“ The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” ~ Jane Austen
It seemed appropriate to open this week’s Opinion with a quote from Jane Austen since Jane herself plays a large part in Charlie Lovett’s FIRST IMPRESSIONS. Author Charlie Lovett poses the question, “Could Jane Austen have stolen the plot for Pride and Prejudice?”
His story takes us to Steventon, Hampshire in 1796 as a young Jane Austen meets elderly clergyman, Richard Mansfield. The two form a close friendship and Jane finds someone who encourages her love of writing.
Jumping to present day Oxfordshire, England, Sophie Collingwood has found a job in a bookshop that specializes in rare and valuable books. Her beloved Uncle Bertram has been found dead at the bottom of his staircase and his book collection has been sold, much to Sophie’s distress.She had learned her passion for books from her uncle and knew how important his collection was.
Her plan is to hunt down each book that had been in her uncle’s library. She goes to work in a shop that deals with rare and valuable books, thinking that the job would put her in a good position to find the lost books. Things get weird when two men ask her, on the same day, to find the same book. The fact that they both want a second printing is unusual in itself, but then one man begins to court her and the other threatens her with hints that what had happened to her Uncle Bartram could easily happen to her.
The story is told in chapters alternating between Jane and Sophie. The parallels are well done. Jane finds in Mr. Mansfield a kindred spirit as Sophie does with Uncle Bartram. Sophie’s admiration for the works of Jane Austen is intense and there is a feeling of a spiritual link over the centuries between the two women.
The book that Sophie has been asked to find will prove if Jane Austen had actually plagiarized the story for Pride and Prejudice. If proof could be found not only would Austen’s reputation as an author be ruined, but someone could become very wealthy.
Lovett captures the mood of Austen’s England very well. Those chapters have a pastoral feel. The language is more formal; the scenes are done more quiet and leisurely. Sophie’s England is faster, the language more blunt. If Jane had a libido we have never heard of it; we learn that Sophie definitely does. Jane’s little world did not include violence; Sophie’s world has men who would kill for a book.
This is a book for bibliophiles. Although the story revolves around Jane Austen and how she wrote, it is a love song for all who love books. If you appreciate the texture, weight and smell of a book, you will understand the conversations between Sophie and her uncle.
The title FIRST IMPRESSIONS was a clever choice. Jane’s first impression of Richard Mansfield did not prepare her for the effect on her writing career. Sophie’s first impression of the two men in her life proved to be wrong. “First impressions” can also refer to the first printing of a book, an important part of the plot. But most importantly, FIRST IMPRESSIONS was the original title of Pride and Prejudice.
Although I have rather strong feeling about authors who fictionalize historical people, this is well done. (Jane Austen has had more than her share of rip offs, from murder mysteries to speculations on her love life.) The author explains in his after notes where he made changes to fit his story. The actual facts were not tampered with, but he did add some fictional characters to that life.