Lost in Austen (the book and the film)

Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure by Emma Campbell Webster

* spoiler alert

This has to be one of the cleverest ideas around. As a child, I loved the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series, and any story that offered the reader direct influence over what happened to her. It was only a matter of time, I suppose, before a Janeite decided to make that possible in the world of Austen.

Your adventure begins at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, and you are Elizabeth Bennet: every (normal) girl’s dream come true. You are granted points for intelligence, confidence and fortune (all of which keep changing, so you’ll need paper and pen on hand while you travel), and you also keep track of accomplishments (mine include screen covering and sharp powers of observation), connections (both inferior and superior), and failures (my list is so long and demeaning I hesitate to glance at it, but, for you, dear reader, I’ll share a bit: according to this test, I have “poorly tim’d liveliness,” “insufficient knowledge of dancing,” “unreasonably high expectations,” and “absolutely no appreciation of the picturesque.”)

Only some of these are even somewhat fair, but this final failure reminds me of one of the great delights of the book: if, at any point, you choose to do something where Elizabeth chose something else, you risk suffering unfathomable hardship OR becoming one of the other heroines, while still, somehow, staying Elizabeth! For instance, when I chose to call on the Lucases, I ended up in Emma’s world, except there was no Emma. Mr. Knightley was there, correcting my behavior in his wonderful way, Mr. Woodhouse had a manor, even Harriet Smith appears (in the form of Maria Lucas), but no Emma, because, of course, I am Emma now, unless I choose differently, in which case she appears.  Similarly, when I chose to visit Bath with the Phillipses, they became the Allens, and I became Catherine Morland, until she showed up when I chose differently. With one set of choices, you even get to be Jane herself, at least in terms of meeting Tom Lefroy, *and a very interesting result of being “too smart” an Elizabeth Bennet leaves you a single authoress on the final page, which suggests that is an option Webster thinks every heroine should have.

All the novels figure into the adventures (if you choose properly; or, rather, if you choose improperly, as the case may be), and I will save the rest of those delights for your own discovery.

While adventuring, the reader has several opportunities for growth and education (symbolized by a quill pen on the bottom of each page) and for demonstrating her current education (I need obvious brushing up on the exact nature of a quadrille, among other things) for points in the various categories.

If she makes an error, however, the consequences are shocking: my first “end” didn’t even get me to stage 3, like any normal heroine. Instead, I was punished by getting smothered in an attic by Fanny Price. Round two was hardly more encouraging: I was tricked into marrying Wickham and then abandoned for his wild debauchery and left to waste away. The narrator commented, “no wonder you’re still single.”

I have been wounded, I have been tried, and in some versions, I have even been trampled, but alas, I have not given up. Like every resilient heroine before me, I continue to have faith that I will find my hero, even when the odds look less than favorable, and that I, unlike Jane perhaps, will be able to stay true to him and to my professional calling. I continue on my adventures, even recording the choices I make and trying to learn from my errors, confident—even when my intelligence points dip to negative 330 and my fortune to negative 140, my confidence points have never dipped below 200—that all will turn out right.

And if I overcome my failing of a “deplorable weakness for Gothic Literature” on my way, so much the better.

Lost in Austen the movie

I am delighted. The movie starts, to some degree, as does the book (though I’m not even sure the film is based on the book). The heroine is not Elizabeth Bennet officially (her name is Amanda Price), but she’s about to step in to Elizabeth’s shoes in the Bennet home (confidante to Jane, trusted advisor to Mr. Bennet, thorn in the side of Mr. Darcy), though Amanda lives in the 21st century. Amanda arrives at Longbourne just after Bingley arrives at Netherfield (“we really are right at the beginning!” she says gleefully upon her introduction to Mr. Bennet, her host). Elizabeth, meanwhile, ends up in Amanda’s Hammersmith apartment (we don’t see her again until near the end of the film). For what reason the switch occurs, Amanda has little idea, but we can see that she desperately needs some Regency manners in her world, and they, perhaps, need a bit of modern manners in theirs.

There are so many surprises here, I can hardly go much farther without ruining some savory delight or other. Suffice it to say that, within the four hours of film, we are delighted, shocked, touched, and horrified, by turns. On two occasions, I actually clapped my hands with glee (one involved a certain “post-modern moment,” as Amanda calls it—you’ll know it when you see it; the other, Mrs. Bennet finally angry and enlightened enough to tell the right person off at the right time). Though each reader believes she knows what all this looks and sounds like, somehow in this version, it feels like they got it right—the characters really looked and sounded like this! I’m not sure Austen would be “rolling over in her grave,” as Amanda comments, when events go awry, she would be; I think she might enjoy this new “adaptation” of her beloved characters’ lives. I sure did.

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Published in: on May 25, 2009 at 3:41 pm  Leave a Comment  

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