived by the rules – she is married, has a good teaching job, and plans for the requisite two children. Her ideal life is shattered when she finds her husband in bed with another woman. Her romantic notions, fuelled by Austen, are exposed as foolish dreams, leaving Emma betrayed and alone.
Accused of plagiarism, she loses her job as well as her marriage, and departs for England on a desperate quest for the missing letters of Jane Austen, hoping to restore her shattered reputation. A reclusive widow promises to show Emma the letters if she agrees to keep Jane’s secrets – and completes a series of tasks. These take Emma on a journey through Jane Austen’s England, encountering new glimpses into Jane’s life – and an old friend of her own along the way … As Emma uncovers the legendary author’s innermost thoughts and struggles, she begins to understand the reasons for her idol’s secrecy and the true meaning of loyalty.
I still have fond memories of my Jane Austen phase in my late teens, when I suddenly became very polite, courteous and charitable to all and sundry – funnily enough, my mother has fond memories of it too and often mentions it to me. So I really couldn’t resist picking up this book and seeing how the Great Woman affected someone else’s life, even if only a fictional one.
It’s certainly an off-beat book, and Beth Pattillo has done a great job in creating Emma Grant, an off-beat kind of a woman, though strangely charming in her fashion. I took me a good few pages to succumb to her wiles fully and in places, especially at the start, the story is very slow, but somehow in the end you can’t help liking her.
The plot of course is several sandwiches short of a posh picnic outing, but really who cares? I grew very fond of Mrs Parrot, the mad woman with the Jane Austen letters, and the strange series of tasks she sets Emma (and how could she be called anything else?…) in order to see if she’s worthy of becoming one of their secret society of Formidables (women – and possibly men – who are responsible for keeping Austen’s missing letters and her romantic secrets well and truly hidden). Really I longed to be a Formidable myself – I think I’m ideally suited and hope that the redoubtable Mrs Parrot might consider my application one day.
What mattered in the midst of all this magical and more than surreal fantasy was the lovely whistle-stop tour we get through Austen’s life as Emma travels the length and breadth of the southern counties in order to pursue her heroine. I learnt a lot and enjoyed the journey too. Not only that but, echoing the plots of Austen’s books, Emma has her own romantic heroes to choose from. Adam is her old college friend and the big love interest in her life, but there’s also the out-of-the-blue meeting with Barry (which might not be as unexpected as Emma believes …) which soon becomes something more than the sum of its parts. And even her faithless husband isn’t entirely silent. I loved the twists and turns of the plot and the great set pieces, such as Emma and Adam dancing together in the deserted Ball Room in Bath. Magical indeed. Though, that said, I did tend to find I was one or two steps ahead of Emma in working out what was actually going on in terms of her menfolk and their links with the world of Mrs Parrot. Say no more …
Throughout the book, Emma grows and develops too, as she comes to learn more about Austen, and how their romantic lives have somehow become mirrored across the distance of many years. Most importantly however, Emma also learns much about herself.
Finally, I must say how stonkingly good the ending to this novel is. It took me out of the strict rules of the romantic fiction genre and landed me somewhere entirely different and exciting, and I loved it. A great ending expertly done, and it really made me think. What could be better?
Oh, and the cover picture is fabulous. Emma and I are both so very much that woman …
Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Monarch Books 2009, ISBN 978 0857 2101 04
Also available as an ebook