Rachel Katzman, the protagonist of Kathleen A. Flynn’s debut novel, The Jane Austen Project, is offered a chance to do what many fans of the author of Sense and Sensbility and Emma must have longed for — to go back in time to meet the novelist herself, and, hopefully, unearth a long lost manuscript.
On reading the premise, I was expecting a riotous Austen/sci-fi mash up — Pride and Prejudice with time lords rather than zombies. What I got instead was — and it almost feels strange to write this — one of the most realistic depictions of time travel I’ve ever come across.
By this I don’t mean that Flynn has a well-developed theory about how to warp the space/time continuum — the mechanics of the operation remain unclear — but that she has devoted considerable effort to imagining what the experience of suddenly finding yourself in 1815 might be like, describing the sounds, tastes and smells, and allowing us to really feel it, rather than just marvel at the pretty costumes.
The impressiveness of this imaginative leap is added to by the fact that Rachel herself isn’t an early twenty-first century tourist. Her world is alien to us too. It’s one where Jane Austen’s cottage is the site of a sprawling theme park, Austenland, and where the Old British rule the world through a second, even more domineering empire.
|Kathleen A. Flynn|
Rachel approaches 1815 as she would any other exotic locale (she’s a medical doctor who’s travelled extensively) but the challenges here are different to any she’s experienced before. She and her colleague, Liam Finucane, struggle with how to rent suitable accommodation, secure an introduction to Henry Austen and his set, hire and manage servants. Any aberration from normal social protocol and etiquette could be the difference between their mission’s success and failure, adding an almost thriller-like layer to the usual web of Austenian misunderstanding and misalliance.
Rachel is also a mouthpiece for Flynn to explore why so many of us love Austen — for her keen understanding of humanity rather than a hackneyed ‘marriage plot’. It’s a joy to have a heroine who can love the period without subscribing to its values. Rachel is more comfortable with casual sex than her male colleague, Liam. She’s come armed (literally) with contraceptives so as not to deal with one particular aspect of early nineteenth-century hygiene. She’s the doctor on this mission even if Liam is posing as one.
What I liked best about the novel was the small canvas on which the story was depicted. The number of locations is limited — an echo of what Jane Austen’s life was like — and Flynn manages to introduce high drama with only limited corset ripping and surprisingly few deviations from behaviour one could imagine as contemporary.
I had two slight criticisms. First the ending suffers from the usual paradoxes of time travel and, second, the romance plot wasn’t as compelling and did feel a little predictable (perhaps mirroring where the writer’s interests really lie?). There were only so many times I wanted to hear about Liam smelling like bay leaves and a taciturn Darcy-esque character is a little unbelievable when he’s just been blasted back centuries.
But, overall, The Jane Austen Project was a pleasant surprise — quirky and highly researched while being eminently readable. A quick shout out to mentions of the disastrous Bronte Projects too — these were very entertaining!