Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure
By Emma Campbell Webster
Atlantic Books, pp.352
Do you remember the choose-your-own-adventure books that squatted brazenly on the school library shelves?
Those laminated interlopers that enticed you with their E-number colour schemes and promises of author-sanctioned page-skipping privileges? How they mocked the “serious” titles and their obsession with education, improvement and the beauty of language. Literature is always outgunned by populism.
Emma Campbell Webster’s debut operates on much the same principle of literary debasement, albeit with higher aspirations; it is learned populism. Being Elizabeth Bennet: Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure gets in on the Soppy Jane racket, the highly profitable mushing of England’s sharpest wit into sentimental romances for television and cinema.
You, dear reader, are Elizabeth Bennet, headstrong and observant heroine of Pride and Prejudice, daughter of an ambitious mother, harried by time and tradition to nab a fitting suitor, and locked in a sniping courtship with the abrasive Mr Darcy.
You must use your judgement to navigate the treacherous terrain of early 19th century polite society. Which paths will you take, which romantic overtures accept and decline, whom will you visit and whom avoid? After every few pages of largely loyal prose, Webster throws up a fork in Austen’s plot and allows you to embark on a course of your choosing, thus altering the destiny of Miss Bennet and her acquaintances.
To zing things up a little, characters from other Austen novels wander into the Pride and Prejudice story and get involved in the action — like the fond daydream of a dozing postmodernist literature professor.
“Your mission,” Webster elaborates, “is to marry both prudently and for love, eluding undesirable suitors and avoiding family scandals which would almost certainly ruin any hope of a financially advantageous marriage for you or any of your sisters.” Regrettably, the interactivity principle doesn’t allow you to refuse this modest mission in favour of, say, taking Elizabeth off to Westminster to preempt the suffragette movement, perhaps while attending university and going outdoors without a male companion.
No, you must remain unassuming and proper and covered at the ankles, that you may attract a gentleman of a good few thousand pounds annually — and then? Reader, you marry him. Webster’s running commentary curbs any more radical life plans. When, in a subplot imported from Mansfield Park, you decline to perform in an amateur production, Webster congratulates your modesty. “There is nothing more immoral than a woman on the stage,” she writes, rather giving genocide, rape and third-world famine an unfair hearing. “Collect ten intelligence points for your superior sense of decorum.” Yes, fair maiden, you are awarded points for your ladylike judgement and for correctly answering questions on embroidery and needlework.
There is little irony to be detected in Webster’s counsel. You get the feeling she has come down with literary Stockholm syndrome — so giddy to rearrange the pieces on Austen’s chessboard that her critical distance takes its leave.
Her last-minute inclusion of the option to decline marriage in favour of authoring sardonic novels on the vicissitudes of hubby-hunting seems promising — until it directs you back to page one, locking you eternally in this Goldberg trap of premodern gender roles. This is more than a denial of feminism: it is the repudiation of intelligence.
The book is nakedly pitched at the post-Bridget Jones market and could be successful, if only as a Christmas stocking filler. That is by no means a shameful ambition, but it does feel like a waste. Webster’s knowledge of Austen reaches beyond that of an opportunist writer out to shift books. The skill with which she introduces other Austen characters into Elizabeth’s story marks an adept writer with a hardy grasp of her subject’s canon. i sense — and I could be wrong — that Webster has another, better Austen title in her, one that demands her understanding and appreciation of the author.
What a pity, then, that she has chosen to reduce some of the greatest novels in English literature to a middle-market offering of erudite froth.