What if, in a future not long from now, time travel was a real, government sponsored thing? With a competitive selection process for its various missions – some successful, some not – would you be willing to risk your actual life, as well as the life as you know it, in order to participate?
Strangely, in this future, in which almost all animals are extinct (something called the mysterious “die off”) and all food is created via 3D printing technology, officials are using this amazing time travel technology to go back to 1815 and find out what’s up with Jane Austen. Not investigate climate change or Hitler (although, more on that later), or something that would effect every aspect of life…just go back and try to access some of Jane’s letters and her missing manuscript of The Watsons, a novel that was previously believed to be unfinished.
Dr. Rachel Katzman (an American, egads!) and actor Liam Finnucaine are ultimately chosen for the project. She has intense medical knowledge, which could potentially be used to save Jane Austen from whatever ailment ultimately kills her at age 41, and he is an actor and a writer who specializes in the gentleman’s lifestyle in the early 1800s. They endure vigorous training: they learn about the dress, the food, horses, carriages, the customs, the language, etc. They study the Austen family in great detail – Jane, her sisters, her brothers, her mother, their friends and extended family. They read the surviving letters and tour the Austen museums. They are given an enormous amount of money (fake bank notes!), a few tools to help them return to the future, and suddenly find themselves in 1815.
Rachel and Liam pretend to be Mary and William Ravenswood, pair of siblings who have just left their lives in Jamaica to move back to their native UK. They have forged letters of introduction to Henry Austen and call upon him to gain entrance to London society. They worry that their fake money won’t be accepted, that their household staff will realize they are fakes, that Henry will ignore their requests to call. But everything goes as planned, and Mary and William soon find themselves swept up into the arms of the Austen family.
Of course, not everything is that simple. Rachel soon realizes that all of the little things she’s done that were not sanctioned by her handlers before she left for 1815 may be effecting the future. They loan Henry Austen 30,000 GBP to try and save his failing bank. Mary accepts an offer of marriage from the sex-starved Henry. Mary “buys” a boy who was working for her as a chimney sweep and keeps him as a servant in her home. Mary gives medical advice to both Henry and Jane Austen, which extends Jane’s life until her 80s. And she and Liam eventually fall in love, which was not one of their instructions.
The most interesting aspect of this book is how Rachel and Liam adapt to life in 1815 and both consider not returning back to their lives in the future. Yes, Rachel struggles a bit over the fact that “Mary” isn’t allowed to do many of the things that William can do, including give medical advice that she is highly trained to provide. She can’t walk around at night. She can’t call friends by their first names. For such an independent and modern woman, these restrictions are difficult. And Liam, as an actor, constantly struggles with the quality of his performance and is filled with self-doubt.
I like that Jane Austen is only a minor character here, but that she is written warmly. Of course we would all hate it if Jane was portrayed as a nasty Fanny Dashwood type. Jane is kind and witty and intelligent. But this book isn’t really about Jane Austen at all, its more about what it means to find one’s place in the world.
What I didn’t like (and check out narfna’s review to see my similar thoughts, but much more eloquently presented) was the notion of time travel and the impact it may have on future generations. I found everything that happened after Rachel and Liam returned to the future to be confusing and a bit frustrating. Sure, I understand the “butterfly effect” and that some of Rachel and Liam’s actions in the past might have changed the future, but…
Would lengthening Jane Austen’s life and allowing her to write 18 novels really lead to a world without Hitler? And would kill Rachel’s mom? I don’t get how the foundation of this science works.
Also, why would anyone volunteer to go on one of these time travel assignments if they would not necessarily be able to retain the memories of their mission? This whole idea was confusing to me….was it something that didn’t exist in the future that Rachel came from but now was almost mandatory in the future that she returned to? Help!
Lastly, why was so much money being spent on science in order to go back to the past and talk to writers? Why not go back and prevent disease or other disasters? Why keep sending missions back to meet the Brontes??????
All in all, I really liked this story. I just struggled with the science of it.