The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn has been on my list since reading Ami from Luv to Read’s review of this book, even though Ami said she did not love this story.
I did enjoy the story though and thought the plot enormously clever.
The heroine of The Jane Austen Project is Rachel Katzman, a doctor and missionary from a future which is slightly different to the one I expect our world to have. Rachel is sent back in time to England in 1815 by a research organisation, The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, to befriend Jane Austen’s family, then Jane Austen herself. Rachel is tasked with bringing copies of Jane Austen’s lost letters to her sister Cassandra and a completed copy of The Watsons* with her when she returns to her own time. A colleague, Liam Finucane, is sent to 1815 with Rachel, to pose as her brother.
Rachel and Liam’s instructions are to avoid as much as possible making any changes to the world around them by their actions, however this proved impossible. Saving a young boy from his dangerous work as a chimney sweep had a ripple-effect, as did the influx of counterfeit money Rachel and Liam brought with them to 1815.
Rachel and Liam posed as wealthy West Indies planters who had inherited a coffee plantation before freeing their slaves. Their back story bought them acceptance with the Tilsons, actual friends and business partners of the Austen family.
Some parts of the plan went extraordinarily well. Liam managed to scrape an acquaintance with Henry Austen, who then met and showed great interest in Rachel (and in her bust and her fortune). The three formed a friendship which led to Rachel and Liam meeting and becoming friends with Jane Austen also. Liam, who is posed as a doctor since Rachel couldn’t use her skill, diagnosed and treated Henry’s illness under Rachel’s guidance. Rachel then secured an invitation to Chawton after saving Edward Knight’s daughter from choking using the Heimlich manoeuver, which had not yet been invented.
For me the jarring moments in The Jane Austen Story were to do with Rachel’s in-your-face sexuality, which seemed to me to be there for the shock value rather than what they added to the story. I much preferred reading about Rachel’s issues and irritations with being a powerless, undervalued member of society because she was a female in a time when that was the norm.
At other times, Rachel used sentences which were familiar because they were used by Jane Austen in her later books, such as when she commented that she loved a place no less for having suffered in it while speaking with Jane. I recognised this line from Persuasion which had not been written when this story took place, and felt irritated to think that Jane Austen needed to find her lines from a fictional time-travelling visitor. I wouldn’t be surprised if the story contained other references to Jane Austen’s works which I missed.
The ending was surprising, with one surprise so unexpected and shocking that I gasped aloud on the train while I was reading (then realised where I was and looked around to check if anyone had noticed. I don’t think anyone did). I also found the ending to be quite satisfying, for reasons you will have to learn for yourself by reading the book 🙂
I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the writing and was surprised to learn this was a debut novel, with the story clearly and confidently told. I very much enjoyed meeting a version of Jane Austen as a character who I liked enormously.
I would have liked to have learned more about the world that Rachel and Liam had come from, as the differences to this ‘here and now’ and those in the story were intriguing.
On the whole, I recommend The Jane Austen Project to anyone who, like me, is a sucker for Jane Austen spin-offs and fan-fiction, however, after finishing this, I immediately went to my bookshelf and pulled out The Watsons and read the few chapters that Jane Austen left. I’ll review The Watsons soon.
* In The Jane Austen Project, the research organisation have in their possession a letter which suggests a completed copy of The Watsons exists. I can’t help wishing this were true…