In Helen Fielding’s cheeky take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, she had her heroine, one Bridget Jones, deliver a play on, arguably, Austen’s greatest opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that when one part of your life starts going okay, another falls spectacularly to pieces.” (A link to the original line for those woefully uninformed.)
When life does, on occasion, fall spectacularly to pieces, we mere mortals look for someone or something to blame. And in a pair of books from author Beth Pattillo, the respective heroines place the blame squarely with Austen herself. Jane Austen Ruined My Life and Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart are two different stories about two very different women, bound together by their experiences with Jane Austen and a mysterious group of women who call themselves the Formidables.
Emma Grant, the protagonist of Jane Austen Ruined My Life, is an Austen scholar whose life is suddenly turned upside down, first by finding her husband and teaching assistant together, then by an accusation of plagiarism. Left with little pride or dignity, Emma heads to London to meet with Mrs. Parrot, who claims to have undiscovered letters from Austen to her sister. Emma intends to use the letters as her way back into academia, but a series of tasks from Mrs. Parrot makes her question her motives, her decisions, and her own heart.
In contrast, Claire Prescott, from Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart, knows very little about Austen. Yet she still finds herself attending a seminar on Pride & Prejudice, in Oxford no less, surrounded by Austen-loving Janeites and a Mr. Darcy doppelganger. When a chance meeting brings Claire into contact with the Formidables and a long-lost copy of First Impressions, an early – and quite different – version of Pride and Prejudice, Claire gets caught up in a game of intrigue and must reevaluate her own prejudices, pride and first impressions.
Both books are fun, quick reads that delighted this Austen fan. Pattillo includes a lot of historically accurate details about Austen’s life and her work, which adds to the depth of detail in the stories. She also writes very vividly about England and the places Austen lived and loved. As a reader, I could perfectly picture many of the towns and villages, imagining myself there with both the contemporary heroine and Austen herself. I also found myself relating to Emma and Claire, seeing aspects of my own life in theirs and it’s easy to understand why they would feel as if Austen let them down somehow.
There aren’t many surprises in the books and the few plot twists can be inferred from previous chapters. Some die-hard Janeites may be unhappy with the outcomes of Emma and Claire’s romantic quandaries, but neither ending felt forced or natural; indeed, it seemed each heroine ended up exactly where she ought to be.
If you’re an Austen fan and particularly if you like modern takes on classic stories, check out Beth Pattillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life and Mr. Darcy Broke My Heart. After all, “I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct” (Mansfield Park).
[Photo Credits: Amazon.com]