Jane Austen has her own pop culture niche with movies like “Austenland,” about a woman obsessed with all things Austen, and the bestselling “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,” in which Lizzie Bennet takes on the undead. Kathleen Flynn’s “The Jane Austen Project” offers another twist on the genre: time travel. Flynn’s protagonist, Dr. Rachel Katzman, travels back to 1815 to befriend Austen and steal some of her lost writings. Rachel’s involvement in Austen’s life has results that change the world.
Flynn, who is an editor at The Upshot at The New York Times, said she discovered Austen when she read “Pride and Prejudice” in seventh grade in Falls Village, Conn. She thought the novel was funny, although much of it went over her head, she said in a phone interview ahead of her visit to Raleigh on Sunday, June 18. She’ll be signing books at Quail Ridge Books at 2 p.m.
It was years later – after coming to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in the 1990s to get a master’s in journalism, after her marriage to Jaroslaw Karwowski and while she was still a copy editor at The News & Observer – that Flynn rediscovered Austen.
She read an essay interpreting “Emma” as a mystery novel.
“It made me see Jane Austen in a new way, and I started reading her again,” she said.
Flynn laments that little is known about Austen since she died at 41 of unknown causes, and her relatives burned many of her letters.
“People have always wondered what was in those letters,” she said. “I was wondering what Jane Austen was like as a person as opposed to a great author ... What if you could travel back in time and get answers?”
Flynn first thought about writing a novel about meeting Austen in 2007. By this time, she was working for the Times in New York City. She started reading books about the Regency (Austen’s time period), time travel and the Napoleonic Wars, which dominated conversation during much of Austen’s life.
Two years later, Flynn visited England, visiting places like Chawton, the brick cottage where Austen spent her last years. She finished her novel’s first draft in 2011 and fine-tuned it until 2016, when HarperCollins picked it up.
Here are five things you might not know about Austen’s life and times that Flynn learned while researching the book:
1. Austen had a precocious wit.
Even as a young teen, Austen entertained her family with her writing, often skewering popular novels.
“[Her writings] are just hilarious,” Flynn said. “She was like Mozart, but with words.”
2. Servants were cheap. Stuff? Not so much.
“Many people had servants (or were servants) but would have had relatively little in the way of clothes, dishes, toys, books,” Flynn said. “Paper was made from rags, not wood pulp, and was kind of expensive. Jane Austen, like everyone else, did her writing with a quill pen, or perhaps a pencil.”
Perhaps that gives a little more slack to Austen’s heroines who complained of being poor despite having someone else to cook their food.
3. 1811 Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) was barely bigger than today’s London.
Britain’s 1811 census recorded about 12 million citizens, and almost 9 million people live in London today.
“There must have been so much more nature,” Flynn said. “So much forest and sky, instead of all the things we have now, like highways and subdivisions. ... How must that have affected how you experienced life?”
4. People drank a lot.
In “The Jane Austen Project,” main character Rachel worries about her time travel partner Liam after he disappears in London. He staggers in later that night after drinking a few too many glasses of “punch.” Flynn learned that in early 1800s England, people drank “incredible amounts” and considered it no big deal.
“The upper classes had wine and port, and gin was the plague of the lower classes,” she said.
5. Austen was a literary lone wolf.
Austen published her novels under the pen name “A Lady.” She came from a genteel family at a time when being a female author was considered improper, since it implied the woman had to work to support herself.
“[Austen] didn’t mingle with people a lot, and she didn’t know a lot of writers,” Flynn said. “She seemed standoffish except to the people she knew well. ... I would love to think I would have been friends with Jane Austen.”
Evie Fordham: 919-829-4809, @eviefordham
Meet the author
Kathleen Flynn will be reading from “The Jane Austen Project” and answering questions at 2 p.m. Sunday, June 18, at Quail Ridge Books, 4209-100 Lassiter Mill Road in Raleigh. 919-828-1588 or quailridgebooks.com