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.

One thought on “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”

  1. Lemee tell ya that kiss between Rebecca and Bridget made me so happy at age 14 plus I also figure “OMG straight girls are going to be jealous of me!” LOL

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