Kathleen A. Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project is an exciting, suspenseful novel that is part time travel story and part Jane Austen spin-off. In a future world where time travel is possible, Rachel Katzman, a doctor, and Liam Finucane, a researcher and former actor, are sent back to 1815 to save Jane Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra, which Cassandra burned later in life, and the complete manuscript of Austen’s novel The Watsons. The novel was previously thought to be unfinished, but a letter turns up which says Austen finished The Watsons, but destroyed the manuscript, except for the first few chapters.
Rachel and Liam arrive in 1815 posing as brother and sister William and Mary Ravenswood, coffee planters from Jamaica recently arrived in England after freeing their slaves and selling their plantation. Pretending to be from Jamaica explains why no one in England knows them. Liam, as William Ravenswood, pretends to be a doctor, even though, of course, it is Rachel who has the medical knowledge. They come with a forged letter of introduction to Jane Austen’s favorite brother, Henry. Soon they gain Henry’s trust, and an invitation to stay with the family at Chawton. Rachel becomes friends with Jane Austen, and eventually enters into a secret engagement to Henry, in order to get closer to the rest of the family. But Rachel does not love Henry, and throughout the novel she struggles against her growing attraction to Liam, who is engaged to another woman in their own time and posing as her brother in 1815. In the romantic tension between Rachel and Liam, I definitely see parallels to the Elinor/Edward plot in Sense and Sensibility.
Flynn’s portrayal of the Austen family is realistic, and Jane Austen’s brilliant wit and intelligence shines through in this fictional depiction. Her sister Cassandra comes across as rather unsympathetic, which was a bit jarring to me, especially because I had just read another novel where she seems much more likeable. But this portrayal works in the context of the novel, because Cassandra is very protective of Jane and does not trust these strangers around her.
One of the rules of time travel in Rachel’s time is that time travelers are forbidden to change anything in the past. But of course that is impossible, and soon Rachel and Liam realize that their actions in the past are affecting the future. Rachel rescues a chimney sweep boy whose master is treating him badly. Then she saves Jane Austen’s niece Fanny from choking to death—an episode which did not happen in real life. As they realize that their actions are changing history, they decide to take things a step further, to try to keep Henry’s bank from failing, and to diagnose Jane Austen’s illness and save her life. They cannot take Jane back to their own time with them, so Rachel has to use what is available to her in 1815-1816 to treat Austen’s illness. Whether she succeeds or not, I will not say. But the ending is certainly very thought-provoking.
The Jane Austen Project is one of the best Austen spin-offs that I have read. The concept of time travel that Flynn presents is intriguing. People travel through a wormhole to another time, and there is only a limited “Opportunity of Return” in which they can go back to their own time. We do not know exactly how far in the future Rachel and Liam live, and Flynn gives us hints about their world, without telling us too much. A catastrophic event has killed off much of the human population, and most of the animals, so everyone is a vegetarian because there is no meat. Great Britain has survived the catastrophe better than the rest of the world, and has become the dominant power. The ending leaves room for a sequel, so I hope Flynn will explore this world in future novels.
Kathleen A Flynn will be speaking and signing books at the Ann Arbor District Library on March 7, in connection with the exhibit “The Life and Times of Lizzy Bennet,” which continues through March 30. I encourage you to go to Flynn’s book signing and visit the exhibit.
The Jane Austen Project is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.