JANE AUSTEN RUINED MY LIFE may someday find itself among the least forgettable of the spate of Austen-inspired books published in the past several years. In Beth Patillo’s 2009 novel, literature professor protagonist Emma Douglas is drawn into a secret society wherein she discovers that hundreds of previously unknown Austen letters survive, hidden by the society’s protective devotees. The novel describes Emma’s gradual discovery of the (fictionalized) real-life people and (fictionalized) real-life events that inspired Austen’s novels, as revealed in these squirreled-away letters. The good professor struggles with whether to divulge to a hungry public what she has learned. Of course, she also has her own happy ending to discover, as any reader would rightly expect of an Austen-themed story and particularly one published by Guideposts (best known for its inspirational Christian magazine of the same name). Having recently read Pattillo’s frothy entertainment as a break from weightier things, I am most struck by how this book anticipates some works of serious scholarship that have since followed it into print; Jane Austen Ruined My Life suggests that today’s groundbreaking literary criticism inadvertently imitates artful fan fiction.
The present-day Jane Austen seems shaken, not stirred into popular culture. Is it really all that surprising, then, that the interests of the best critics and the most uncritical consumers of her might converge? Although the literati may understandably be appalled by the recent proliferation of action figures, devotional verse, and plastic bandages, even the purists among us can’t deny that Austen’s inhabiting these forms must alter how we read her fiction. Marjorie Garber has declared that the first line of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice — “It is a truth universally acknowledged” — has morphed into a cultural bromide, so oft-repeated as to be emptied of meaning. But the celebrity of Austen herself is anything but commonplace or unoriginal.
The permeable boundaries between the popular and sometimes absurd Austen and the scholarly Austen surely matter in ways that will be long in unraveling. Recent Austen scholarship has capitalized on this high-low traffic, mirroring the marketing of “I [Heart] Darcy” bumper stickers more than we might like to admit — and I don’t exempt myself from the charge of opportunism. I am an English professor who has the good fortune to teach Jane Austen by day. By night, I skate on the local roller derby team as my alter ego, Stone Cold Jane Austen. As a result, I regularly field such farcical questions as “What would Jane Austen think of tattoos?” and, from my son, “Mommy, who is Jane Austen? Are you Jane Austen?” So I do not speak here from on high. The shrines to Jane Austen in my life involve sweat-stained wrist guards, not 19th-century editions of her works. But even I find myself asking on occasion, “What is the point of our sifting through and documenting all of today’s Austen-infused dreck?” It is especially heartening, then, to find emerging work on Austen and popular culture that moves beyond recounting how she has been mashed up with zombies, vampires, or porn. The best new work asks not only the multivalent, unanswerable question, “Why Austen? Why Now?” It also carefully charts “How did we get here?”
Both Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen...read more