First Impressions, by Charlie Lovett

6352576Last year, Charlie Lovett gave us an exciting (for bibliophiles) tale of literary discovery and skullduggery in The Bookman’s Tale. Lovett’s back with story about the beginnings of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in First Impressions. This book is going to piss off a lot of Austenites (until they get the to the resolution, anyway).

Sophie Collingwood grew up in a grand country house with a magnificent library—that she wasn’t allowed to use. It was a cruel torment for a born bookworm. Her only joy was to visit her uncle in London. Bertram’s books all had their own stories about where they came from and what was going on in his life when he read them. Bertram taught her to care for books and hunt down treasures and understand primary sources. It’s only fitting that she would grow up and work at an Oxford University library. When he dies, it’s a shock. Sophie just can’t believe that it was an accident. And when Bertram’s library disappears, Sophie is doubly devastated.

Sophie investigates what really happened to Bertram and his library. Meanwhile, Lovett tells a story of Jane Austen and a curate named Richard Mansfield. The elderly writer of allegories and instructive stories. With Mansfield’s encouragement, Jane revises Elinor and Marianne, later Sense and Sensibility. Mansfield also inspires a small novel that Jane initially calls First Impressions. Over the years, that small epistolary novel will grow into the Pride and Prejudice we all know and love today.

Near the beginning of the book, Sophie gets a job in a rare bookshop run by one of her uncle’s friends. One of her first tasks is to find a copy of Mansfield’s extremely rare second edition of allegories. Sophie is threatened and hounded as she tries to track down the book. Her original investigation into what happened to Bertram is hijacked when some documentary evidence hints that Jane might have stolen the idea for First Impressions from Mansfield. This is the part that Austen fans will hate, because Lovett lets this accusation linger for a long time before the book resolves itself.

I had some qualms about this book as I read it. I thoroughly enjoyed The Bookman’s Tale, but the relationship between (fictional) Jane and Mansfield bothered me—especially with the accusation of plagiarism hanging around. In 1796, when Jane first started writing First Impressions, Jane was only 21. She was still writing epistolary novels and hadn’t come into her own as a writer. Still, I often think of her as a kind of literary Athena; I rarely think about how Jane became Jane Austen. When the plot hinted that she might have stolen a story, I was livid. And the idea that Jane needed a mentor and collaborator bothered me, especially when Lovett revealed Mansfield to be such a poor writer himself. The eighteenth century parts of the book were wobbly. Then when Lovett adds a pair of love interests for Sophie that mirror Darcy and Wickham, his First Impressions starts to feel overstuffed.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 16 October 2014.


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