I’m an enthusiastic Jane Austen fan (Pride and Prejudice is my desert island book of choice) but I had never heard of her unfinished novel The Watsons until reading The Jane Austen Project (2017), a compelling time travel novel by Jane Austen devotee Kathleen A. Flynn. In this novel, an old Austen family letter has recently surfaced, indicating that Jane Austen actually did finish The Watsons but then destroyed most of it.
The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics ― a fancy title for a British government research center that has mastered the practical ability to send people back in time ― has now sent Rachel Katzman (a doctor and our narrator) and Liam Finucane (a scholar with a background in acting) to Regency-era England. They land in London in 1815, with the mission of infiltrating the social circle of Jane Austen so they can steal the Watsons manuscript. Their secondary mission: try to figure out what the illness was caused Jane’s death at the relatively young age of 41. They have a year before the time portal opens again: a single-shot chance to return to the future.
Liam and Rachel adopt the fictitious identities of William and Mary Ravenswood, a doctor and his spinster sister (Rachel is 33). After setting up house in London, Liam sends a letter to Jane Austen’s favorite brother Henry, claiming a mutual acquaintance (who is conveniently in Jamaica) and telling Henry that he and his sister Mary have recently returned to England from Jamaica, where they sold their sugar plantation and freed their slaves. The introduction plan works, and soon Liam and Rachel are able to befriend Henry, with Rachel feeding Liam helpful medical advice when Henry falls ill. They know that soon Jane will be arriving to visit Henry, when their plan will move to Phase II. But the plan hits some bumps: Henry becomes romantically interested in Rachel/Mary, Cassandra is suspicious, and Liam and Rachel’s own relationship becomes, well, complicated. And Rachel finds herself tempted to go beyond the bounds of her mission to not just diagnose Jane’s illness, but perhaps find a way to cure it, despite her future society’s strict prohibition on doing anything that may significantly change the past.
Flynn’s love and knowledge of Jane Austen and Regency times shines through in the pages of The Jane Austen Project. Henry and Jane Austen are fully realized, complex characters. I really felt like I had met Jane herself through the pages of this book. Her developing friendship with Rachel was wholly believable and, understandably, Rachel is deeply torn by her assignment to abuse that friendship by rummaging through Jane’s possessions to try to locate and steal the manuscript for The Watsons. The setting shows the problems and limitations of Regency society as well as its charms. Rachel struggles with the limitations on the role of women, and medical and sanitary practices are appropriately primitive.
Flynn’s thoughtful and excellent writing in the historical parts of The Jane Austen Project falters somewhat when it comes to the romance and science fictional elements of the tale. The romance never fully engaged me, perhaps partly because it involved cheating on a third party (or maybe two, depending on how you view it). Flynn’s version of future society has some potentially interesting aspects to it, but it’s drawn with broad strokes and given somewhat short shrift. The actual mechanics of time travel are hand-waved (admittedly, Connie Willis does the same), and the impact of Rachel’s and Liam’s adventures in the past on the future struck me as squirrelly. I’m a bit of a stickler for time travel theories and how they play out in fictional novels. I don’t much care whether the author uses an immutable past theory, a parallel world theory or something else, as long as the effect of changing the past (or attempting to do so) plays out in a way that makes some kind of sense to me … but I had serious trouble suspending my disbelief here.
It’s clear Flynn’s heart and true interests are in Jane Austen and her era. I enjoyed The Jane Austen Project greatly for those parts, but then, I’m a devoted Austen fan. I recommend this novel primarily to readers who have an interest in Jane Austen and her times, and who don’t mind a novel playing a bit fast and loose with time travel theory.