Travelling back in time is a tricky little thing. The fact it is (probably) impossible aside, it poses a unique challenge when it comes to its use in storytelling. There are probably more variations on the nature of time travel in fiction than there are theories about it in science.
The Jane Austen Project isn’t the first story involving time travel back to the Regency period, nor is it even the first to involve meeting Jane Austen, but it is one that I will probably think back on whenever considering the subject.
Kathleen A. Flynn’s novel is a hybrid of time travel story and Regency-era romance. For a while, I feared that the time travel was just an excuse to create a story that juxtaposed different views on relationships, the tension between historic common sense and modern sensibilities.
Fortunately, this story provides more than that. While it offers no complex Michael Crichton-esque explanations as to how time travel works (which, while fascinating, usually aren’t needed in these stories), it does not shy away from giving you a sense of how it’s used in this story’s future, how it affects their society, and the dangers posed to their operatives.
The novel centers on two such operatives, Rachel and Liam. The former is a doctor with experience working in disaster areas that have limited access to modern facilities. The latter is an actor turned scholar familiar with the Jane Austen period. Their personal reasons for going on the mission differ. Liam sees this as a chance to make a name for himself, his big break, while Rachel is a lifelong fan of Austen’s work and a thrill seeker. At times she isn’t quite sure why she was accepted for this mission.
The project itself is designed to be clandestine in nature, with several key objectives: Primarily, to try and recover a lost manuscript known to have been written but destroyed before publication by Austen herself. A number of letters of correspondence are also sought after because of the light they would shine on Austen’s life. Lastly, they wish to try and diagnose what Jane Austen came down with towards the end of her short life.
To accomplish all this, Rachel and Liam have to insinuate themselves into London society with a plausible cover and enough money to fill the roles they play for many months. All the while trying to make acquaintances with Jane’s brother Henry, and from there become friends with the family.
For fans of Regency-era romance, this will not disappoint. The traditional elements are all there as Rachel is torn between Henry Austen, whose affections grow for her over time, and her partner in time Liam (who is posing as Rachel’s brother, making things even more awkward). It manages to capture those classic elements of courtship, while also being modernly blunt when circumstances allow.
But the time travel plot also holds up. They regularly consider the consequences of their actions, and watching them try to leave as small a footprint in time as possible appealed to my intellectual side. As the story went on, however, I became concerned that the romance would overshadow this, reducing the SF component to a mere McGuffin.
But toward the end, when the mission is complete, this concern fell by the wayside. I had expected a short epilogue dealing with the aftermath. Instead, there was a chapter twice as long as any of the others, going into detail not only about the consequences of the mission, but the relationship as well.
When it comes to thinking about time travel, I used to be focused on finding what would “really” happen. Terminator logic can’t work because it’s a paradox. Back to the Future logic is problematic because in essence there is no “fixing” a timeline and going back to it, only creating new ones.
If you want to get extremely anal about it, any time travel involving a single timeline would inevitably cancel out your own existence, because the slightest change to your parent’s life, even snapping your fingers in front of them, would ultimately mean that a different sperm fertilized your mom’s egg. You would be born someone else. And forget about stepping on a butterfly in prehistoric times, we all know where that leads…
But eventually, I realized that such exercises are largely pointless. Not just because of the impossibility of going back in time, but because it ultimately hurts any story you’re trying to deal with it. What matters more is internal consistency. So if your universe has multiple branching timelines, or a single one that can be bent and reshaped, then go for it.
I say all this because the final chapter of The Jane Austen Project does not deal with the consequences of time travel in a way that I would ever consider writing myself. However, it does do so in a way that is logical and consistent within its own rules, and that impressed me. Enough so that I’ll probably bring it up if I ever get into a nerdy debate with friends about differing time travel stories.
If your current mood leans towards romance, but you can’t decide on the future or the past, I say, why not both?
Looking for more ideas about Time Travel? Go back in time to the early 1990 and see what Prisoners of Gravity had to say about it:
Originally Published in KODT #253