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Jane Austen and Time Travel

Jane Austen and Time Travel

"What kind of maniac travels in time?" is the opening line of The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn. Given the importance of first lines in Jane Austen novels, one can't help but feel one should pay a fair bit of attention to the openers in what is referred to as fan fiction. I love Flynn's first line because it references the sort of mania, obsessive enthusiasm, of Austen lovers, who are really always travelling back in time. 

With thanks to Katherine Cowley's blog, you might like to compare the line from The Jane Austen Project, to Austen's own first lines:

Pride and Prejudice: 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Northanger Abbey: 

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Emma: 

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Sense and Sensibility: 

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.

Persuasion: 

Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs changed naturally into pity and contempt as he turned over the almost endless creations of the last century; and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed.

Mansfield Park: 

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income.

I first heard about The Jane Austen Project via Sarah Emsley's Twitter feed and ordered it immediately. I ignored everything else when it came and read it quickly – too quickly! I loved it so much. I have to tell you that I'm a huge fan of Star Trek, and it reminded me of various time travel episodes. (Dr. Who fans who are also Austen fans will obviously also love this). 

I'm not one to read much Austen fan fiction (I admit I draw the line at zombies...) but this one was extremely well done. I do love Austen novels, and I'm not wild about crumby knockoffs of her enduring work. I first read Pride and Prejudice in English 100 at university and devoured the rest of Austen's work the following summer. I've been returning to them ever since. Like many, I've watched all the films, multiple times. I've read some scholarly work, the biographies, the letters. I own the facsimile copy of Sanditon. I would say I'm deeply fond of Austen. 

Flynn's work is fun, intelligent, and she gets the details right. The dialogue (which is what usually kills this kind of fan fiction for me) is magnificently done – in both time periods, quite a feat. The ending is unexpected and perfect. Flynn's reading of Austen's work via her character Rachel, is spot on. She says, 

"What I love about Jane Austen has never been the marriage plot; the quest for a husband in her novels struck me, even when I was younger and more susceptible, as a MacGuffin, or at least a metaphor. I have always suspected this is how she meant her books to be read. Many people from 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." 

She goes on:

"For one thing, she was a genius: burning with the desire to create undying works of art, not a cozy home for a husband and children. For another, she wrote the world she knew, and what she felt would appeal to readers. 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. She 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 a world that had no real use for them." 

I stopped and dogeared the page this was on because, yes, this is exactly it. This is why Austen endures. 

For a long time I wished that I'd not read all the Austen novels when I was young, but that I'd saved one for, say, now. Persuasion would be wonderful to open and read for the first time, for example. The other dream that lovers of Austen often harbour is that a lost manuscript would be found, and this is the premise of The Jane Austen Project – that her abandoned novel, The Watsons, had in fact been finished. Though an Austen manuscript is unlikely to be found IRL, Flynn's book really is the next best thing. Highly enjoyable, smart, and quite a page turner. Just in time for summer reading. 

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