Ever, Jane is an online role-playing game set in the dramatic, romantic worlds of Jane Austen. It invites players to attend sophisticated dinner parties and fancy balls, share gossip, keep secrets, fall in love, get married and climb the ribbon-lined social ladder of Regency-era England. It is definitely not a sex game, though sometimes players get wrapped up in this universe of exquisite gowns and forbidden desire, and they simply can't help themselves.
"Let's just say that we had to put in private chat," Ever, Jane creator Judy Tyrer says with a laugh.
To be fair, it's difficult to produce an online role-playing game that doesn't foster sexual relationships and conversations. "It's in every MMO that's out there," Tyrer adds. "The erotica is just the name of the game."
Even though Austen's novels never delve into the sensual details of intimate encounters, her worlds are rife with sexual tension. As Tyrer explains it, Austen's Regency era was a period of heady debauchery: The Prince Regent was notorious for hosting orgies, and women, once they produced an heir, were largely free to do as they wished. However, discretion was key.
That's where private chat rooms come in to Ever, Jane.
"We're not here to make a sex game. That's not our purpose. But we also don't want to ignore the reality," Tyrer says.
Historical accuracy is paramount for Tyrer. She became a history buff while researching Austen's life and writing, and she's attempting to fill Ever, Jane with as many realistic rules and situations as possible. This means that players can have a private chat room, but they can't flaunt any promiscuity. If they do, they're sent to Botany Bay, a penal colony that's populated with other troublemakers and anyone hoping to play without any rules at all. Botany Bay isn't live yet, which means current players can be as naughty as they wish, but Tyrer and her team are working on it.It is a strange form of homage, to go to such pains to recreate the generic shell of Jane Austen's historical milieu, to name this game specifically after her, without actually touching the particular moral content and ideas that were at the heart of her writings and thought. As an fannish gesture, it's touching, perhaps; at a moral level, it's a form of calumny against Jane Austen, the ethical philosopher, whose novels explore moral questions and examine how a life of virtue should be lived. Austen didn't chose the Regency era for her novels to be sexy or to amp up the tension. She wrote about it because that's the actual world she lived in. Her characters rebel or conform to the prevailing social order and expectations because that's the framework against which their moral life is lived. The characters most focused on the particulars of dress or social position or straining against social convention are the most ridiculous: Lady Catherine, Isabella Thorpe, Lucy Steele and her sister, Anne Eliot's father. And the characters who most embody the Regency attitudes that so fascinate the Ever, Jane crowd are the characters Austen sees as most morally damaged: Henry and Mary Crawford, with their effortless charm and their banter and their instinctive grasp of courtesies, hierarchies, rules and mores, and their absence of any ethical foundation.
It's clear how the Crawfords, or Lydia Bennet and Wickham, or Willoughby, fit into the world of Ever, Jane. It's rather less clear how the virtual world of Ever, Jane reflects Jane Austen's world of virtue ethics. Playing around in Jane Austen's "world" is the shallowest way of appreciating her and her work, because the heart and soul of Austen is moral change through development of virtue. Ignore that, and you might as well call your MMORPG Fanny Hill.
Maybe, then, the best way of reappraising Austen is to transpose her novels into modern times, see how the stories hold up in a world of different social and sexual mores. Random House tried this with its recent series of Austen reboots. This week I came across "Emma: A Modern Retelling" on the library shelf and hate-read it in one sitting. This modernization doesn't make the mistake of assuming that sexual tension has anything to do with yearning, repressed virgins. Much time is devoted to explaining the sexual history of characters who are not currently having sex, so that we don't need to worry that, say, Mr. Knightley is abnormal because he is not living with anyone. My dears, even old Mr. Woodhouse is not spared the indignity of being matched up with someone at the end, because Emma is about matchmaking, and matchmaking is about sex. Marriage, and permanence, are afterthoughts. Emma's interest in Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax has nothing to do with the personal qualities those ladies exhibit, but rather her mild sexual attraction to each -- mild, because it keeps her from having sex with men, but burns off easily enough to allow her to pivot to Mr. Knightley when it's convenient for the story. What is the secret of Harriet Smith's parentage? Not simply that she is the natural daughter of someone who supports her anonymously, but that her father was "decent" enough (Knightley's words) to let the mother dose herself with his sperm, instead of insisting on having sex as other less principled men might have done.
The premise of these modern retellings, and this one in particular, is that people are so different now than in Austen's time that we need bigger, more scandalous things to make us understand the issues of an Austen novel. On the premise that there's no real character drama in being a rather sheltered young woman who learns that that it is possible to cause other people pain and grief with small thoughtless actions, Emma now pushes an uncomfortable Harriet to pose nude for her portrait, and manipulates Harriet's perception of Mr. Elton by lying about Mr. Elton trying to assault her.
Interestingly enough, the events that Austen considers pivotal to Emma's development -- her easy unkindness to Miss Bates, and her climactic character choice to listen in friendship to what she thinks will be Mr. Knightley's profession of love for someone else -- are mostly glossed over. The picnic at Box Hill, where Emma insults Miss Bates to her face, is a muted plot event because most of the characters are high on marijuana-laced cake. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The author never even allows Emma to make the decision to consider Knightley's feelings above her own, because Mr. Knightley is not allowed to make the difficult choice to tell Emma about his feelings. That office falls to Harriet Smith, who is matchmaking because matchmaking is what the book is about.
But the author seems to have read Austen and knows that moral awakening is important to her. And so, Emma is given some insight: "she had been able to make that sudden imaginative leap that lies at the heart of our moral lives: the ability to see, even for a brief moment, the world as it is seen by the other person. It is this understanding that lies behind all kindness to others, all attempts to ameliorate the situation of those who suffer, all those acts of charity by which we make our lives something more than the pursuit of the goals of the unruly ego." Yes, empathy is the great moral good which is the end of all our moral striving, without which happiness cannot be achieved: "She realized that happiness is something that springs from the generous treatment of others and that until one makes that connection, happiness may prove elusive."
Unhappily, this book was unable to convince me, even for a brief moment, that the author could see the world through Jane Austen's eyes.
If sex is not the only matter of significance in the world -- if virtue, and a good character, and the ability to choose a good that exists independently of our desires and whims are things that have the significance that Jane Austen believed they did -- then maybe it's time to stop using her name as a brand to market projects which resemble hers only through the most superficial imitation of plot or style. "Austenesque" means something rather deeper than Empire dresses or irony or the early 19th century marriage market. It means moral clarity and virtue ethics and sexual standards based on a traditional Judeo-Christian understanding of the human person. Stop taking the name of the Jane in vain.