At the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM recently, I had the good fortune to meet Kathleen A Flynn, author of the highly acclaimed novel, The Jane Austen Project.
There are so many excellent reasons to read this book, not least of which is a feeling that you really are meeting Jane Austen in the flesh. The Austen here is a convincing composite of all the wit, the penetration, and self-awareness that you see in her novels. She is guarded at first, as you feel the real Jane Austen would be, and she is capable of warmth and generosity. But she is decidedly not someone you would ever want to cross, which makes the mission of time traveler protagonist, Rachel Katzman, all the more suspenseful. In order to get close to Jane, she must do a great deal of deceiving.
“Both have an air of having fallen to earth. One can tell at a glance that they are not truly English. They are so correctly, so perfectly English.”
So comments an already-ailing Jane Austen in The Jane Austen Project. She refers to mysterious new acquaintances William and Mary Ravenswood. Jane’s eye for a paradox is as ever spot on. The Ravenswoods are not, as they claim, a brother and sister fresh from Jamaica, but rather time travelers. And they have reached a crossroads in their mission. They have infiltrated the Austen household at Chawton. Mary Ravenswood, who is actually physician Dr. Rachel Katzman, is getting very close to finding Austen’s letters to her sister, Cassandra, and her sensationalist early work, The Watsons, both of which will eventually be lost to posterity.
Q.1. I think it’s fair to say that Jane Austen and time travel do not automatically go together in most readers’ minds. Yet, within a fairly short time of beginning The Jane Austen Project, they actually do go together very well. We in the 21st century are driven by a sense of literary conservation and stewardship and you have created a future in which these things have taken on even more import, where there is even an “Austenworld,” a literary equivalent of Disneyland, and where cutting edge science is used to reclaim lost works of art such as Austen’s discarded manuscripts and letters. The optimism of this vision is highly persuasive. How did the idea of a time travel Austen novel come about?
Kathleen: Paul, thank you so much for inviting me on your blog and coming up with all these great questions! The idea had a lot to do with wish fulfillment. I would love to be able to meet Jane Austen and see what she was like (though I’d be terrified), to get answers to questions biographers can only speculate about. Also, I’d love to live in a world where literature is so important that a time-travel mission to meet Austen would seem like a perfectly reasonable use of resources.
Another inspiration was reading the novels of Patrick O’Brian (Master and Commander, etc., about the adventures of a British sea captain in the Napoleonic Wars). They are Austen-like in their wit and insight, and so well done that you get no sense of a late 20th-century writer imagining all this. It’s more like he was there himself and reported back. But what if he did? I remember thinking. What if Patrick O’Brian was not just a writer, but also a time traveler, and there was a portal between our world and Jane Austen’s England?
Q.2. While the science of time travel, the future world, and the dangers (and benefits) of altering the past are very convincingly presented, the novel dwells much more in regency England. Am I right to think that the main impetus for writing The Jane Austen Project is Austen herself and the times in which she lived?
Kathleen: Absolutely. Although I was interested in imagining certain aspects of our own world taken to an extreme (like supercomputers, environmental destruction, veganism, more equal relations between the sexes), I was chiefly trying to reverse-engineer a world where sending people back in search of Jane Austen’s letters would seem like a great idea.
Also, I wanted to write about Austen and her times from an outsider’s viewpoint, and for that I required time travelers.
Q.3.The mission of our time travelers gives you an unlimited license to pull the camera back and give the reader the information needed to negotiate regency society history. The sense of hindsight is fascinating, including the dos and don’ts. Though Rachel is the physician, her time traveling male colleague has to play the doctor and examine Henry Austen when he is ill. But he must refrain from touching a gentleman, and so everything is done too discretely to be of any medical use. Can you tell us a little about your research process, the time it took and the discoveries you made that most excited you?
Kathleen: Combining time travel and Jane Austen does seem like a strange notion, as you say. To work, I felt it would need to treat its crazy premise with utter seriousness and a sense of verisimilitude. For that, I needed to know enough to give a feeling of a world existing outside the boundaries of the page. Getting there took several years.
I consulted many books and articles and wonderful historical blogs before I started writing the novel, and continued to do so while writing and revising. There’s a reading list on my blog. Things I needed to know about included Jane Austen herself: her writing and the major events and people in her life. The times she lived in: what was going on historically and politically and economically? Because it’s so much a book about illness, it was crucial to know about the state of medical science in 1815. I am not a doctor, as my first-person narrator is, so I spent a lot of time trying to learn things that could help me imagine the mind of a modern doctor. I was also interested in all aspects of daily life. How did people travel around, what did they typically eat, what novels were they reading, how did they light their homes and their streets, what kind of clothes did they wear? Our time travelers notice such things, because it would all be new to them.
Mentally living in the past was a welcome respite from our own turbulent era and helped lend me some perspective on it. There is a tendency to think of Austen’s age as far more placid and settled than ours – maybe it’s all those movie versions of her books with the beautiful green landscapes and stately homes. But it was a time of great turmoil and change – which is there in her novels too, just off the page.
Q. 4. One of the many joys of reading The Jane Austen Project is experiencing, firsthand, the raw materials in terms of people from which the Jane Austen’s novels are drawn. Not only do we see the mischievous, humorous spirit of the famous writer when she speaks to her brother Henry, we also encounter a number of people who are likely models for certain characters. There is a privileged relative Edward Knight who carries the flavour of an older Frank Churchill. I think I see Henrietta and Louisa Musgrove in some of the London chapters. Did you have any sudden insights in your researches, any realization that a certain character has a particular source which had not been revealed?
Kathleen: I think that Jane Austen did not take her characters and plots straight from life, yet aspects of her biography and people she knew do show up in altered form, and as I learned more about her life I noticed this more. It was not a sudden insight as much as a renewed appreciation of her subtle genius. Edward Knight’s adoption by rich relations has fictional echoes in the character of Frank Churchill, as you observe. The real Edward Knight seems have been more like responsible Mr. Knightley than flighty Frank Churchill, however, so there’s an interesting opposition going on there in Emma. That is also a novel where I see not one but three humorously disguised authorial self-portraits, starting with Miss Bates, the penniless spinster parson’s daughter who sees everything, yet is never taken seriously. Jane Fairfax represents another possible Jane Austen: if not for having numerous brothers to provide financial help, Austen too would have faced the prospect of earning her living as a governess. Emma is a third version of the author: someone too intelligent for her surroundings, whose thwarted creativity takes the form of trying to manage the lives of her friends and neighbors, to imagine their futures. Isn’t that sort of like novel-writing?
I’m not the first to notice that Austen named two of her most interesting characters Henry: the witty clergyman of Northanger Abbey and the attractive but amoral seducer of Mansfield Park. What might this suggest about the real-life Henry Austen? (As E.J. Clery observes in her wonderful new book Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister, there are also a lot of Henrys in the juvenilia, which seems to point to an ongoing family joke.)
Part of the fun for me in writing this novel, which I hope will also be fun for readers, was the interplay between Austen’s novels, her real life, and the events I’ve made up. Liam and Rachel, as they themselves observe at one point, are something like Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park: rich outsiders with a love of acting, who play by different rules and end up disrupting the place they come into. But that’s only one of the more obvious correspondences.
Q.5. I love the way your characters become seduced by the times and the Austenesque spirit. As we move through the novel the time travelers begin to adopt lines like, “A great lie is no harder to believe than a small one,” and “Liam, who’d started eating ham with a provoking calmness, failed to reply.”
Did this come very naturally to you?
Kathleen: From all my reading it eventually did. I was interested in how 1815 would change my characters, the way a person who has the opportunity to live in a foreign country remains an outsider, yet is subtly altered by his or her new surroundings
Q. 6. You bring the woman’s curse of the time — her passivity, her need to be patient — into very vivid focus. Rachael must wait while Liam meets Jane’s brother Henry and even then is not told the whole story straightaway. And we are all on tenterhooks for a very long while until we meet Jane herself. I suppose one of Jane Austen’s triumphs is that she manages to completely absorb her reader while making them wait, because this is what women did at the time. You have managed the same trick here as it only makes the reader want to carry on, and the waiting makes the reward that much greater. Was this a joy, a challenge, or both?
Kathleen: Both! I have sent my narrator – an energetic, daring and self-confident woman — on an adventure in which for a long stretch she doesn’t get to do much except observe and wait. She knows this is what she signed up for, yet she can’t help feeling frustrated. The challenge is how to make that lack of action seem interesting, even suspenseful. To the extent I succeed, I think it is thanks to the humor and irony in Rachel’s situation, some of which she is aware of and some of which is more evident to the reader.
Q. 7.You have some lovely passages about women’s lives at the time, such as:
“I considered the waste of human capital I was now part. Maid, mother, milliner, whore. That was it…”
Later, regarding the marriage plot as merely a MacGuffin, Rachel thinks:
“She [Austen] concerns herself with bigger questions: how to distinguish good people from plausible fakes; what a moral life demands of us; the problem of how to be an intelligent woman in world that had no real use for them.”
It seems rather sad in your novel, given Austen’s prodigious intellect and ability, that she must fade into the background when the men start to fight and argue, and yet we know this is what happened no matter how brilliant a woman was. Of course, the same happens with Rachel who must, at least in public, defer to Liam, her time traveling colleague. How much of Jane Austen’s story is about sadness? Was this a special draw for you when writing the novel?
Kathleen: Despite her achievements, there is something sad about Jane Austen’s life, so short and so restricted. It’s hard not to think about what she might have done had she lived longer, or in different circumstances. Born a man; or living in a time and place that allowed women more freedom; or even in a family with more money and slightly less rigid notions of female propriety.
To be that intelligent — to know you were — and yet to always be keeping your genius under wraps, consigned to such a limited role, must have been very hard. She was lucky, in that she never had to be a governess, let alone toil as a factory hand or a kitchen maid — but she was also a prisoner of her time and place.
Yet her talent also seems a perfect fit to her circumstances, which feels like part of her genius. “Perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not,” Virginia Woolf speculates. Or perhaps she trained herself not to want what she knew she could never have? How she managed to accomplish this is something I have long wondered about and a crucial reason I wrote The Jane Austen Project, to try imagine the answer.
Together will a compelling and highly plausible view of Jane Austen, her family, and indeed the times in which she lived, The Jane Austen Project delivers a number of highly ironic plot twists which, in their way, also evoke the spirit of the late author. If you’re a Jane Austen fan and you haven’t read it yet, you should!
Quick reminder: see The New Hook Writing Contest, free to enter and fun here (you have to scroll down!)