When I finished reading Kathleen A. Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project (TJAP) at 5 am, I felt like the wind was knocked out of me and I gave it a five-star rating on Goodreads. I haven’t done that before.
I did as I do now and found the title searching what’s Available Now in e-books at VPL and downloaded a number of titles including the junk read that was my first read of the year. I downloaded TJAP because of its title but wasn’t sure if I would read it. The titles you see Available Now are often immediately available.
While I might have seen the title on a few reading lists last year, I didn’t give it the time of day, mentally classifying it as a “Can Miss” for me, yet another spin or take on a Jane Austen novel or Regency England. Like other titles I now often see Available Now, like Letters from Pemberley, Lydia Bennett’s Story, More Letters from Pemberley, Mr Darcy’s Great Escape, Mr. Darcy’s Obsession, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Longbourne and The Jane Austen Book Club. The last two were very successful and I listened to and enjoyed Longbourne last year. And there’s also the movies, like Austenland and Becoming Jane.
Becoming Jane, while not so stellarly rated, is one of my favourite movies ever. I could watch it over and over and feel something break inside when Jane has to give up James McAvoy, I mean Lefroy. And handsome Mr. Wisley would have provided for her and treated her so well but it’s not the right thing to do to marry him.* Her strength to follow her values and take the harder path to stay unmarried resonates all over in me. I didn’t.
So I “cracked open” TJAP and unlike many novels these days for me, I was pretty engaged from the start. Briefly, Rachel Katzmann and Liam Finucane travel from the future back to 1813 to befriend the Austens and obtain letters Jane wrote to her sister and the full manuscript to The Watsons, of which only five chapters survived in their time (and ours). Rachel is a doctor and that is a major factor in her selection for the project as Jane’s brother Henry and Jane fall ill during that period they will visit. Liam is “Old British”, a revival of a British culture that is a throwback even for us, and an actor; he got on to the project through connections, it seems – but he proves to be capable of staying in character under all costs. They become Mary and Dr. William Ravenswood, sister and brother who come to England from Jamaica where they claim a connection to a cousin of the Austens and bring a letter of introduction.
I am fan enough of Jane Austen to have eventually read all of her novels by my 30s. It’s not hard, there’s only six full length novels. My thing, up to undergrad years, was Anne of Green Gables and everything LM Montgomery wrote. I was so immersed in Avonlea and Anne’s circle that I would imagine and fantasize about living in that time, how life made more sense back then. And to get to wear such elegant dresses instead what was fashion in the 1990s.
One of the first things that struck me was how Rachel and Liam get to be immerse in Regency England and there was brief treatment of how Rachel worried she was going to be found out to be Jewish. (Until far more pressing matters made that worry insignificant.) Haha – how my brain couldn’t quite imagine away being Chinese in Victorian Canada, let alone a tiny town like Avonlea! For hardcore Jane Austen fans, going to Regency England when her novels were set would be a fantasy come true.
Then there is the aspect of science fiction that I was thrilled to learn was a component of the novel. In a one-hour lightweight show like Star Trek, they don’t get into the details about the complications of time travel (but I’m confusing time travel with adventures on the holodeck in period settings, too), mingling with more primitive cultures. There’s the Prime Directive in Star Trek and TJAP’s contemporaneous world has a similar edict. Try not to change history when you’re living in it for several months and interacting with a historical figure that the future is watching closely.
Rachel and Liam go through an extensive preparation including immersion in Regency England during The Preparation. There was barely world building but what was revealed of Rachel’s life was tantalizing. What was she leaving behind in the future? It seemed like she and Liam were not close during The Preparation and what would they and the reader learn about each other while they are back in time? How did she not balk hard against the restrictions on women compared to the freedom women enjoy now and more so in the future? That’s The Preparation for you with thorough indoctrination in the period they are entering. Wouldn’t it be a fantasy come true to attend “Jane Austen School” – learning to ride, memorizing and enacting all the social etiquette rules, how to write letters, etc. And what a future it is to have such a cool research project!
The novel doesn’t linger on the particulars of difficulties of life in the past, particularly for one from the future but they were mentioned in passing. The Ravenswood back story is that they disposed of their Jamaican assets and just moved to England where their ancestors were from. Both William and Mary bought entirely new wardrobes and found a house to rent and hired staff. Their biggest anxiety was over the small fortune they brought from the future and not being caught by the banks as they deposited it because it was counterfeit money, the currency that was printed in the future.
Then they meet and Henry and then Jane and while the friendship develops, Rachel sees more of Liam’s personality and abilities. It is so normal that during The Preparation, they were advised of the frequency of feelings developing between people on such a project of theirs, alone with each other for an extended period of time. As the novel is only from Rachel’s point of view, we know how she feels even if she’s kind of digging in her heels on her feelings, even though she’s quite liberal compared to Liam’s Old British veneer. How does he actually feel? (I had to finish the novel and start writing this to realize that Rachel and Liam are Liz and Darcy. Duh.)
There is also an aspect of thriller to the novel, for me. It would take a huge amount of effort to not be anachronisic, to be mindful of what exists at that time and not out themselves by referring to future events or amenities. While it seems that conversation is measured and so it might not be so difficult, it seems impossible during private and closer confidences.
The rendering of intelligent Jane, protective and suspicious Cassondra, and gregarious Henry were so good. I wanted Mary and William to stay there and each of them marry an Austen but that’s wrecking history if anything! But there is the very real possibility their believed Opportunity to Return window will collapse, their resources are diminished and they are stuck in the past. I was on tenterhooks as the novel neared that point.
There were just a few hours left on my e-book lending period and it was the middle of the night – as it is with me these days. I put the kid to sleep and fall asleep with him, waking after midnight and doing some prep work for work or dinner and then on my phone. Sleeping at 4:30 is not strange for me. But I wasn’t done at 4:30 bit I was close and blazed on.
Time travel and the ripple effect of Rachel and Liam’s presence are explained with wormholes and “probability fields”. When Rachel returns, it is to an alternate universe, not just a future that she has altered. Travel through the wormhole has landed her in a slightly different world where she has a slightly different backstory, the world is slightly different (chillingly indifferent to history, it seems). Yet Rachel retains memory of her world, her experience of the Project. There is such a variance between what she remembers and world she has returned to, she has a window of three months to be Rectified, to have her memories erased in order to move on. This has elements of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I only watched once, a long time ago. But we know what she knows and we don’t want her to lose that in addition to all the loss she feels in the alternate world that is now her real life. This great project is over and I felt shock of it ending and the loneliness that Liam – whom she expected to be waiting for her on the other side – isn’t, not the same way.
Here I am, writing this like I don’t want to write spoilers. I totally have, though.
* I am a huge fan of James McAvoy and his turn as Lefroy is my very favourite. I also had a huge crush on the Mr. Wisley character. Serious, I’m hopeless.