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The book corner: The Jane Austen Remedy

  • 10 March 2023
The Jane Austen Remedy, by Ruth Wilson Allen and Unwin 2022   It is not every 90-year-old who has published a book, but that is what Ruth Wilson has done. The title she has chosen, The Jane Austen Remedy, is an indication of her belief that certain books can help the reader live more fully at no matter what age. The book’s epigraph also features on the front cover: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book can change a life’ — an adaptation of Jane Austen’s most famous sentence, the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.

This truth has long been known and often written about, especially in recent years. In How to be a Heroine, for example, Samantha Ellis, a Londoner of Iraqi-Jewish background, recounts how reading about various female characters such as Jane Eyre and Jo March helped her decide on the type of woman she wanted to become: she knew she didn’t want her parents’ idea of a happy ending, which entailed marriage to a nice Iraqi-Jewish boy.

English Professor Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2017, continued then to do what he had always done: read. He eventually found a 100-year-old book written by a sufferer who had died young, and found it very helpful. He likened the experience of reading this book to homeopathy, in that an element of trauma is introduced into a life, but at a remove, so that the person concerned feels more in control, and can thus cope more easily. These days people can have sessions of ‘bibliotherapy’ with trained professionals, but many have always conducted their own sessions — Ruth Wilson is one.

Wilson was about to turn sixty when she realised that she ‘was out of love with the world … and not happy’. (Robert Louis Stevenson is on record as saying that there is no duty in life we so much neglect as that of being happy.) She concluded that her body (a recent diagnosis of Meniere’s syndrome) was telling her that her soul was ailing. Medication was prescribed for the medical condition, and life went on more or less as usual, but things were still not right with her.

As so often, money effected change. Wilson, at this crucial stage in her life, inherited enough money to enable her to buy a small cottage in the Southern Highlands of NSW, a two-hour drive from Sydney. At that time, Wilson mused that