In literary circles, one of the most lamented losses is Jane Austen's correspondence. After her death in 1817, Austen's relatives burned many of her letters, apparently to protect her reputation from what they would have called vulgar speculation. The remaining letters have been exhaustively scrutinized, but questions about Austen's life persist. In her latest novel, Beth Pattillo (The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society) plays with the question of what would happen if a collection of previously unknown Austen letters were discovered.
Disgraced English professor Emma Grant knows that such a find would electrify the academic community and make her a celebrity. She is traveling to London to meet Gwendolyn Parrot, an eccentric old woman who claims to have hundreds of letters written by Austen.
Emma suspects she is on a wild goose chase, but she is desperate. Betrayed by her teaching assistant (who slept with Emma's husband, then falsely accused her of plagiarism), Emma has been fired, divorced and left almost penniless. She believes that finding the letters is the only way to restore her academic reputation.
She gets an unpleasant surprise when she meets with Mrs. Parrot, who tells Emma that she must perform a series of tasks, involving pilgrimages to sites where Austen lived or visited, before she will be granted access to the letters.
Emma must also deal with the curiosity of a fellow scholar, Dr. Adam Clark, who is sharing a house with her in London. She decides not to tell Adam about her quest, fearing that he will want the letters himself. Strangely, Emma shows little interest in what her friend is doing in England, especially as he keeps asking awkward questions.
Austen devotees will have great fun following Emma's adventures. The novel has its flaws: It is implausible at times, and the ending is rushed. Still, it succeeds where it matters most: keeping the reader wondering "what if."
Holly Fults can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2944.