England, 1815: Two travelers—Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane—arrive in a field, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. They are not what they seem, but colleagues from a technologically advanced future, posing as a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team of time travelers, their mission is the most audacious yet: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen.
Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common except their extraordinary circumstances. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.
But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile her true self with the constrictions of 19th century society. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history as they found it…however heartbreaking that proves.
Confession time. When I picked up The Jane Austen Project for review, I really didn’t expect it to be a book I couldn’t put down. I thought the premise – two time travellers go back to 1815 to meet Jane Austen and secure a previously unpublished manuscript – was interesting (which was why I chose it) but also fraught with potential pitfalls in terms of tone and characterisation. I’m happy to admit that my scepticism was quickly laid to rest and to say that this is a thoroughly entertaining, compelling and unusual story that hooked me in from the first page and kept me glued to it throughout.
Doctor and Austen devotee Rachel Katzman and Professor Liam Finucane, an actor turned academic, were carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics for one particular mission – to go back in time to 1815, meet Jane Austen and locate the manuscript for The Watsons, a novel previously thought unfinished but which a newly discovered letter indicates was actually completed and subsequently destroyed by the author. Rachel and Liam are charged with bringing back The Watsons and also more of Jane’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, documents which later proved incredibly valuable in piecing together details of the author’s life, and of which only a few survive. If Rachel can also figure out what caused Jane’s premature death at the age of forty-one, well, that would be a bonus.
The pair arrives, bedraggled and disoriented in a field in Leatherhead, Surrey with a small fortune in forged money hidden under their clothes and a cover story that they are Doctor William Ravenswood and his spinster sister, Mary, recently returned from Jamaica where they have sold off the family coffee plantation. Unable to secure rooms at the local inn owing to their having no luggage and looking somewhat suspicious besides, they instead hire a post chaise and head to London where they take up residence in a fashionable town house and formulate their plan to get to know Jane Austen’s brother, Henry, who is, at that time, a successful banker.
Posing as acquaintances of a distant Austen relative, they wrangle an introduction to Henry who is everything they expect from what they know of him: good-looking, charming and gregarious, it’s easy to see why Jane referred to him as her favourite brother. Over the next few weeks, they become part of Henry’s intimate circle and eventually, as planned, are introduced to his sisters and other family members when they visit London. Cassandra Austen is brusque and most definitely suspicious of her brother’s new acquaintances while Jane is quiet and circumspect, clearly not a woman who allows people to get to know her easily and who doesn’t rush headlong into friendships. The portrayal of Jane Austen is one of those potential pitfalls I mentioned at the beginning, but I’m pleased to say that this is a very credible portrait of her in which she comes across exactly as I’m sure many of us imagine her to have been – intelligent, witty, considered and insightful.
Once the shock of finally meeting her idol has begun to wear off, and what had begun as a slightly uneasy relationship develops into a genuine friendship, Rachel is faced with a dilemma she hadn’t before envisaged. Back in her own time, and in the early days of the mission, having to search Jane’s home for the manuscript and letters was just a job, and the idea of making a great literary discovery was thrilling. But several months down the line, Rachel is faced with the prospect of stealing from someone who has become a close friend, which is a different matter entirely.
The other major concern on my initial list of potential pitfalls was to do with the characterisation of Rachel. Would she be too obviously modern for 1815, continually asserting her rights and chafing against all the things she wasn’t allowed to do? The answer – fortunately – is no; Ms. Flynn gets it right, having Rachel know full well that there are things she simply cannot do. She doesn’t like it, but accepts it’s necessary to conform in order to maintain her persona. In her own time, she’s a doctor, but in this period, all she can be is William Ravenswood’s spinster sister, carefully coaching Liam to play the part of a doctor while she watches from the sidelines, sewing shirts and wondering how intelligent women of the time didn’t end up going round the bend. Admittedly, she slips up from time to time, but is mostly able to explain it away because of her Mary’s non-traditional upbringing in Jamaica.
Time travel fiction is always going to have to address one big problem – how do people go back in time without somehow affecting their future? Here, Liam and Rachel are given specific instructions NOT to do anything which could have ramifications for their own time, but, as they soon come to realise, that was impossible from the moment they arrived, and they have probably altered things without even meaning to. And as they get to know Henry and Jane as real people rather than as historical figures they’ve only read about, they find it impossible not to want to help them in some way; by preventing Jane’s early death and the ruin of Henry’s business. It’s tempting – but dangerous. There comes a point where they both have to wonder if perhaps the tiniest thing they’ve done during their lengthy stay might have changed their own world/time out of all recognition and even to question if they want to risk returning to it or stay in one that has, over the months, become more real to them than they could ever have thought possible.
There’s a lot to enjoy in The Jane Austen Project, not least of which is the sweet, sexy romance that develops between Liam and Rachel in which Rachel – in the manner of all Austen’s heroines – comes to examine her own thoughts and feelings and to draw some new and unexpected conclusions about herself. Ms. Flynn carefully crafts a realistic portrait of life as led by the middle class during the Regency period, and there’s a terrific sense of time and place throughout. Having two fish-out-of-water protagonists act as the reader’s window into that world works extremely well to bring home the emphasis placed on the importance of correct behaviour and propriety, the position of women in nineteenth century society and the great inequalities and hardship that existed between the different social strata.
The Jane Austen Project is a creative and entertaining novel that addresses some interesting ideas while at the same time telling a cracking good story. My only criticism really is that the ending is a bit abrupt and inconclusive. While I understand the book is not categorised as a romance, I won’t deny that I’d have liked things to have been more obviously settled at the end, which maybe – just – sort of – points towards a HEA somewhere along the line (if you squint). But that aside, this is an impressive début novel, a terrific read and a book I’d definitely recommend to anyone who enjoys something a bit out of the ordinary, whether they’re an Austen fan or not.