Interview: Kathleen A. Flynn

The Jane Austen Project is one of the most imaginative explorations of Jane Austen’s life that I can remember reading. Intelligent and incredibly well-researched, this book is an absolute treat for Austen fans old and new – one of my absolute favourite reads of this year’s Austen in August. The book’s author Kathleen A. Flynn has not only been incredibly patient in how long it has taken me to review the book but has also kindly agreed to answer some of my most pressing questions.

What inspired you to write the Jane Austen Project?
The wish to travel back in time and satisfy my curiosity about what Jane Austen was really like. Time travel is impossible with our existing technology, plus I would be hopeless at pretending to be a person of 1815, so writing a novel was the only solution. But to really imagine myself there — I wanted it to be a vivid dream, historically faithful, and not leaving out the squalid, unsettling aspects of a setting  that is often romanticized.


You’re living in the 21st century, in America. How did you think you could imagine yourself into Austen’s England?
To start, I read a lot. I reread Jane Austen, books about her, and about that period of English history. I was particularly interested in daily life and medical knowledge, but I was also looking for ways in — how to understand the era beyond the most obvious generalities. I read other novels inspired by Austen, historical fiction more generally, and some time travel novels to see how others had addressed the problems I faced. (For fun, I later made a list, which you can find on my blog here.)


Over the years I was writing this, I was also fortunate to travel a little. I went to London, to Chawton, Winchester, Bath and Bristol. (At one point I’d thought of setting some of the story in Winchester or Bath.)  Also, Dublin, obviously not a place Austen ever was, but which I found helpful in trying to picture London 1815, because so much Georgian streetscape has survived. I was interested in house museums — Austen’s house, but also the sort of place my characters might have lived in. I found I needed to imagine them in a setting I’d actually seen. New York, where I live, has the Merchant’s House, which helped, though it is slightly later — I visited more than once and lurked around, trying to throw myself back in time. Another house museum  I visited was in Bristol, also interesting, though grander than the scale I imagined Rachel living on in London. But the most useful house museum  turned out to be in Dublin.


Your book suggests that part of Austen’s popularity comes from her only having published six novels. Is this what you believe too?
No. I believe it comes from her writing such great stories that satisfy the reader on so many different levels, and if she’d lived longer and written more books this would still have been true. Although it’s possible she might have gone in directions more challenging for her early fans, the way that the prose of Toni Morrison or Henry James grew more dense and opaque with time. But I think her work would still be great, the way Shakespeare is great, though  some of his plays are more popular and accessible than others.


Your heroine Rachel is very observant about the challenges women face in Regency England. She and Jane Austen have some frank conversations about feminism. Do you see Jane Austen as a feminist writer? What do you think she thought about the way things were for women?
I’m struck when reading Austen and other fiction from the 18th and 19th century — Burney, Richardson, Radcliffe, the Brontës — by the recurring theme of how bad life was for women. Even those with money and smarts — like Richardson’s Clarissa — had little freedom of action, were at risk of being bullied by their family, pushed into an unwanted marriage, etc. And without money, it was far worse, of course. Charlotte Bronte is incandescent with rage on this subject, and so in her quieter way is her sister Anne. I don’t think you could live in that world as an intelligent woman and not be struck by the injustice of how men had arranged things to suit themselves.
I suspect Jane Austen was probably as outraged  as Charlotte Brontë but was more subtle about it. She knew a direct approach was not going to work; she knew complaining was not going to work. Her approach was mostly humor and irony.  I am certain she considered women the equal of men in intelligence and common sense, even if she never openly says that.


If you could time travel back to meet Jane Austen, what would you most like to ask her yourself?
First, I’d like to try to convey to her how famous and revered she is in our time. I’m curious about whether she ever suspected that might happen. Did she know how good she was? I wonder about that a lot. I’m also curious about what was going on between roughly 1800 and 1809 when she seems not to have been writing anything, except for letters, and the unfinished manuscript of The Watsons. Nine years of  adult life not writing is a lot, especially given that she lived only to 41, and considering how prolific she was when younger. Was she in fact revising the early novels in those years? Was she starting things and tossing them out? Was she, contrary to what biographers believe, actually having a good time in Bath, observing people and their foibles and saving up impressions that she would call on later? Or if she wasn’t writing, why not? Was her life just too unsettled? Was she depressed? Had she lost faith in herself?


Do you have any upcoming writing projects?
I had no plans to write a sequel when I wrote this. But a throwaway line at the end of  this book  has inspired me to try to write — not a sequel, but a companion volume. Yorkshire, 1845! It will be weirder and darker, because the Brontës were weirder and darker. I still have a lot of problems to solve, but it’s been great to immerse myself in the Brontës. They are a fascinating family.
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