I am a sucker for time travel stories—although I really hate it when they are poorly conceived and/or realized. Likewise, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, but have learned to be wary of embracing the countless Austen spinoffs and glorified fan fiction spawned by authors who don’t have the chops to write anything close to canon. (I don’t know which is worse—the juxtaposition of Pride and Prejudice with zombies, or the creation of an Austen theme park in which young women can act out their Regency-born fantasies.) So imagine my delight when I discovered a book that sends a couple of intrepid explorers back to 1815 to see if they can retrieve additional Austen materials and bring them up to the present day to delight literary scholars everywhere?
In The Jane Austen Project, by Kathleen A. Flynn, Rachel and Liam are sent from their rather sterile and unsatisfying present—they live in a world that has experienced “the Die-off” (no more trees), and eat food created by 3-D printers—back to 1815 England. They have been immersed in history for months, properly clothed (albeit with only one outfit apiece), and furnished with what will be an inordinate amount of money for the time period (although it’s mostly counterfeit), and the opening to the past has dropped them in a field near a town called Leatherhead. Most important to their mission, they have been cautioned that they must interact as little as possible so as not to effect change while trying to achieve their mission, which paradoxically will require a particularly close acquaintance with their subject! They are cast as the Ravenwoods, brother and sister, recently arrived in London from Jamaica after having manumitted their slaves on the coffee plantation and sold up to make the move. This back story ensures that they have a ready explanation for small awkwardnesses in local custom, as well as their lack of acquaintance with anyone who could expose them as impostors.
Their mission is to cultivate sufficient intimacy with Jane Austen and her family so as to gain access to letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra, as well as to an unpublished manuscript that was previously thought to be incomplete—only three chapters exist in their time—but, it has been learned through the recent discovery of a letter from Jane Austen to a friend, was rather held back from publication because Jane thought it too revealing of her own personal family situation.
Apart from staying in character, which is particularly difficult for Rachel, since she is an independent single woman and a medical doctor in the present day, the challenges are enormous. They have about a year to become established enough in London to curry an acquaintance with Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, and then to win an introduction by him to his reclusive sister, whose books are not even published under her own name. It would be hard for Jane to imagine the extent of her fame and the reverence for her work held by scholars and commoners alike, a couple of centuries hence; almost as hard as it is for Rachel and Liam to restrain their enthusiasm and wonder at being a part of her close circle.
All sorts of things go awry, as they are wont to do in time travel adventures, given the necessity for lying through your teeth, sticking to appropriate behavior for the times, and knowing your specific place in society—whether it’s how familiar to be with your kitchen staff, or how much flirting you can venture without compromising your reputation. There are many surprising turns in this book, and with a year to accomplish their mission, the author was able to space them out nicely and make everything feel logical and/or inevitable.
I really enjoyed reading this and, unlike some books where you wish an editor had stepped in to cut a couple of hundred pages, I could have asked for more. There was adequate detail about everything, but absolutely no excess. I would have liked to know more about Liam, in particular, before the adventure began (the book is told from Rachel’s viewpoint), and also welcome would have been just a little bit more detail about the specifics of daily life in both past and future, and some explanation of why particular interactions turned so awkward. But over all, I have to applaud the author for pulling this story off so well—it had enough history, enough romance, enough intrigue, and never went overboard. If you have enjoyed the Outlander books, or Connie Willis’s multiple forays into time travel, I venture to say you will also get a huge kick out of The Jane Austen Project.
(One exception that I have to confess as a guilty pleasure in this oeuvre is Lost in Austen, a four-part British miniseries in which a P&P fan opens a hitherto unknown door from her bathroom into the Bennet household, trading places with Elizabeth, who steps into the present day, whereupon the door disappears and each is stuck in the other’s life. It’s hilariously well done. Jane Austen is spinning in her grave. Check it out.)