Early Spring: Primrose Park, 1800s
We are all at war, and I fear that only I am hard enough to know it. We send out our children as troops into battle, and they fight for land, money and affection. They murder hearts, minds, and bodies.
Do these dancing masters even understand? They fill our children with frippery, and we dress for battle. Ostrich feathers, silk, shined boots…uniforms for war. Cannons shoot words, and dances are formations.
Even greenery is battle.
We were instructed to bring greenery to the spring monument, and young ladies carried flowers and hope. Things I’ve long left behind.
General Whiteford, who was serious as sin, carried a nettle. When I remarked that he even held his flower seriously, he responded with perhaps the most intense gaze I have ever received. “It is a nettle, Madam.”
And so it was…perhaps he has the right idea. Nettles. Greenery that fights back.
I was eight years old when I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I stole my older sister’s copy and brought it to school, stealthily placing it inside the easy reader the rest of the class was supposed to be looking at. I was thoroughly engrossed in the romance and the social dynamics of it all. I was advanced for my age by quite a bit, but our failing school system didn’t really want to give up a gifted child.
So I sat with the book, and was eventually caught by my teacher who thought it a comic. She was shocked that I not only was reading it and comprehending it, but that I was enjoying myself. I was left alone to consume Austen, while the other children moved on with more age-appropriate books.
This is a fundamental moment in my childhood, one I have told many times at many parties. Indeed, Austen’s work and world has intrigued not only me but millions over generations. It is no wonder why I in particular wanted to attend Fortune & Felicity, a truly spectacularly produced 360 degree illusion larp set during the Regency time period and inspired by all of Austen’s works.
The game itself was billed as a way for players to live in their very own Austen novel, with carefully crafted meta techniques that push gameplay and intensify emotions. Romance, fortune, emotions, and a truly spectacular setting were combined with an intensely detailed system to make sure each person was given a role in the game that not only connected to other players, but to the world.
For me, Fortune & Felicity seemed a perfect opportunity to not only immerse myself in a unique world with which I had been enamored since I was a child, but to explore my academic interests and add to my fieldwork. Currently, I am embarking on a visual autoethnography studying larp and the phenomenon of emancipatory bleed at New York University’s Gallatin School. In slightly less academic terms, I am using myself and my experiences in a community I am a part of to study the idea that bleed can be steered and used for emancipatory purposes by players who live with complex marginalizations. I believe that players who live with a double consciousness or a fractured identity due to other marginalizations can use larp and the resulting bleed to mitigate the negative aspects if steered with pre-game measures, in-game steering and post-game evaluation.
The theory of double consciousness was coined by Black American scholar and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois. Du Bois believed that due to the severe history of slavery and constant oppression, Black Americans live with not one self, but many. In his turn of the 20th century ethnography The Souls of Black Folk, he says,
To be a Black American means that one separates their identity to both protect themselves and to nurture themselves, but these two selves remain divided. Everyday choices become about survival, and any interaction is flavored with historical context. It is a near invisible and quite heavy load to carry, and one I believe can be lessened and enhanced through the use of larp and the resulting bleed.
As an autoethnographer, my own experience within the larp community is used as research. This means I must create a set of strict techniques that will allow me to both record my experience, steer in the way I think will provide the liberation, and allow myself to analyze it later. My technique in encouraging this type of bleed involves elaborate character development, and immersive steering. Before attending, I would create a playlist of songs to build ideas about the character, create a costume that was heavily tied to the character, and keep diaries to form a thought process that was unique to the character, fleshing out their mental space and state. During the game, I would keep thorough diaries from the character’s perspective, retain ephemera collected — letters given, tokens found etc. — and steer towards those themes from which I wanted to receive bleed while trying to be as deeply immersed as possible. Afterwards, I would complete a thorough living document including visuals and catalogue the physical objects to be later used in a final thesis exhibit.
But Why Begin With Fortune & Felicity?
As a child and young adult, I very much wished to have a hero much like Elizabeth Bennet represent me. I wanted to see myself in that world of quips, balls, and intrigue. Her heroines seemed smart, witty, and uniquely feminist in ways I found empowering. However, as a Black woman, I always felt slightly disjointed from the fiction, as most people are unaware that Austen’s work includes at least one woman of color.Miss Lambe can be found in an unfinished novel called Sanditon.
Though Fortune & Felicity did not include or play on race in any way, I myself knew incoming that intrinsically most larp characters I play are an extension of self. Others did not need to see my character Mrs. Smith as a Black woman during the larp, as her race was not significant to the game, but my race was significant to me as a person. Playing in Fortune & Felicity allowed me to give myself the representation my sister and I did not have as children. Though historically people of color were not only around England in the period, but around and wealthy, one does not see them represented in any media outside of narratives involving slavery. Fortune & Felicity seemed to promise a light and airy experience in which I could explore themes of love, class, and romance in a period where my face is seldom seen.
Except the experience was less like consuming a light and fragile macaroon at the refreshment table of a ball, and more like Battenburg cake at 3pm in the muggy afternoon heat while you prepare for an intense emotional war.
Both are enjoyable, but I simply wasn’t expecting the latter.
Playing the Cards You’re Dealt
During the casting process, which I was not exactly a part of since I signed up for the waitlist, you could list where to play young or old. I did not particularly care about playing either as I just wanted to experience the larp and see how I could steer myself towards emancipatory bleed. I figured that every character would be dealing with the same themes as everyone else anyway, so it did not matter whether I played young or old.
I received a last minute drop-out spot, and discovered I would be playing the part of Mrs. Dorothy Smith: a poor, very recent widow, with two grown children in need of spouses. While I was still upsettingly excited for the larp, this casting sent me into a slight panic. Reading the character description, I was unsure if the organizers knew just how oppressive the experience of a Regency-era widow was let alone a Regency-era poor widow with a wealthy sister. How was I supposed to play a light breezy larp about romance and family when my character seemed to be on the very outskirts of the society into which she was born? In addition to this, she was written to be charming, filled with folly, and ridiculously cheerful at all times while having to quickly find matches for her children with a Sword of Damocles hanging over her head.
Many of the characters had been written to be directly inspired from Austen’s works. I, a deep-cut Austen fan, could not find my character in a single book I read. When I was told who she was, I realized I didn’t even remember her being in a book. As such, this gave me even more of a desire to give her a fuller richer life, rather than a supporting role.
Despite my nervousness with the character, I did not decline the spot. For one, I trusted the organizers and their track record with impunity. Secondly, I took a look at the cast list, and found that I would be playing with some people who were good friends at this point and others who I was looking forward to knowing better. Thirdly, it was an experience you couldn’t really pass up if you love Jane Austen. The venue is like living in the book. If I was going to be oppressed by accident, by George, I would do it in style with good company.
With this in mind, I shifted what I wanted from the larp. This was a perfect excuse to explore the feminist undertones in Austen’s era. I myself dealt with several of the issues Dorothy Smith was having. Though I was not a mother originally born to wealth, I did have to deal with expectations of feminine roles in a strict community, I am aging in a society that idolizes youth, and I know very well what it is like to have to keep up appearances while being rather poor. If I steered her into a narrative about living her best life, could I free myself from the fractured parts of me?
I wasn’t sure, but I was willing to try.
When Good Intentions Go Awry
In my opinion, Fortune & Felicity is an expertly designed larp that was hamstrung by our current society. Due to a gender imbalance and bleed-in regarding romance, I believe Fortune & Felicity was not as strong in a few places as it was in others. As far as I can tell, the designers did not intend to create a larp in which older characters would be playing a radically different larp than younger players. The pre-larp workshops were lovingly crafted with dancing, gender roles, and relations to society done in Romance and Family groups, but players portraying older characters were not given specialized tools.
In our Family groups, we talked and discussed our role to our Families and what kind of play we might need. It was here that we created a family identity and each person fleshed out their role collaboratively. The families seemed to be a solid bond that moved well together despite age differences. Here is where Dorothy first changed from what was written. The family required a fixer in addition to the strong matriarch, and Dorothy just fell into the role.
It was when Romance was added that we began to see cracks. As a young character, you of course dealt with social pressures and issues, but game mechanics were skewed heavily in your favor. You were simply able to do more. This lead to the older players in my romance group to wonder why we were in fact called a romance group. The gender lines were: two men, one of them married, to seven women, two of whom had characters as young as players in the young romance groups. Within twenty minutes of our first workshop, several of us expressed the fact that we felt left out, and like we were NPCs there to move the younger players’ stories along without any story of our own. Many of our characters were not written with romance in mind at all, which was expected from some and came as a disappointment to others.
In a larp that stressed heteronormativity and the perfection of the Regency era, it was uncomfortable to go through mechanics of intimacy when your group was largely made up of players playing your family. Also, it is hard to practice gender rules when there are only two male characters. I, as a player who was trying to immerse myself as Dorothy, found that the character had to fundamentally change. Frequently, I subbed in for the male roles in dancing, talking, and intimacy exercises. This meant that the character I was playing felt far more bold. This worked out to my advantage, but I can easily see how someone who wanted to play upon stereotypically femininity might feel left out.
Once play began in earnest, the disparities between age, wealth, and gender only became deeper as we all wore name badges that told everyone our marital status and income. Wearing your worth on your chest for a weekend, is heavier than one might think.
It’s All in the Dance
Spring Ball: Primrose, 1800s
Balls were not nearly so boring when I was a girl. I imagine that I never sat down for more than a minute. My reputation for dancing and conversation was impeccable. Now I look at us in our silks and feathers or, in my case, lawns and pearls. Here we are, surveying the floor in an illusion of choice.
If it weren’t for the company of Mrs. Long, I would have been utterly likely to have left the children with Frances and spent my evening with a book. Her good cheer and good friendship is the only thing that stops me from constantly screaming.
If it were up to me, I would show these young girls how free they are. I was weighed down in twice what they wear, in corsets that pinched into my flesh, and large enough skirts that I could have hidden several people under them.
And the shoes. Oh, those pinching satin mules that clopped everywhere so that we all resembled a military parade.
Here they are in their satin and silk and flat-bottomed slippers. Try a dance in my youthful shoes and see if you still smirk as you pass the line of widows, my dear.
We know more about your future than you do. You are just a pawn in this delightful campaign. We are your commanding officers. Lady Creamhill can deny you anything with a smirk. Frances can do the same. Even I, with my limited standing, need only whisper and you will be destroyed.
Husbands may wear the titles, but it is the wives and the widows who wage the real domestic war. And these children don’t even know. They just continue their dance, continue their love.
The poor fools.
Dancing was a major point in Fortune & Felicity. The larp started and ended with dance. There were not enough partners of mixed genders for everyone to be able to enter the larp with the dance, which is a true shame as I cite it as one of its most defining moments. Fortune & Felicity simply did not have enough men — whether they identified as men or willing to crossplay as such — to fit their mechanics. This issue led to what could have been a slight jostling oppression to be a heavy locked-in feeling for both player and character.
Every evening ended in a massive ball with live music after we had a sit down dinner. We learned how to dance and convey emotion with the barest ability to touch. Dancing was a way to show interest and allow yourself to be immersed as fully as you can. Our workshops were pleasant and intense. They included live music, and plenty of in-depth instruction. However, when we got to the final workshop, we found that we were not going to be allowed to dance with the same gender. This meant that if you were older and a woman, your opportunities to do anything other than talk at the balls were limited. You could not ask anyone to dance. You were essentially relegated to the sidelines unless a relative asked you, or you had enough status to bully a young man into standing up with you. I had neither youth nor fortune, and as such spent a large part of that evening with a co-player being surprisingly bored until we took play into our own hands.
Ageism and Romance
Primrose: Summer, 1800s
Never had such eyes been set upon me in the dark.
The lights of the teahouse illuminated his fine form, his dark face. General Whiteford is a dangerous man, and yet… I am now sure I am unafraid of hm or anything else.
We have shared jests about battle plans and we both agree that Primrose is a War in which we both command troops. He respects me. I know this in the way he looks at me across the young bodies who beg and plead for love and fortune. We have already done this, he and I. We have survived triumphantly, and now I believe we are trying to decide whether we shall enter the fray once more.
But I think we shall.
It has been a long time since I looked for anyone in a ballroom, and a longer time since anyone has looked for me. Standing across from him, I realized that everything had fallen away. The strains of the hornpipe seemed distant and I was unsure whether I heard the same strains as I did the first time I was at Primrose, glutted on youth.
I found myself short of breath, but the dance had not begun. His face was not his usual scowl; he looked pleased. I was stuck for words, and his face disarmed me further. “Why General Whiteford, you look almost pleased.”
I could have died for my own foolish volley.
But he not only smiled, her nearly clicked his heels. The young man next to him looked terrified. “Me, Madame?” He could make the term Madame seem as personal as my own God given name despite it’s crisp clipped tone. “I’m positively jolly.
And then we were off.
The familiar steps leading us through bodies we never paid attention to. I remembered easily what it was like to float through a world of being seen and wanted.
No one batted an eye at our fingertips touching. Why pay attention to us? We are but ghosts in these living halls. But as we moved down the line, I felt our bones reconnect, and by the time we had his hand in mind gently leading me to the last set, I felt full of flesh.
He has defeated me with a dance, and never have I been happier to lose.
The fact that my character had a romance was a fluke, and yet I charge it and her female friendships along with her family play to be the reason why the larp was such a smashing success for me. Most romances written in Fortune & Felicity gave you the option of two partners within your group, but it was not implied or encouraged by all gamemasters to make play outside of that. Many people felt obligated to play out the story rather than forging their own path.
The game structure was very rigid, with each day starting with church and ending in a ball. In between, there were workshops in structured groups, and several choices for meta games. The schedule provided us with hours of constant activity, but for adults, it meant a flurry of activity with no time for ourselves. As a player, I felt like I had to follow the arc of the larp even though the larp wasn’t necessarily following mine. In the first act, we were all speaking of romantic perfection; in the second, we were supposed to have reality smash down upon us; and in the third act, we were supposed to find some sort of redemption. This was to be spread over a course of days.
The second day workshops made it clear that as an older person, we were not exactly having the same game opportunities. We talked to our personal gamemasters, and it was all discussed amongst staff. I cannot say enough that they tried very hard to listen and respond immediately to the feedback from players who were playing older characters. Some of these responses worked better — such as making sure older characters got more dancing — than others — such as wearing a red ribbon on your name badge, which made attractive widows accidental pariahs. Only when a few of us banded together to follow our character’s agency and really steer did I feel like I was truly immersed at Primrose.
And that’s when the magic of the mechanics; the unintentional intense social, gendered, and classist oppression; and meta techniques really shined. For me, character agency was the missing puzzle piece.
Once I, as a player, felt like I could have true agency to choose my own path rather than what was prewritten, I was not only deeply immersed; I was having one of the best larp experiences of my life. Instead of focusing only on romance, I could follow up with a rewarding relationship with my character’s older sister, support my character’s children, and foster a deep meaningful friendship with a newfound female friend. Those supportive relationships we created on site together were the best moments of my game. Dorothy didn’t become a character on page 222 that you easily forgot. She became the star of her own novel, while showing up in others to share richer game play, provide pressure, and bring Primrose to life.
Just Because It’s Oppressive Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Fun
Late Autumn: 1800s
They did not know what they asked.
Family never does.
I have never asked much from life and it seems the least life could do was allow me to live in love. I have sacrificed everything for my family. I have humbled myself, I have groveled, I have gone hungry, and I have smiled when all I wanted to do was break into a million peices. I have held the line.
And now they ask me to go to war with Norman just to prove that I can still be loyal. That I can still fix everything. So I dueled the one man at Primrose who never misses.
He knew it would come, I think. Perhaps it was his last chance to escape redemption.
Either way, we sat across from each other, our eyes never leaving the other’s face. Our masks were savage and beautiful, a lifetime of practice. I was vaguely aware of Judith behind me, and I squared my shoulders. She is strength, and so am I.
“You cannot disinherit your sons, my dear.”
“But I have set them free, Madame.”
I understood what he meant. They were free from the very tethers that wrapped me to this chair in this sweltering salon with perfectly sliced battenburg cake in front of me. I kept his gaze while moving a particularly large tray of sweets that separated us and let violence drip on my tongue, “It’s heavy…”
I let the threat linger, knowing he’d understand.
I was not his first wife, but I would certainly be his last.
“Shall we do battle over tea, my dear?”
If I knew better, I think he nearly smiled.
For me as a player, exploring oppression through play is a pleasure. If done within the confines of a safe game environment with people you trust, you can explore yourself and have an excellent time. As an academic, Fortune & Felicity’s light oppression mechanics and unintentional deep oppression path for older women provided exactly the type of experience I needed to reach a sense of emancipatory bleed.
The character fought societal pressure, familial pressure, sexism, ageism and class identity in order to find her way in the world. She overcame every obstacle, and ended up being the exact type of heroine I wanted to read about as a child. The bleed from Dorothy has been overwhelmingly positive, not because she succeeded in love, but because she succeeded in finding herself. Dorothy stepped out of an Austen novel, and into her own universe. Through her own liberation, I felt some semblance of my own. Liberation through larp.
After Fortune & Felicity, I found that I was more confident, less worried about my own mortality and more likely to stand up for myself. Even the way I looked at my own body positivity changed for the better. All direct outcomes from the deep immersion I felt while playing Dorothy.
Late Autumn: The Last Service at Primrose
The couples have filled the church to bursting. There are so many that the pews seem empty. I see our children standing among the the crowd, happily engaged and waiting to be blessed by God.
I see no reason for us to stand among them, the casualties of war. Let their parents preen over them and their ceremony.
We sit with Judith, who is too good and true for this space. Her love has yet to be found at Primrose, but it is only because her worth is more than her fortune.
And of course Norman and I sit with each other, as close as wool and bonnets allow in the Lord’s house. I pretend to follow the Vicar, but the truth is that I have never followed the Vicar. Percy is a Vicar and I’ve never followed him either.
Instead of being a good Christian woman, I let the feeling of the nettles in my bare right hand and the feeling of Norman’s hand on my left pin me to the moment.
I smile at him like a cat with a bowl of cream, and we recite the vows the Vicar instructs everyone to abide by.
The season is over, but the war isn’t. As a family we shall head to other battlefields, in other places in other times. We will win, and we will lose, but we shall always serve together.
Fortune & Felicity was an incredibly immersive experience that taught me a lot about myself as a larper, and as an academic studying larp. My theory about emancipatory bleed and the ability to steer immersion towards healing self-identified issues will continue to be honed and crafted as I continue my studies. Due the initial design setbacks, I learned how to ask for the play I want instead of sacrificing myself, and I learned how to work in a cohesive group to create amazing deeply emotional play for others in wide varieties.
By steering for emancipatory bleed, Dorothy Elizabeth Whiteford truly became the heroine I dreamed of all those years when I hid a battered copy of Pride and Prejudice in an early reader. I can only hope the larp is run again so that others can find their own personal Austen as well.
Cover photo: Mrs. Long (Aina Skjønsfjell Lakou) and Mrs. Smith (Jonaya Kemper) became best friends who were a force to be reckoned with. Photo by Kalle Lantz & Frida Selvén.
|Miss Lambe can be found in an unfinished novel called Sanditon.