First of all, I have to confess that not only did I receive a review copy of this book but when it arrived last year, the parcel also contained a very lovely note congratulating me on the birth of my first child. Being honest, this made me feel a huge amount of trepidation since I’ve had a real bumpy ride over the past few years with novel spin-offs from classic fiction. Even the cover endorsement from Paula Byrne left me a little unsure since that lady also gave rave reviews to Sanditon. To make matters murkier, this is also the third time that I have started a book with a plot combining concepts of time travel and Jane Austen and with the other two, I gave up both times on grounds of ridiculousness. What if I didn’t like this book after its author had been so nice? Luckily, my fears were groundless. Within a few pages, I was breathing a sigh of relief. This time really was different. Forget the concept behind it, what we have is an intelligent and innovative exploration of Austen fandom – I was hooked.
The central characters are time travellers Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane, sent back from a vaguely dystopian future by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics. The pair land up in a field in 1815, dishevelled and disorientated but with a clear mission before them. They must introduce themselves to Henry Austen and through him meet his sister Jane. Their goal is track down the rumoured completed manuscript of The Watsons and if possible diagnose the disease that killed its famous author. They have one year to do so or else miss their return window and be trapped forever. Their other instruction is to alter nothing else, not even to save the life of Jane Austen herself.
My first hint that I was going to enjoy this book came within the early pages when Rachel comments on what the time travelling initiative has achieved so far. On the whole, few changes have been felt but there are one or two hints of an altered timeline. One of them is that a street of houses popped up where there was none before. The other is that a statue of Victorian poet Randolph Henry Ash suddenly appeared. Eagle-eyed readers will of course recognise him as one of the main characters of Possession. Despite the two books being poles apart in terms of tone, this was an early indication that Flynn and I have similar literary tastes. It’s also thought-provoking to imagine Randolph Henry Ash as once real but that changes in time have relegated him to fiction – if so, we have lost a wonderful poet.
Rachel and Liam arrive in full period costume with a wealth of counterfeit bank-notes secreted about their persons. In their own time, she is a doctor and he is a scholar with an acting background. They pose as siblings William and Mary Ravenswood. With a forged letter of introduction from an Austen acquaintance who is fortuitously in Jamaica, they inveigle themselves into the life of Henry Austen and his wider family circle. The plan is to be in place to offer support for Henry Austen’s famous illness, thereby gaining the family’s trust enough to be invited to visit at Chawton and hopefully gain access to the fabled Watsons manuscript. But as one might expect, the best laid plans …
The pair hit a number of hiccups along the way. The book’s heroine Rachel is a sexually liberated American who has reached her thirties as an independent woman. It does not come naturally to her to run a household or defer to a man. While she may have nailed the English accent and certain aspects of her unconventional behaviour can be waved away as a product of her previous life in ‘Jamaica’, other actions provoke more questions. Rachel cannot stop herself from enjoying the attentions of Henry Austen and the flirtation goes further than advised for a respectable English spinster. Nineteenth century life also requires a steely gaze in the face of inequality and injustice – something Rachel finds impossible to maintain. Aghast at the probable fate of a young chimney sweep boy, Rachel buys him from his vicious employer. Eager to help, she offers her carriage to a friend in distress only for them to smile and remind her that as a female, the carriage is not her disposal. It is for her brother ‘William’ to make decisions and Rachel is not even sure how she feels about him. As time wears on, the facade begins to crumble.
The level of research which has clearly gone into this book is truly impressive. Rather than fixating on the bonnets and period aesthetic, Flynn examines instead the psychological aspect of living in a world with such iron-clad social rules. The first time that Liam and Rachel leave the house, they are nearly mowed down in the street by a carriage – utterly unprepared for the hustle and bustle of Regency London. The logistics of setting up a house, paying calls and making new acquaintances – it is all utterly alien. This approach avoids the over-sentimentalisation which I find so grating with so much of Regency historical fiction. These people lived in brutal times. For all that their lives were governed by etiquette, they had a far closer acquaintance with death than we do now and it was good to read a piece of fiction that acknowledged this.
Indeed, by inserting her two time travellers into Austen’s sphere, Flynn’s novel is a direct confrontation between our twenty-first social mores and those of Georgian Britain. Skating over the particulars of the time travel mechanism, The Jane Austen Project is less science fiction and more thought experiment. Slicing through all the fluff that comes with the wider fandom, Flynn tries to answer the most crucial possible question – what would it be truly like to have a conversation with Jane Austen?
I found Rachel’s careful attempts to blend in within the female sphere to be truly fascinating. Even when I read Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England, it was striking how little was known about the lives women led. There is not even any real evidence about what they did to deal with menstruation. It is just not recorded. Still thinking as a doctor, Rachel is inquisitive about every habit. She asks one woman about how she feeds her baby, she observes Jane herself for signs of the illness which will claim her life and then wins the allegiance of Edward Austen by saving his daughter Fanny from choking. There was something delicious however in the irony of Rachel’s ultimate diagnosis of Austen’s malady which required one of the very Regency cures which had prompted such disdain.
It would have been so easy to fumble the growing friendship between Mary/Rachel and Jane Austen. Too many authors would have had them cheerily getting on to first name terms within minutes. Flynn is wiser and more cautious. Still, as the Ravenswood ‘siblings’ grow closer to the Austen family, Mary/Rachel’s conversations with Jane become more intimate. Ordinarily, I can feel strangely nettled by attempts to fictionalise the lives of real people but on this occasion, it did not bother me. Possibly it was the insertion of the time-travelling element which by made it a thought experiment and so less invasive. As Jane’s understanding of Rachel comes a full circle, there is a nakedness to their dialogue that gave me the dizzying feeling that I really was hearing the words of the author herself. Her frank thoughts on the position of women – dismissing Mary Wollstonecraft as naive if she believed that her book would actually alter the status quo – it’s more outspoken than any of her extant writings but … it sounds a lot like her.
Flynn manages to steer the discourse between the two women towards even the most shadowy aspects of Austen’s life, such as the Bigg-Wither proposal, without it ever appearing unconvincing. For a subject area that has been done, done and then done again, it is no mean feat to achieve fresh insight. Flynn manages it here effortlessly. I so often start out historical fiction with hopes so high and then end up explaining grumpily to my partner that ‘they’ve got it wrong again‘ while he nods sympathetically and gallantly tries to feign interest. Sigh. It’s a real burden being the only Austen fan in the household. By contrast, The Jane Austen Project is a book that I was musing over for days afterwards.
Even when the travellers return home, the ripples continue to be felt. There are questions to be had over what Austendom has meant to our world as a whole, about the significance of Austen’s early death to her body of work. My only criticism is that I found Rachel’s rapport with Austen to be so thought-provoking that, for me, the sub-plot around her relationship with Liam paled alongside it. As each generation reads Jane Austen in a new way, the woman she truly was is simultaneously destroyed and reborn anew. As the director of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics tells Rachel, the past is a ‘collective fiction like anything else … It exists because we say it does’. We will never know who Austen the woman really was but this novel made me feel a moment of connection and for that reason alone, I will treasure it.
I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
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Published by HarperCollins on May 2nd 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical, General, Literary, Fantasy
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