The Jane Austen Project (2017) is a first novel by the American author Kathleen A. Flynn, in which two time travellers, Rachel Katzman, a doctor, and Liam Finucane, a former actor turned historian, are transported to the year 1815. Their mission is to acquire lost texts authored by Austen and take them to their present, which is the reader’s future. As well as securing Austen’s personal letters to her sister, Cassandra, and the complete version of her novel The Watsons, the time travellers are tasked with diagnosing the ailment that killed Austen in 1817 and providing irrefutable evidence to solve that biographical mystery.
The novel embraces a number of genres. It is clearly a time travelling/science-fiction text, but it also shares features with the historical novel, the romance, and Austen fanfiction. Its publication in the year of the two-hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, whether by default or design, seems significant. The novel was not only published in a memorial year but is itself concerned with questions of time and the relationship between the past and the future. Such a relationship is created through effective world-building of both the early nineteenth century and the future from which the travellers leave and to which they return at the end. The biographical representation of Austen is foregrounded in the novel, and the purpose of the Project referenced in its title is to enhance Austen’s personal and literary “value” for the world from which Rachel and Liam have travelled as well as for subsequent generations. The time travel instigated in the Project invites the reader to question how Austen’s engagement with that future time and readership should be understood.
The present study aims to explore a number of interrelated aspects of this contemporary novel. First, I will ask how and why the novel uses the features of different literary genres, and particularly the time travel novel, to present its version of Austen’s life. Then I will consider whether the presumed target readers for this text are, put simply, Austenians (an all-inclusive term, on the model of “Shakespearean”) or Janeites (a term that defines these groups in contrast with one another). Finally, I will examine how this narrative about the retrieval of Austen’s texts, both literary and biographical, for a future audience encourages reflection about textual ownership and authenticity, authorial legacy and authorial immortality.
The literary landscape of Flynn’s novel is drawn from a number of genres, which potentially brings different kinds of readers to the text. As essentially a time travelling/science-fiction text, it contains a number of tropes from this kind of fiction. The actual act of time travel is somewhat obscurely facilitated by a wormhole linked to a portal “precise in time frame and geopositioning” (5) that allows only a twenty-minute “opportunity of return” one year after arrival. This difficulty of returning introduces tension into the narrative, as do other time-travel constraints such as “not interfering” with the time visited and the “grandfather paradox.” The narrator, Rachel, notes:
The chief concern of time travel, aside from the obvious physical risks to travellers themselves, was of somehow changing the past so as to decisively alter the future you had come from, setting in motion some form of the grandfather paradox. Opinion at the institute was divided on whether this was possible; previous missions had created ripples of change, but just nibbles around the edges. . . . Still, the institute could not know everything: what changes might there have been involving not stone or mortar but the quiet facts of people’s lives. (39)
These “ripples of change,” referred to as disruptions to the “probability field,” are versions of the time travel trope of the “butterfly effect,” defined by James Gleick as “the slighter flutter [that] might alter the course of great events” (209).
In The Jane Austen Project the travellers are continually pondering how they may affect 1815 and in turn their own future, including metafictional concerns that they “might appear as characters in the same letters we had come to steal for scholars of the future” (142). As the novel progresses, events such as Rachel’s use of the Heimlich manoeuvre to prevent Austen’s niece from choking to death, her secret engagement with Austen’s brother Henry, and ultimately her diagnosis of Austen’s illness are all at risk of altering the future. In the past world, they do seem to alter “quiet facts of people’s lives” and produce small adjustments to events surrounding Austen’s circle. While the grandfather paradox for these time travellers does not seem to include the possibility of ceasing to exist in their own time, they recognize that these disruptions in 1815 may be indications that, in respect of the future, “the world as we know it is gone, and we have to be rectified and forget who we are” (171). Their concerns are ultimately realized with the changes to their future outlined at the end of the novel.
In addition to using these tropes of time-travel fiction, Flynn’s novel makes extensive use of its world-building to create narrative context and tension, by establishing contrasts between past and future times and places. Early in the novel Rachel comments:
Wind rattled the leaves, counterpoint to a repetitive squeak that might have been some insect long extinct in my own time. I marvelled at the 1815 air, moist and dense with smells I had no words for, reminded of the glass-domed habitat re-creations at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, where we used to go on field trips. Once, children, the whole world was like this.
In these accentuated disparities the reader in the twenty-first century simultaneously experiences the world-building of the future and of the contrasted world of the past. It is not until the end of the novel that we receive a more sustained depiction of the future, which, following the “Die-Off,” has suffered these losses from the natural world. In these comparative descriptions the reader is also able to deduce that Rachel’s understanding of this world of the past has been shaped by her own training, the so-called “Preparation,” which occurred in the future:
Birch! And another word came to me: dusk, something barely noticed in my own time, in a life illuminated by electricity. Natural light; we’d learned the vocabulary of that, along with waxing, waning, crescent, gibbous, and the major constellations. I saw again in memory the steel-gray corridors of the Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, as the year I’d spent there glided before me like a time-lapse video clip. (2)
Here a remembered future barren urban landscape is compared to the verdant nineteenth-century past she is now inhabiting. By drawing the contemporary reader from the light polluted twenty-first century into the pre-industrial nostalgia of Austen’s world, the passage shows a particular strength of time-travel world-building. The narrative technique of describing a new world (here the past) in terms of the way it is the same or differs from the narrator’s accustomed world (here the future) is a feature common to both travel and time-travel writing. This simultaneous building of the past and future for the reader, and the weaving together of different times, enables the debate about the significance of Austen’s authorial legacy to remain at the forefront of the novel.
It is obviously the presence of a projected future time in the novel that makes it a time-travelling science fiction text. Yet The Jane Austen Project also shares similarities with historical novels, particularly in its attention to historical detail. The world-building of Regency England in Flynn’s work is quite different in kind from that in Austen’s novels. One reviewer notes that “Flynn’s novel feels like an Austen novel only in the most superficial ways” (Rev., Kirkus<). Arguably it is not the intention of this novel to be “like an Austen novel,” but passages such as Rachel’s description of a London street scene demonstrate significant stylistic differences between Austen’s and Flynn’s approaches:
Thanks to disaster zones and emergency medicine, I know chaos, yet I had never seen anything like this. The intersection of Charing Cross and the Strand was terrifying, and we stood there agape, as I began to understand why people took sedan chairs.
In the raking light of morning, the dust was visible: particles of coal smoke and dried horse manure, shards of brick and iron and paint and porcelain and leather. It softened the shadows of the stony buildings, swirled in the air, and rose from the torrent of passing vehicles: hay cart, mail coach, curricle. Ragged men courted death dodging between them, while hawkers sidled, crying out their wares in a sing-song patter: flowers, beer, snails, milk, sheet music of the latest ballad. (18–19)
Rachel is literally out of place and time, and the comparison here between what she “knows” in the future and what she experiences in 1815 is carefully drawn. Yet the meticulous detail in this street scene is unlike anything that appears in Austen’s novels. Part of Rachel’s narrative function here is to act as the reader’s guide through this representation of England in 1815. As is often noted, Austen’s own novels make limited use of descriptions of physical locations. London and other cities appear in Austen’s fiction to provide opportunities for social engagements but are not themselves rendered through detailed descriptions of locale.
The extensive descriptions of place and social mores in Flynn’s novel show the influence of the historical novel and the romance on her work. The Jane Austen Project creates a version of the Regency period that suggests similarities with the Regency novels of Georgette Heyer, both in historical detail and in the exploitation of the romance plot. Heyer, as Diana Wallace notes, “uses the romance plot as Jane Austen did, as a formal structure within which to explore the nature of gender roles and the possibility of an ideal marriage of minds and bodies” (36). Flynn, like Heyer, develops a plot that follows the courtship–misunderstanding–resolution structure of many of Austen’s plots, and within this structure romance is used to explore gender roles. Significantly in this filtering of Austen through Heyer, Flynn’s focus is not primarily on Jane Austen’s personal romantic life (as occurs in many film and television dramas about Austen) but rather on that of the time travellers themselves. Rachel, a doctor and sexually liberated woman from the future, is constrained by Regency attitudes to women and forced to allow her actor colleague, Liam, to pose as the doctor in the Austen household. Rachel notes that “it was a world run by men, for their convenience and gratification, as I understood better each day I was here” (52) and laments the “waste of human capital that I was now part of” (99). Alongside this “exploration of gender roles” that Wallace identifies in Heyer’s work, the context of the Regency period in Flynn’s novel provides “the possibility of an ideal marriage of minds and bodies” for the disguised time travellers. In the world of Jane Austen, which becomes their Shakespearean green world, their courtship and romance is transformative and by the end of the novel is described as achieving the “heft of legend” (373) as they resume their lives in the future.
Flynn’s novel in its use of the tropes and features of time travel/science fiction novels, as well as historical novels, creates a multi-layered version of Regency England seen through a variety of times and places: past, future, and, of course, the reader’s present. The narrator, Rachel, seems throughout the novel to check the Regency world around her against her previous knowledge, acquired through her pre-time travel Preparation and more specifically her reading of Austen’s novels. Her direct address to the reader becomes like a travel report offering extended descriptions and information about Austen’s life and times. In chapter 3, for example, there is a long description of the preparations being undertaken to welcome Henry Austen to dinner in their newly acquired house: “The breakfast parlor and dining room were both on the ground-level floor of this house, which was a textbook terraced Georgian, three windows wide, four stories high, in addition to a basement level, with the kitchen and other utility spaces” (74). Such detailed descriptions appeal to a wide range of readers. Some may be unfamiliar with the historical period. And some are likely to be familiar with Austen’s life and work— “a must read for any Jane Austen fan,” Paula Byrne proclaims on the back cover of the paperback edition—but eager to engage imaginatively with and learn more about Austen’s material world.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to ascertain exactly who are the primary target readers of this novel. Certainly most of the reviewers focused on the central plot motif of travelling through time to meet Jane Austen: “what lover of literature hasn’t dreamed of going back in time to meet Jane Austen?” asks Lauren Belfer, on the opening leaf of the paperback edition. So the next question, given the novel’s evident appeal to those who know of Austen, is whether the novel has more to offer to Janeites or to Austenians.
The distinction between Austenians and Janeites has, of course, been widely debated. As Deidre Lynch has commented, “Janeite” is a term that
Austen’s audiences have learned to press into service whenever they need to designate the Other Reader in his or multiple guises, or rather, and more precisely whenever they need to personify and distance themselves from particular ways of reading, ones they might well indulge in themselves. Janeite can conjure up the reader as hobbyist—someone at once overzealous and undersophisticated. (Janeites 12)
In an attempt to avoid such constructions of “otherness,” critics have more recently explored alternate designations for the “Janeite,” such as the “non-academic” or “amateur reader” as used by Juliette Wells in Everybody’s Jane. Flynn’s novel seems to aim at offering a range of experiences for diverse readerships, however they are labelled. The rich period detail, the extensive descriptions of locations, costumes, food, social etiquette, and behaviors look designed to appeal to the amateur reader’s or Janeite’s desire to embrace and feel part of the material world of Austen. Claudia Johnson notes about Janeites, in a comment inadvertently chiming with Flynn’s novel, that
Janeites themselves are the time travellers taking themselves back into Austen’s world by staging Regency costume balls, devising quizzes from minutiae in Austen’s novels, . . . discussing how a character from one novel might converse with a character from another, and setting tables according to the protocols of Austen’s time, all with the distinctive combination of gaiety, fervor and exactitude. (10–11)
Such time travel re-enactment, Johnson argues, results in “real information and knowledge along with a sort of pleasure that Clara Tuite has brilliantly described as ‘period euphoria’” (11). Flynn’s “period euphoria” is facilitated by her time travelling Janeite narrator, who tries to be pitch perfect in her narrative re-creation of and participation in Austen’s world. It seems likely that the novel is also influenced by, and feeds an interest in, the visual representations of Austen’s settings in film and television versions of both the novels and her life, which, from their own perspective of the future, attempt “historical veracity and authenticity of location and costume” (Whelehan 8).
The central question of Flynn’s novel—what would it be like to meet Jane Austen?—is posed in a number of contemporary films and novels and in fan fiction, a body of work that is yet another context for this novel. Fan fiction is particularly designed to appeal to a Janeite/amateur audience. Juliette Wells argues that “these invented versions of Austen appeal to—and, in many cases, result from—amateur readers’ curiosity about what Austen was ‘really’ like: how she looked, what she thought, what she experienced as a woman and an author” (142). In her novel, Flynn satisfies her readers’ curiosity in the time travellers’ initial meeting with Jane, describing her as
a slender woman, on the tall side, in a lace cap with a few curls spilling out. She had [Henry Austen’s] nose, hazel eyes like his, and a quizzical expression that seemed right. . . . Her eyes bright, her gaze direct. I thought of meeting Eva Farmer: I had the same sense of being in the presence of formidable intelligence, of feeling the air around us warped by the force of it. (105–06)
While Jane’s physical description does not contradict the limited visual evidence we have for Austen’s physical appearance, the significant first impression of the narrator is of Jane’s “formidable intelligence” and wit. Flynn supplements the limited details about Austen’s life by referencing her novels. For example, when Austen suggests in their first meeting that “you might try Lyme Regis” (108), Rachel ponders if “she had yet written the part in Persuasion where her characters go there” (108). Such narratorial references to Austen’s texts pepper the novel, with allusions to Emma (246), Sense and Sensibility (243, 328), Pride and Prejudice (157), and Mansfield Park (143). In some ways this literal linking of texts and the author’s life is awkward and unproveable, and, as Wells notes, can make “Austen seem like an uninspired writer who drew only on her own experience” (142). Given the Preparation undertaken for the Project, however, such comments are at least in keeping with the characterization. One might also argue that they help create a reader community, as happens in fan fiction, where there is a shared pleasure in recognizing the references. This creation of a like-minded community helps strengthen the sense that the narrator and her companion are, in their discussions with Austen, representing the novel’s modern readers. In that respect the novel offers a kind of wish fulfilment, as Paul Butler notes: “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.”
Perhaps a desire to meet “Jane Austen in the flesh” may not be an Austenian reader’s main interest in this novel. Where, then, does the main interest lie for Austenians, whom Lynch sees as, typically, “professional scholars/teachers/readers for whom Austen represents career and a connection to the public sphere” (113)? We might say that such academic, analytical readers of Austen’s novels are invited to see an affinity between themselves and the time travellers, who are arguably positioned in the novel as fellow Austenians. Rachel and Liam are the leaders of a “scientific” study, and their Preparation is grounded in the reading of Austen’s work, while, during the Project, their findings are assessed in terms of the impact on the work of future researchers. The character Eva Farmer, the founder of the Project, is a scholar described as a “true polymath: a physicist whose work had let to the Prometheus Server, a tournament level bridge player, the author of an acclaimed biography of Jane Austen, and another book about daily life in the early nineteenth century” (50). Farmer is, of course, apart from being a “Renaissance woman,” the archetypal brilliant but quirky “Professor” of science fiction. One might see in her range of interests an appeal to both the Janeite and the Austenian. Moreover, Farmer’s investigation into the context of Austen’s life and work and even her aspiration to rediscover lost texts have parallels with the activities of Austenian critics, particularly those who explore the material historicity of Austen’s novels and their context.1 The novel is keen also to position itself as a learned, even high-brow, text. Its prologue cites T. S. Eliot’s “Burnt Norton” (“Time past and time future / What might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present”) and, as well as the many literary references to Austen, alludes to the works of Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce.
Thus, we can posit that the novel makes a generous attempt to draw in different readerships. In this it chimes with recent critical studies such as those by Deidre Lynch, Juliette Wells, and Gillian Dow and Clare Hanson, who propose not a critical opposition of Janeite and Austenian but a mutually beneficial inclusivity of approach. Dow and Hanson note: “in this age of quantifying one’s own research in terms of ‘impact,’ the scholar ignores—or worse mocks—the diverse potential readership for her research at her peril” (14). Flynn may be attempting to capture this “diverse potential readership” in her novel, offering as Wells puts it “an opportunity to come together, amateurs and scholars alike, and share what we love and have learned about this exceptional author” (220). Flynn’s own membership in the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA) is significant here. Wells notes of the organization: “JASNA’s deliberate, even proud, inclusivity is evident in the mission statement as well: ‘to foster among the widest number of readers the study, appreciation, and understanding of Jane Austen’s works, her life, and her genius’” (218).
Flynn’s novel echoes JASNA’s mission statement in another way in that it positions Austen as a canonical figure—a “genius” (13), a “wonder” (29), and an “immortal” (312). This final section of this essay will explore how this canonicity is represented in this novel, and feeds into the novel’s exploration of authorial legacy and authorial immortality.
From the point of view of the time travellers at the beginning of the novel, Austen has both “renown” and “reputation” as defined and distinguished by H. J. Jackson, using “renown” to refer to present fame and “reputation” for the posthumous kind (2). Austen’s renown in her own time is referenced in the novel with her invitation to visit the Prince Regent’s library, while the Project, operating from Austen’s posthumous future, is seeking both to honor and to enhance her established reputation. As Rachel notes:
Time travel was secret; if we succeeded in returning with “The Watsons,” the institute would concoct a narrative of a scholarly discovery. It would be a big deal, for the Old British revered Jane Austen and considered her short life and small output a tragedy not unlike the destruction of the library at Alexandria. (28)
In terms of the novel’s initial construction of authorial immortality, this focus on output is intriguing. The first version of the future—that is, the future that gives rise to the Project that we see unfurl in the novel—places importance on the collection of texts and the commodification of artefacts associated with the author, which they believe will bolster Austen’s reputation, currently built on a small number of novels. There is a suggestion here that increasing the number of texts will also enhance the reputation of those who own them—the mysterious Old British who are the dominant class/race following the Die-Off. In this version of the future, the tragedy of Austen’s early death will be offset by the recovery of lost texts.
The novel is a little less explicit as to the exact nature of Austen’s genius and its specific worth to the future. In their encounters with Austen the time travellers seem, like Virginia Woolf, to find Austen “most difficult to catch in the act of greatness” (qtd. in Johnson 10). It is a paradoxical aspect of the novel, although maybe a true reflection of the difficulties around representing the private act of writing in a work of fiction, that the novel never portrays Austen at work on her novels nor indeed anyone reading her work in her own time. Her reputation as a genius is primarily affirmed by the time travellers. Rachel tells Austen that “[g]enerations to come will mention you in the same breath as Shakespeare,” to which Austen replies, “Shakespeare? But what about Maria Edgeworth?” (277). Austen’s judgment of her contemporary fellow writer is built on Edgeworth’s current renown, showing the reader the vagaries of time-bound literary taste. Austen on the other hand, as asserted in the novel, will become immortal in the future because “she was a genius; burning with the desire to create undying works of art” (113). (Many critics would wish to qualify this description of her intention, including H. J. Jackson, who notes that “Jane Austen did not write for immortality—that is to say there is no record of her declaring that ambition” .) Flynn, or at least her narrator, hints that such genius can be used as part of a humanist project that may help in “repairing the world” (50), as Rachel comments in her application to join the Project. The Jane Austen Project does not quite work out how this repairing might be achieved and tends to fall back ultimately on sentiments such as “We are just vessels. The art is eternal” (266). Works of art including written texts seem to be proffered more generally as a means of transcending time or, as in the Book of Common Prayer, another text Rachel quotes, of “redeeming time because the days are evil” (250). Precisely why or in what ways the days in the future are evil is never fully unfolded.
Overall, the novel is surprisingly silent on the political purpose of the Project’s acquisitive enterprise, although the author herself has commented that “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” (Butler). Literature is certainly represented in the novel as something of significance and worthy of investment, contributing to empires “of the mind, human ingenuity and imagination” (68), and yet The Jane Austen Project’s rather underdeveloped references to the “Die Off,” an unexplored ecological disaster, and the emergence of a social structure dominated by the Old British, seem to raise questions it never answers about the political imperative for these utopian ideals.
Yet it is not just literary texts that the time travellers are required to bring back to the future: they also need to acquire some of Austen’s lost letters to her sister, Cassandra. It is perhaps this feature of the Project that models most closely the defining characteristics of authorial immortality as discussed by Jackson in Those Who Write for Immortality. Jackson clearly identifies how the timely production of biographical accounts of the lives of authors can enhance their long-term reputation. The availability of accounts of Austen’s life, the “Biographical Notice” published in 1819 by her brother Henry and the Memoir of 1870 by James Edward Austen-Leigh, certainly increased the velocity and trajectory of her eventual long-term reputation. In Flynn’s novel, the Old British of the future imagine that their search for further biographical data will further impel her reputation into the distant future. The Project, as initially construed, clearly has faith in biography as a means of securing long-term reputation. It even seems that the Project has faith in the nineteenth-century biographies and their initiation of what were to become, for a long period, central tenets in narrations of Austen’s life. As Jackson comments: “by conflating Austen with her heroines, they created a rounded portrait of an author who had been imageless before. . . . The Memoir’s romanticized descriptions of place gave her locatability and visualizability” (98).
Certainly, as discussed earlier, Flynn’s novel draws parallels between Austen’s life, family, and social circle and the novels themselves. At several points in the novel, the narrator rather self-consciously assesses biographical theories of Austen’s life: for example, “Biographers have puzzled over the relationship of Mrs. Austen and her second daughter; seeing it up close did not make it any less of a riddle. They were never openly hostile, yet they spoke as little as possible” (286). Flynn’s novel is at its most forthright, however, when contemplating another area that biographers have extensively “puzzled over”—Austen’s own romantic life and its influence, or otherwise, on the novels. In chapter 6, Rachel from her “superior understanding” claims the marriage plot in Austen’s novels is “a MacGuffin”:
Many people in my world find it strange, even tragic, that the author of such emotionally satisfying love stories apparently never found love herself, but I don’t.
For one thing she was a genius. . . . The marriage plot is interesting mostly for how it illuminates the hearts of her characters, what they learn about themselves on the way to the altar. (113)
The narrator’s moral position is at this stage compromised, one might think, by her hope that not being “like everyone else” will give her leverage to acquire The Watsons.
Nevertheless, Rachel’s beliefs do appear to challenge some of the assumptions of both biographical fan fiction and some actual biographies that seek to link Austen’s romantic liaisons with her work.2 Whereas the film Becoming Jane, for example, supposes that Austen’s relationship with Thomas Lefroy shaped the writing of Pride and Prejudice, in The Jane Austen Project a conversation with Austen about Tom Lefroy reveals a different interpretation:
“But it could not be, and we knew it. That was the entire beauty; that it could not last.”
“So it was almost as if you were imagining yourselves characters in a story.”
“Oh! All the time.” (292)
It is perhaps a short step from imagining yourself as a character in a story to using that experience in a story, but Flynn’s novel avoids making the connection explicit. The novel also avoids voicing any regret surrounding romance, another trope of versions of Austen’s life, such as the television drama Miss Austen Regrets, which covers a similar period to that of Flynn’s work. In that drama Austen’s driving force is very much economic: she needs to earn money from her writing. In The Jane Austen Project, however, there is no real exploration of Austen’s creative process or her reasons for writing, whether romantic or economic: we only ever see a version of Austen from the point of view of the narrator, who is convinced Austen is an immortal genius.3 One marker of this genius, once the time travellers are revealed, is that Austen, like Shakespeare as represented in the BBC TV Dr. Who episode “The Shakespeare Code,” very quickly accepts and interrogates the idea of time travel, with Austen even proposing that she could travel to the future to seek a cure for her illness.
The final section of the novel suggests, however, that being a genius is not necessarily sufficient to achieving a long-lasting reputation as a great writer. The strategy employed by the Project, to retrieve lost texts and bibliographic information, ultimately proves unsuccessful. H. J. Jackson suggests that there is no guarantee of success in an attempt to plan for authorial immortality:
It is too late to counsel ambitious writers of the past, and even if we could time travel and talk to them, the advice might not be palatable. There is no such thing as immortal fame in the arts. Put not thy faith in posterity. To authors active around 1810, we would say: If you’re talented and you want your works to be read for the next two hundred years . . . , make the novels all of a piece, though not formulaic. Be on good terms with your extended family. . . . Cultivate a personal myth. Choose a pretty place to live (or die). Don’t write too much, because your heirs and champions will have to sort through it all; but leave behind, unpublished, something—if only correspondence—that will bring your name freshly to the fore when you are gone. Preserve the decencies for the sake of schoolchildren.
Practical advice such as this would be pointless. (217–18)
As Jackson demonstrates earlier in her study, the real Austen has benefitted in part from a fortunate coming together of the features included in this “practical advice.” The fictional Austen in Flynn’s novel, however, fails to benefit from the Project’s plan to extend her fame by reiterating some of the features that had assisted her to a position of renown. The novel in its first iteration of the Project, then, suggests that manipulation of factors contributing to immortality will not necessarily ensure its continuance, even if renown has already been achieved.
The final twist in the plot of the novel, thanks to the conventions of time travel fiction, does, however, introduce a different version of the future—a future unexpected by the time travellers and that facilitates a further questioning of the ideas of authorial immortality. The Project’s attempt to collect lost texts is in the end not significant, as the scanned letters fail to transmit to the future and the finished copy of The Watsons bequeathed by Austen remains unread by anyone but the time travellers themselves. What is more important to this second version of the Project is Rachel’s diagnosis of Austen’s illness as hemochromatosis rather than Addison’s disease: treatment of this illness proves so successful that Austen now lives until 1863. Rachel’s diagnosis ultimately proves to be the most serious breach in the “probability field,” and it is shown to change both the course of Austen’s life and the lives of the time travellers.
The last chapter of the novel explores the consequences of these changes in Rachel’s and Liam’s lives, where an alternate future provides a final hurdle to be overcome before the romantic resolution. The impact on world history of the time travellers’ interventions in 1815–1816 is rather briefly sketched. The “Die-Off” had been of less significance, and, with a nod to a favored trope of time travel fiction, “there had been no Blitz, no Hitler” (366). Yet the changes in Austen’s future authorial reputation prove most thought-provoking. In this “alternate history . . . or ucronia, uchronic or allohistory” (Gleick 208), Rachel recounts that Austen’s longer life has resulted in revisions to her previously existing novels and the appearance of seventeen new novels, including one in 1819 that appears to be about the time travellers.
Flynn’s novel at this stage ponders the significance of these additional novels to Austen’s reputation and the literary canon:
Scholars were busy and happy with all the new Austen novels, but in the popular mind scarcity has value. One effect of this new abundance was to make her a less significant literary figure, in the first rank of the second tier, not unlike Anthony Trollope, who she was often compared to. Our mission, like Austen herself, was respected but not breathlessly esteemed. It was all Brontës here: they were the nineteenth century writers everyone obsessed about. In this placid age, their emotionally overheated quality had an exotic appeal that Jane Austen, restrained, ironic and prolific, did not. (363)
Not only is Austen less revered in this alt-future because more novels are available, but, in “this placid age,” the changed historical context has resulted in her work becoming less popular. In the novel’s second consideration of Austen’s reputation in the future, Flynn again seems to mirror some of the findings in Jackson’s argument about authorial immortality. Jackson, having rejected the possibility that an author might deliberately adopt the features that might make him or her immortal, notes that her own imaginary time-travelling critics might offer a different message to authors in the past:
if the message were instead: Don’t worry about whether your works will be read forever or not. Once they are published they are out of your hands. Readers of different constituencies and later will love them or not, in ways that you cannot foresee or control. (218)
Flynn, like Jackson, suggests that an author, despite her best efforts and those of her supporters, cannot anticipate the historical context in which works may be read. Immortality is built on the shifting sands of time, and neither historical context nor the reception of texts can ultimately be “foresee[n] or control[ed].”
In Flynn’s The Jane Austen Project there is a further detail about this second future that exposes a significant division between “readers of different constituencies”: scholars are delighted by the new Austen texts, but popular readers are less enraptured. While this difference in response seems counterintuitive, given the contemporary proliferation of texts about Austen and of those inspired by her novels, it may be an attempt to offer some consolation to Austen fans. In 2017, the year of the novel’s publication, while fans were commemorating the anniversary of Austen’s death, there was a common refrain that “she was taken from us too soon.” Put simply, the novel seems to suggest that readers “be careful what [they] wish for” (Sullivan): more Austen might not have meant better Austen.
The Jane Austen Project uses the chronological complexities of time travel fiction to explore a number of key issues related to Jane Austen and literary studies. Historical re-creation is an essential aspect of the novel, often providing a modern reader with contextual detail that is absent in Austen’s own work. The time-travel framework provides Flynn, as Wells notes about other Austen-based novels, an opportunity “to flesh out the historical record about Austen which is notoriously limited” and to “venture deep into fantasy . . . that reflects contemporary taste” (142). While it is difficult to say with absolute certainty whether The Jane Austen Project is a novel for Janeites or Austenians, the shifting perspectives in Flynn’s text between times and places, past and future, enable different kinds of readers to explore their varied engagement with Austen’s texts. Through the narrative of time travel, Flynn experiments with shifting the historical, biographical, and psychological parameters surrounding Austen’s work as well as exploring the dynamics of popular and scholarly engagement.
While this study has raised questions about what the construction of genius represents in the novel, one must acknowledge, and praise, the author’s attempt to draw together different readerships into an inclusive narrative. As well as being a historical re-creation, the novel offers recreation, providing occasion for intellectual engagement but also offering readers an opportunity for spending leisure time in the company of an author they admire and with whom they have an emotional connection. Yet, this visit to the re-created past of Austen from an imagined future is not only an act of extraordinary literary tourism, it could also be seen as a metaphor for the act of literary academic criticism itself, in the sense that scholars work from their present, like the time travellers in the novel, and likewise find it subject to change, as they are transported back and forth into the literature of the past. Both critics and time travellers are aware that their own projects may change that past and could reinvent it for their present.
The question of authorial legacy and immortality, as examined in the work of H. J. Jackson, is central to the novel and to the Project(s) contained within it. Like Jackson’s, Flynn’s message seems to be that immortality may be made somewhat more likely by certain actions taken by authors and their supporters, but that authors’ works are subject to the vagaries of future historical, social, and political contexts that they are likely to be unable to predict. Jackson suggests that it “seems likely that Austen will eventually lose her special status, brought down . . . by overexposure and too much respectability, the price of unusually sustained popularity” (205–06). The second future depicted in Flynn’s novel, with Austen’s slip to the “the first rank of the second tier” (363), postulates a similar fate for the author. Arguably, the novel itself contributes to the tsunami of Austen-related texts that will result in the overexposure feared by Jackson. Yet Flynn offers comfort in the bicentenary year of Austen’s death, suggesting that Austen’s literary reputation may have been enhanced, not diminished, by her short writing life and the scarcity value of a remarkable literary output.
2Novels such as Emma Campbell Webster’s Lost in Austen: Create Your Own Austen Adventure, Syrie James’s The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen, and Jon Spence’s Becoming Jane all to varying degrees are based on biographical readings of Austen’s novels that supposedly reveal evidence of her romantic liaisons.