Charlie Lovett first delighted readers with his New York Times bestselling debut, The Bookman’s Tale. Now, Lovett weaves another brilliantly imagined mystery, this time featuring one of English literature’s most popular and beloved authors: Jane Austen.
Book lover and Austen enthusiast Sophie Collingwood has recently taken a job at an antiquarian bookshop in London when two different customers request a copy of the same obscure book: the second edition of Little Book of Allegories by Richard Mansfield. Their queries draw Sophie into a mystery that will cast doubt on the true
authorship of Pride and Prejudice—and ultimately threaten Sophie’s life.
In a dual narrative that alternates between Sophie’s quest to uncover the truth—while choosing between two suitors—and a young Jane Austen’s touching friendship with the aging cleric Richard Mansfield, Lovett weaves a romantic, suspenseful, and utterly compelling novel about love in all its forms and the joys of a life lived in books.
About the author:
Charlie Lovett is a former antiquarian bookseller, an avid book collector, and a member of The Grolier Club, the preeminent club for bibliophiles in North America. He and his wife split their time between Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and Kingham, Oxfordshire, in England.
Oxfordshire, Present Day
AFTER FIVE YEARS at Oxford, Sophie Collingwood had mastered the art of reading while walking. She knew every curve of the Thames Path from Oxford to Godstow, and had the ability to sense and avoid oncoming pedestrians. This was a useful skill for someone so ab sorbed by the books she read that she often pictured herself at the center of whatever romance or mystery or adventure played out on their pages. On a sunny day in July, she was walking opposite the wide expanse of Port Meadow, where horses and cattle stood grazing as they had for cen turies. On the river a quartet of picnickers were making their way back downstream in a punt, and the smooth sound of the flat-bottomed boat gliding across the water seemed the perfect accompaniment to the day. In the midst of this idyll, Sophie spotted, over the top of her well-worn copy of Mansfield Park, a young man lying under a tree, reading. His artfully relaxed
sprawl and his intentionally disheveled clothes radiated a combination of arrogance and apathy. Slovenly would be the best word to describe him, she decided-the unwashed hair, the shredded jeans, the faded T-shirt. It was a style that both puzzled and annoyed her. Sure, Sophie didn't always go out of her way to look good, but to go
out of one's way to look bad just seemed rude. As she drew level with
him he greeted her in a lazy American voice.
"How's it goin'?" he asked, but Sophie only raised her book higher
and walked on, pretending his question had been lost in the breeze. As she rounded the next bend in the river and was lost to his sight, she had a sudden recollection. She had heard that voice before. It had been two nights ago, at the Bear. She had been standing at the bar waiting to order drinks for a group of friends who were discussing the relative mer- its of Mansfield Park and Persuasion, when that brash American accent had cut through the clamor of the crowd.
“What really gets me is these Austen fangirls. Running around pre- tending the sun rises and sets with some chick who wrote soap operas two hundred years ago.” And then, in a mocking imitation of an En- glish girl, he had added, “I think Mansfield Park isn’t properly appreci- ated by the establishment.” Sophie had crossed back to the table with her drinks, and the sound of his voice had been blessedly swallowed up by the noise of the crowd, but the damage had been done, for it had been Sophie who had made the remark about Mansfield Park, not five minutes earlier. When she told her friends what she had heard, they had all had a good laugh about the whole thing and had quickly come to the conclusion that this conceited American was a prat.
After a half-pint of bitter in the garden of the Trout, Sophie headed back toward Oxford. It would take her just over an hour to walk the four miles to Christ Church, and that should be enough time, she thought, to see Fanny and Edmund married. But, just as things were beginning to look inevitable for the two young lovers, Sophie heard once again that insufferable voice.
“Whatcha reading?” it asked, as Sophie approached. He spoke louder this time, and she couldn’t pretend she hadn’t heard.
“Not that it’s any of your business,” said Sophie, “but I happen to be reading Jane Austen.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Sophie was so taken aback that she almost smiled in spite of herself. After his comments in the Bear the last thing she expected from him was a Jane Austen quote.
“Surprised to hear me say that?”
“It’s just that that’s a rather obscure Austen quote for a . . . a . . .”
“A what?” asked the man. “An unsophisticated, uncultured, unen- lightened dilettante?”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Sophie. “It’s just that most people haven’t read . . .”
“Northanger Abbey?” “Exactly.”
“And you’re surprised since I’m not wearing tweed and sitting in a dusty study, that I have the first idea about Austen.”
“On the contrary,” she said politely. “I think lounging on the banks of the Thames on a sunny summer day is the perfect way to read Austen.” “Well, to be fair, there are two reasons I can quote that passage so precisely. First, I saw it on a T-shirt in the Bodleian shop yesterday, so it’s not as obscure as you think.”Sophie could barely conceal her irritation at this. “And the second reason?” she said icily.
He held up a battered paperback copy of Northanger Abbey. “I just read it about ten seconds before you walked up. I’m Eric. Eric Hall.” He extended his hand without raising himself off the ground, simultane- ously tossing his hair out of his eyes. Sophie fought to keep her face from betraying that she already knew he was a jerk. And yet she sensed that behind his studied appearance and almost scripted insolence there was something softer. It wasn’t just that he read Jane Austen. It was the way he waited for her response with almost painful anticipation—like a little boy seeking approval.
“Sophie,” she said, offering her hand but not her surname. “Pleasure to meet you.”
From First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Charles Lovett, 2014.