I didn’t hold it in my hand until after I had written the second draft of First Impressions. The first edition of Jane Austen’s immortal Pride and Prejudice. It is a book at the center of my own novel, coming out in next week from Viking. I had written what I thought of as a very intimate scene in which my protagonist, Sophie Collingwood, who adores Jane Austen, holds a first edition in her hands. After Sophie opens the first of the three small volumes that holds her favorite text and reads the famous opening, she thinks:
Sophie had never held a first edition of Pride and Prejudice. She had never had the opportunity to run her fingers over those spectacular words as they had appeared in print for the very first time. Somehow seeing them here in this volume from 1813 brought home to Sophie that Jane Austen had actually written these words. They had not simply appeared out of the ether. Sometimes, Sophie thought, sentences like that become so famous that we cannot conceive a time when they did not exist. We can remember our own first encounters with those words, but that mankind should have had a first encounter with them seems almost impossible. But mankind did have a first encounter with Sophie’s favorite sentence in all of literature, and she now held that first encounter in her hand.
On the lower corner of the first page of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice housed at St. John’s College, Oxford, is a small circular water stain. It does not affect the text, nor is it significant enough to reduce the value of the book. But, like every mark in every book, it tells a story, and like so many marks in so many books, it is a story known to only one person and doomed to be lost forever when that person is no more. It is the mark of a single tear that dropped from the cheek of Sophie Collingwood as she stared at those words, and it is testament to the power of literature.
Having written that passage, having imagined the thrill of holding that book, I thought it might be nice to actually have that thrill for myself. On the day I sent in the new draft to my agent—just a couple of weeks before the book was sold—I paid a visit to the rare book room at Wake Forest University Library, It’s a room that served as the inspiration for the Devereaux Room in my novel The Bookman’s Tale, and I always enjoy visiting. The librarian was kind enough to retrieve their first edition of Pride and Prejudice for me and I felt very much the same excitement Sophie felt as I opened the first volume and read those oh-so-familiar words.
If you’ve never had the experience of reading a favorite book (especially a 200-year-old favorite book) in its first edition, you really should give it a try. I read only a chapter or two, but it was still exciting not just to hold the first edition, but, like Sophie, to read those words as they appeared the very first time in print. I will always remember that experience of reading Pride in Prejudice that way, and I kept that experience in mind as I edited my own novel over the next few months. I hope when you read First Impressions you’ll feel Sophie’s excitement and know that it is at least partially my own . . . and it could be yours as well.
[If you’d like to know more about the first edition of Pride and Prejudice, check out this great blog entry by my friend and rare book librarian Megan Mulder: http://zsr.wfu.edu/special/blog/pride-and-prejudice-by-jane-austen-1813/]