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Two Roads Diverged in a Wood, and I–I took the one leading to Pemberley: Reflections on Reading Emma Campbell-Webster’s Lost in Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young Austen heroine must be in want of a husband, and you are no exception. Christened Elizabeth Bennet, you are tolerably beautiful and moderately accomplished, with a sharp wit and quick mind. You are the daughter of misguided but well-meaning parents and live with them and your four sisters–Jane, Mary, Kitty and Lydia–in the village of Longbourn, near the town of Meryton. You are of a happy disposition and have hitherto whiled away your years reading, walking and enjoying what limited society Meryton has to offer. A recent event, however, threatens to disturb your tranquility: a man of large fortune has let a nearby manor house. Inconsequential though this change of circumstance appears, it is the first in a long chain of events that will require you to face difficult decisions and impolite dance partners. Equipped with only your wit and natural good sense, your mission 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.

So opens Emma Campbell-Webster’s interactive, text-adventure novel: Lost in Austen: Choose Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. It should come as little surprise to anyone who has had the pleasure of my acquaintance for more than five seconds that I spent my most recent holiday break with my head (and my heart) buried in this book—the Austenite’s version of a map of Middle Earth, and like a journey into Middle Earth, should you choose to accept Campbell-Webster’s mission, you will embark upon a series of trials, tribulations, and tests of endurance that, if you succeed, might end here.

Lyme Park: the estate that served as Pemberley in the BBC's 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Image credit: Mike Calvon via Wikimedia Commons
Oh, the Pemberley, Precious! We wants it! We does!

(Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be mistress of such as this?)

The story opens predictably enough for readers familiar with Pride and Prejudice—with the announcement of Mr. Bingley’s arrival in Hertfordshire and the resulting marital mischief-making that ensues. Yet when Jane falls ill after riding to Netherfield in the rain and you rush to her side, the path before you holds more than the threat of sullying your petticoats six inches deep in mud; even if you choose the traditional plot, beware: the path to Pemberley requires brains, bravery, and a bookshelf full of Austen novels to survive. Along your journey, you’ll meet a host of characters, from wayward Wickham to noble Knightley. Do you elope with Willoughby or settle for the sensible Colonel Brandon? Choices, choices; what’s an Austen addict to do?

Campbell-Webster appropriately refers to these textual detours into all of Austen’s published works, as well as accounts of her own life, as “diversions”—a fitting term not simply because they offer literal diversions from the storyline of Pride and Prejudice, but because Austen frequently uses the term to denote an entertaining distraction. See, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet’s observations of her cousin’s and Sir William Lucas’s behavior during their visit to Kent in Chapter 28 of Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Collins and Charlotte were both standing at the gate in conversation with the ladies; and Sir William, to Elizabeth’s high diversion, was stationed in the doorway, in earnest contemplation of the greatness before him, and constantly bowing whenever Miss De Bourgh looked that way.” The book’s structure seems to speak to the respective popularity of each Austen hero (or scoundrel); a quick detour will lead you into Colonel Brandon’s Path—the proverbial low-hanging fruit, as it were. On the other hand, you have to journey somewhat further to cross paths with Knightley or captain Wentworth. Darcy, predictably, is the furthest from your reach, and before you can even hope to become mistress of Pemberley, you must endure all manner of tribulations from dirty stockings to soiled reputations, and by that time, who’s to say that he will even have you—a woman who has already refused him once?

In addition to your usual selection of suitors from amongst Austen’s heroes, you have the option to engage in some revisionist roleplaying with several of the more minor characters; however, some things in Austen are sacred. Campbell-Webster takes the “sisters before misters” mantra to heart, for instance, and Bingley cannot fall in love with you, nor you with him. (Well, you can, but alas, if you do, that love story is destined to remain untold. Thank God for fan-fiction). In case you thought Campbell-Webster cast aside her feminist principles in favor of marital bliss, there is also the singleton narrative option, but whether you will be rewarded or ridiculed for taking it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage remains for you to discover.

I confess, devoted Darcyian though I am, I would have liked to see some f/f action, perhaps in the manner of this scene from “Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason” (with a happier ending for Rebecca):

Indeed, the closest we come to any female interaction is an arbitrary encounter with a young girl in the attic of Northanger Abbey whom I can best describe as Fanny Price meets Emily Dickinson meets Bertha Mason. Whether Campbell-Webster meant this as a comical reference to Gilbert and Gubar, I don’t know, but it would seem a fitting nod to the Madwoman in the Attic one of the foundational texts about the nineteenth-Century female literary tradition.

Overall, the book is well-written and accurately-researched, rich with references both to Austen’s published work and the Juvenilia, as well as to her personal life lifted from letters to her sister Cassandra and Claire Tomalin’s biography: Jane Austen, a Life. In short, whether you have never satisfactorily settled the Team Knightley/Team Darcy debate in your mind, or if you’ve ever wondered what might happen if Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam faught over you (not that I’ve ever indulged in such foolery myself), Lost in Austen is a Janeite’s fantasy come true.

In “Vein” Have I Struggled: Mr. Darcy, Vampyre by Amanda Grange

Ah, Mr. Darcy: he’s handsome, he’s haughty, he has 10,000 a year, but just when you think you know someone…
The year is 1802; Europe is experiencing a brief lull of calm between the signing of the Treaty of Amiens and the onslaught of the Napoleonic Wars, and in Hertfordshire, the entire town is abuzz with excitement at the wedding between Elizabeth Bennet and the proud, handsome, and abundantly rich Mr. Darcy—one of the most illustrious persons in the land. As Lizzie and Darcy embark on their wedding tour, Lizzie thinks happily of the vow she and Darcy had made upon their engagement to be the happiest couple in all of England, but their travels take an unexpected turn when Darcy announces that rather than taking his bride to the Lake District as arranged, he has decided to take advantage of the temporary calm on the Continent to show her Paris.

At first delighted, Elizabeth, who has never been out of England, finds much pleasure in visiting the sights of Europe with her husband, until Darcy’s mysterious disappearances and sudden alternations between bursts of passion and bouts of brooding aloofness begin to trouble her. By day, they wander the streets of Paris as blissfully happy newlyweds; by night, they are strangers, for Darcy, despite his apparent longing, has failed to consummate the marriage. As he whisks Lizzie on a whirlwind tour from the glittering lights and salons of Paris, to the picturesque mountaintops of the Alps, to the liquid streets of Venice, introducing her to an alluring circle of friends and acquaintances, Lizzie begins to wonder: just who is this man she married? A man who claims to love her, but fears to touch her; a man who, at only 28, has friends who regale Lizzie with stories of Venice at the height of her glory in the sixteenth century with the detail of first-hand accounts; a man in whose eyes Lizzie glimpses the shadow of a dark and dangerous secret that threatens to engulf her life.

In the style of Austen’s satirical treatment of the Gothic novel, Grange both parodies and pays tribute to the Romantic and Gothic literary traditions; her vivid, breathtaking descriptions of the Alps resonate with echoes of Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” and the isolation, superstitious murmurings, and hidden passages of Darcy’s enigmatic uncle’s castle will be frighteningly familiar to readers of Ann Radcliffe’s novels. In true Austen style, the novel’s title reminds us that the fun of reading any Austen novel is not the discovery of what will happen next, but how Grange will take us there. As readers, we know more than Lizzie; our only suspense lies in wondering just when, and how, she will discover her husband’s secret.

Like any derivative work, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre demands that you read it with a healthy sense of humor; a story in which Darcy is a 150 year-old vampire instead of a 28 year-old wealthy bachelor in want of a wife naturally requires a few timeline adjustments. Grange softens the suspense with a fair bit of fluff, and she handles Mr. Darcy with loving authenticity; he is just as intriguing, just as handsome, and at times, just as irritatingly proud, as Austen intended him. With the perfect blend of romance and intrigue, Mr. Darcy, Vampyre is sure to deliver enough thrills and chills to satisfy the Catherine Morland in all of us.

Whatever Their Souls are Made of, His and Hers are the same: Only Mr. Darcy Will Do by Kara Louise

Author’s Note: the following review may contain SPOILERS! Proceed with caution!

A year has passed since Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Since that time, Mr. Collins and his wife have come to claim Longbourn as their own following Mr. Bennet’s sudden death. With the estate entailed away and none of the Bennet girls comfortably married, Mrs. Bennet’s worst fears have been confirmed; she and her three younger daughters (Mary, Kitty, and Lydia) have moved into the near-by home of her sister, Mrs. Phillips. Jane has taken up residence with her Uncle and Aunt Gardener in London, where she cares for her young cousins, and the family’s circumstances have compelled Elizabeth to seek a position as a governess in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Willstone for their little girl, Emily.

When Mrs. Willstone’s sister Rosalind Matthews comes to stay at their home, Elizabeth discovers that not only are the Willstones acquainted with Mr. Darcy, but that Rosalind has set her eye upon Mr. Darcy as the only man in the world she could marry. When Mr. Darcy extends an invitation to the Willstones and Rosalind to visit Pemberley—an invitation that includes Elizabeth, so she can mind Emily, of course—she finds herself in the troubling yet tantalizing position of being a guest in the home of the last man in the world she could ever be prevailed on to marry. As Rosalind attempts to draw Elizabeth into her own schemes to win Mr. Darcy’s affection and Elizabeth’s position as governess makes her more keenly aware of her former suitor’s illustrious position in society, Elizabeth begins to discover, perhaps too late, just how wrong she was. With a reverent handling of some of Austen’s most beloved characters that readers and writers of fan-fiction will appreciate, Kara Louise’s Only Mr. Darcy Will Do turns Pride and Prejudice on its head in a “what If” scenario that will warm the heart and delight the imagination of romance readers and Austen fans alike.

As a work of fan-fiction, this novel delivers every promise you’d expect of the genre: romance, suspense, and a healthy indulgence in fantasy and wishful thinking. I’ve heard readers raise questions about some of the historical accuracy of Louise’s work in general, and while I had a few quibbles in that area, the key to enjoying this novel is to just accept it for what it is—the chocolate éclair of romance fiction: decadently sweet and all the more delightful for it. True, such details as Mr. Bingley and Georgiana attending a dinner party together when they are neither engaged nor married and have no intention of becoming so seems highly unlikely given the societal customs of the time. Readers get the impression at first that the couple is “dating” in the modern sense. Even considering that Bingley is a dear friend and that Darcy might well trust Georgiana with him, Darcy’s overprotective nature and Georgiana’s history (that unfortunate incident with Wickham) makes guarding her reputation all the more important. Couples didn’t exactly “date” during Austen’s time in the manner in which we do today, but as historical accuracy quibbles go, this one might easily slip under the reader’s radar because it isn’t drawn attention to in excessive detail. I only noticed it because I was looking for it, and never having read any of Louise’s other work, I was curious about this particular criticism.

The chess-match between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in the drawing-room probably also oversteps the boundaries of propriety given that Elizabeth’s place as a governess would make her presence in the drawing-room with her employers and the other guests unlikely. However, Louise uses such moments to remind us that, however badly Mr. Darcy communicated his feelings to Elizabeth, his own definition of a “lady” has nothing to do with wealth and position and everything to do with character.

With a wink and a nudge to her fellow Austen fans, Louise pays homage to the Austen Film Phenomenon and the various renderings of Mr. Darcy on screen. Most notably, in several scenes when Elizabeth accidentally encounters a wet and disheveled Darcy, readers cannot help but think of the now (in)famous encounter in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” when Darcy (Colin Firth) encounters Elizabeth on the grounds of Pemberley after an impromptu dive into the lake to cool his passion. The chemistry in this novel between Elizabeth and Darcy is heart-poundingly palpable, straining at the boundaries that social convention has placed upon them. Every glance, every touch, every smile convinces the reader that when it comes to the tall, dark, and handsome hero of romance, only Mr. Darcy will do.

Click here to find the book on Amazon.

Browsing my Bookshelf: Left Neglected by Lisa Genova

This novel has been calling to me from my shelf for nearly a year, and I finally decided to pluck it from the to-b-read pile.

Synopsis: Nothing can stop Sarah Nickerson: a smart, sophisticated, Harvard Business School-educated Vice President of Human Resources for a Boston Consulting Firm, not to mention a wife and a mother of three. Adept in her climb up the corporate ladder, Sarah is keen to catch and juggle the many curveballs that life throws at her from all directions, until she suffers a traumatic brain injury in a car accident that, quite literally, reshapes her world.

A neurological condition called “Left Neglect” prevents Sarah’s brain from registering sensory information on her left—everything from food on the left-hand side of her plate to the left side of her own body. As Sarah struggles to cope with the day-to-day frustrations of living in a world of which she is only partially aware, she is challenged to see just how short-sighted she has been and that the key to conquering Left Neglect is to focus on the corners of her life that she has filtered from her field of vision. Forced to reach into the black hole of neglect to retrieve her life, Sarah discovers not just herself, but the hands of her children, reaching out to comfort and be comforted, the touch of her loving and supportive husband, and the embrace of a mother who had for so long existed, unseen, in the blind spot of Sarah’s life and heart.

Left Neglected is a novel that powerfully reminds us of how a single moment can change the course of an entire life; of how loss, in its own strange way, offers us gifts we could never otherwise have received. With Tenderness and authenticity, Lisa Genova offers us a story that bears witness to the triumphs that emerge from tragedy and the journeys that we can only take when we recognize that the first step is accepting that we must allow others to walk with us. A novel that is a true testimony to the ways in which health, illness, ability, and disability are inevitably a part of the vocabulary that shapes the stories of our lives, “Left Neglected” also speaks universal human truths about love, loss, friendship, and trust.

Playing with Fire, Scorched by Flame: Ellen Hopkins’s Burned

I’ve had this novel in my “TBR” pile for several months, and in the humdrum of returning to work after the holiday, I decided to pick it up, thinking that some good young adult fiction would help me forget, at least temporarily, the stress of life. (Obviously I was new to Ellen Hopkins). I found, instead of the trials and tribulations of teen angst, a compelling story of love and hate, of faith and doubt, of feud and forgiveness.

Pattyn Von Stratten is a good Mormon girl: completing her chores, caring for her six younger siblings, dutifully attending sacrament meetings and seminary, tacitly tolerating her father’s alcoholism and abuse and her mother’s submissiveness to his domineering ways. But then a secret relationship with a “real boy”—a non-Mormon boy—incurs her father’s wrath and triggers a chain of drama that results in Pattyn’s “exile” to spend the summer with an estranged aunt in Nevada.

Banished from her home to be punished, Pattyn finds comfort in the arms of “Aunt J”. Battered and broken, she learns about the healing power of love. After years of attending sacrament meetings and adhering to church elders who rarely practice what they preach, Pattyn finds God in the thunder that rolls across the mountain range, in the rhythmic rocking of a horse’s canter, in the eyes of a boy who loves her. So long crouched in cold darkness, she blooms in the wild of the Nevada desert. But in these vast, wide open spaces where her heart is free to fly, is there a shelter in which she can escape her demons?

Burned is a story about the choice to love and the consequences of that choice—that with great gifts come great responsibility, and that even God, in his infinite wisdom, deals doses of tough love. Ellen Hopkins’s simple yet elegant pros at once touches and twists the heart of the reader, and Pattyn’s story is one that gives voice to any young girl forced to grow up in a narrow-sheltered world where questions are forbidden by adults who have no answers.

Note: not being entirely familiar with the Mormon faith, I cannot attest to the accuracy of the portrayal, but this is a story whose power is not bound by cast and creed; Pattyn’s family could just as easily be a Protestant family, A catholic family, a rich family or a poor one. It is a story that will resonate with anyone who struggles in a world where being lost seems far easier than finding oneself.