I found the premise of "The Jane Austen Project", time travelers from our future being sent back to 1815 to inveigle their way into an intimate acquaintance with Jane Austen with a view of diagnosing the disease that would kill her in 1817 and retrieving a copy of her unpublished novel "The Watsons", irresistible
I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was much more than a good idea written up over a few hundred pages. "The Jane Austen Project" is well written, engaging and original.
The story is told from the point of view of Rachel, a physician with a history of working in disaster zones in her own time, who is passionate about meeting Jane and deeply curious about the disease that will end Jane's life.
Placing a strong, competent woman with a broad experience of the world and an expectation of being in charge of her own life into England in 1815 is a very effective way of highlighting the constraints placed on women at that time and the frustration and waste that they caused.
Rachel is a deeply imagined character that it is easy to become attached to. The future she comes from is tantalizingly different from today. That I wanted to know more about it and her life before the Jane Austen Project, is a sign of skill of the story teller. I was tantalized and intrigued. I came to realise that Rachel's past was as alien as the 1815 present the action takes place in.
I was surprised at how much tension I felt reading the book. I wanted to know what happened next. This wasn't an academic exercise or a passive homage to Jane Austen. It started as a difficult mission where failure could have disastrous consequences and became a personal and emotional journey for Rachel and those who's lives she touches.
Seeing the world of Jane Austen through the eyes of a woman from an unknown future but who has a detailed knowledge of Jane's life and works produced a kind of refraction of ideas and expectations that kept the novel fresh and made me think again about what I thought I knew of Jane Austen and her times.
Fans of Jane Austen will be fascinated by this book. People who only know Jane through various Mr Darcy movies will not feel left out but may find themselves intrigued. My interest in Jane Austen's books was revived to the extent that my next read will be "Persuasion", a Jane Austen novel that I've never read before.
Saskia Maarleveld did a competent job as a narrator but I was distracted by her inability to pronounce place names like "Berkley Square" and "Basingstoke" correctly. You can hear her work on the soundcloud link below.
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This is Kathleen Flynn's debut novel, She's a copy editor at the New York Times. In this interview she discusses how the novel came about and what it was like for an editor to be edited.
I hope I see more work from her soon.