Sunday, 14 February 2016

The Little Dependence That Can Be Placed on the Appearance of Merit or Sense

As usual, I spent last Christmas with family, which meant travelling to Tunbridge Wells. While I was there, I spent a couple of mornings wandering around different parts of town and checking out the book sections of all the charity shops that were open. That's how I found roughly 10% of my collection of Puffin Fighting Fantasy gamebooks around a decade-and-a-half ago. The second of these excursions was almost a wasted journey, but I decided to go that bit further than usual, to a shop I'd never visited before (and only knew to exist because I'd happened to glance through the window at just the right moment on my journey to Tunbridge Wells), and in there I came across a copy of Emma Campbell Webster's Being Elizabeth Bennet - Create Your Own Jane Austen Adventure. I read the first section while walking back to the parental home, and decided to save further exploration of the book for this blog.

When writing these playthroughs, I try to avoid making them inaccessible to any readers unfamiliar with the book I'm playing. There may be the odd throw-away joke that requires more specialised knowledge, but they shouldn't cause any serious confusion, and a lot won't even catch the attention of anyone not in a position to get the joke. For similar reasons, I'm not going to assume that everyone reading this has a working knowledge of the plot of Pride and Prejudice (or any of Jane Austen's other works, which are also incorporated into this adventure, according to the blurb).

So, today I am playing the part of Elizabeth Bennet, one of the five daughters of a 'misguided but well-meaning' couple. Our mother's primary concern for us is that we should all marry well (for a definition of 'well' that has more to do with the family's social standing than any daughter's happiness), so she is very interested to hear that an eligible bachelor by the name of Mr. Bingley is moving into nearby Netherfield Park. The neighbours speak favourably of Mr. Bingley, and indicate that he will be bringing a large party to an imminent social gathering. This prompts the author to comment, in the first of many italicised interjections, that things seem to be looking up, which is worth a Fortune bonus.

Yes, this is a gamebook with stats, though not randomised character creation. I automatically start with 200 Intelligence and Confidence, but only 50 Fortune. It doesn't take them long to start changing: by the end of the first section, Fortune has already increased twice and decreased once, while the other two stats have both been slightly depleted. Additional bookkeeping is required for keeping track of Accomplishments, Failings and Connections, the latter of which must be subdivided into Superior and Inferior Connections. One of the more charming authorial asides is a reminder to leave a lot more space for Inferior ones than for Superior.

Quite a bit happens before I get to make an actual decision: the Bingley party turns out to be smaller than anticipated, and only to contain one other unmarried man, a Mr. Darcy. Though Darcy makes a very good initial impression, by the end of the evening he's displayed an off-putting amount of pride, and snubbed me quite egregiously. Meanwhile, my sister Jane has been getting on quite well with Mr. Bingley. Days pass, with further social intercourse between the Bennets and the Bingleys, and Darcy further annoys me by starting to eavesdrop on my conversations. Almost being made to dance with him at another social gathering leads to my gaining the Failing of Resentment. The following day, Jane is invited to dinner by Mr. Bingley's sisters, and a little scheming on the part of our mother not only leads to Jane's having to stay overnight at Netherfield, but also results in my sister's coming down with a nasty cold. The news of her illness prompts me to go and see how bad it is, and I have to cover the three miles between our home and Netherfield on foot. And it is on this trek that I finally get to make a choice of my own.

Rather underwhelmingly, this choice is whether to turn right or left. And for all I know, choosing the wrong direction could make it impossible to reach the best ending. Okay, so it's not exactly uncommon for a gamebook to have such an arbitrary decision ultimately make the difference between possible triumph and certain failure (see, for example, almost the entire oeuvre of Ian Livingstone), but it's still tiresome. Unless I'm missing some devious literary in-joke here. I don't remember the book attaching any significance to Elizabeth's going in a specific direction at a fork in the path, but I've never studied it in that much depth, as it wasn't one of the texts covered on my A-level English course. In fact, on reflection, I'm pretty sure that of all the texts I've ever had to subject to academic scrutiny, the only ones written by female authors all came from Germany. Make of that what you will.

Getting back to the point, such as it is, while this choice may appear blatantly obvious to everyone who's ever had to churn out an essay on the socio-political implications of Elizabeth Bennet's having gone whichever way it was that she went at this point in the narrative, it appears entirely random to me. So I'll go with... the direction in which I happened to turn my head at just the right moment to spot the shop where I subsequently bought this book.

Bad choice. This causes me to wander into what an endnote reveals to be a vignette from Emma, in which I encounter a party of gypsies, who take what little money I have and, as punishment for not having more, beat me until I am too disfigured to ever attract a husband. To add insult to injury, this abrupt (and horrendously politically incorrect) ending concludes with an authorial observation that, for failing so quickly, I deserved to be disfigured, and should be ashamed of myself. Not quite as bad as having a book's writers mock me for achieving a goal, but still pretty wretched.

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