This year we commemorate Jane Austen’s death. We certainly do not celebrate it. We feel a sense of unfairness about it, not only for our selfish sake–for being cheated out of, based on the lifespan of her parents and most of her siblings, thirty or forty years’ worth of Jane Austen novels–but naturally for Jane’s own sake. She died just before she would have reached real success–the success enjoyed by her contemporaries such as Burney, Radcliffe, and Edgeworth, all of whom she has utterly eclipsed in the intervening centuries. It is just horribly unfair. Jane gave the world such joy and never really had the opportunity to enjoy real fruits from her labor (by which we mean money. From what we can tell, Austen was never big on the whole adulation thing).
We also have great affection for time-travel stories, but within certain parameters. The method of time travel must make some kind of logical sense, and those who travel must acknowledge the butterfly effect: that even a small action in the past can change the future. Our favorite time travel novel is Time and Again by Jack Finney, which fulfills both requirements.
Thus we were naturally excited to hear about The Jane Austen Project, which not only used our beloved time-travel trope, but also included Jane Austen. Because what Janeite wouldn’t want to meet Jane Austen? That being said, this delightful premise could go horribly wrong, too; though in the able hands of Kathleen A. Flynn, we have nothing to fear. The Jane Austen Project fulfills the Editrix’s requirements: the method of time travel is not minutely described, but has rules and follows them, and isn’t completely silly; and the possibility of changing history is an important consideration to the plot.
In a future in which time travel is possible, though not foolproof, a letter from Jane Austen to Anne Sharp, the governess to Jane’s brother Edward Knight’s children, with whom Jane really did correspond, is found in an old book. In the letter, Austen tells Miss Sharp that she has finally finished The Watsons, but the resulting story was too personally revealing to publish, and she has destroyed the manuscript.
A mysterious wealthy woman recruits Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane for the Jane Austen Project. Rachel and Liam are to travel back to 1815 London with a letter of introduction to Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, supposedly from a real Austen relative in the West Indies. They will pose as wealthy siblings who have sold their West Indian plantation and come to live in England, and wish to use Henry’s services as a banker. The plan is to insinuate themselves into Henry’s life, and by extension Jane’s life, as she spends much of that year in London supervising Emma through publication and nursing Henry through a dangerous illness. For a Janeite such as Rachel, the opportunity to meet Jane Austen is invitation enough to participate, but her real task is to purloin the completed manuscript of The Watsons before Jane can destroy it.
The novel’s imagined future is familiar but also has hints of dystopian darkness. The planet has suffered so many depredations that plants, animals, and even most people have died. Food is no longer cultivated, but produced by 3-D printing. Great Britain, which was better prepared than other countries for the disaster, has once again taken a leadership position in the world. Rachel worries that Liam’s “Old British” looks and demeanor will reveal to the sharp-eyed Jane, by comparison, not only that they are not really related, but that Rachel is Jewish and American, which in 1815 England would be disastrous for someone attempting to insinuate herself into gentry society. Being a doctor, Rachel also can’t help but notice the first symptoms of Jane Austen’s decline. And she is growing much too improperly fond of her “brother.”
We won’t give away too many of the details as we don’t want to spoil the delicious surprises. We admit that at one point we were afraid the plot had gone completely off the rails, but but the rather extended denouement tied everything up admirably, and the ending is perfect. (In fact, as we finished reading it, we said aloud: “That was perfect.”)
The worldbuilding, both past and future, is very well done without being overwhelming. Enough hints are dropped that we get the gist without a tsunami of backstory. The “how” is not important to the story, after all, only that it observe logic. We enjoyed getting to know this Jane Austen, who is fiercely intelligent and keenly observant, and has a tremendous sense of humor and a heart as big as the sky. We have always gotten the impression from Austen’s surviving relatives that they considered it a privilege to have known her, and we felt much the same way about this Jane Austen.
The Jane Austen Project is an intelligent, involving story that gives Janeites that privilege as well. In this commemorative year, we will meet Jane on her preferred ground–her novels; but we think it is no bad thing to spend some time with a fictional but believable Jane, when she was taken from us too soon.