In my new novel, First Impressions (published yesterday but you can still get a copy from your favorite bookseller), Richard Mansfield is an ageing cleric who comes to Hampshire for his health. There he meets and befriends a young aspiring novelist named Jane Austen. But there is something you probably ought to know about Richard Mansfield. He’s not a real person. Oh, Jane Austen is real enough, although in my novel she does some things that she didn’t do in real life (that’s why it’s called a novel after all). But Mansfield is no more than a figment of my imagination. That picture of him—it’s not him; if couldn’t be because he died before the invention of photography. But it’s what I imagine him to look like.
There is one small part of Mr. Mansfield that is not exactly made up—his writing. In the novel, Mansfield writes a book of allegories primarily intended for the instruction of young people and as an aid to preaching. I had read some late eighteenth-century allegorical books in preparing to write First Impressions, and I suppose I could have made up a few excerpts from Mansfield’s fictional work. But I wanted his words to ring absolutely true as the writings of a perfectly nice, but not particularly talented, eighteenth-century clergyman. I wanted the reader to see the real difference between Jane Austen and the writings of others working at the same time.
So, instead of manufacturing the excerpts from Mansfield’s allegories, I stole them. Granted, there was no copyright law in 1797, and even if there had been, the copyright on the book I used would have run out long ago. I give full credit in my author’s note at the end of the novel. The excerpts from the fictional Richard Mansfield’s fictional book of allegories comes from a real 1797 book titled: The Selector: Being a New and Chaste Collection of Visions, Tales, and Allegories, Calculated for the Amusement and Instruction of the Rising Generation. The book was published anonymously, so in choosing it I didn’t risk hurting the feelings of some authorial descendent by setting forth the text as . . . let’s just say uninspired.
However, if you become truly enamored of Mr. Mansfield’s writing in First Impressions, you might want to read the rest of the book. It was published only in the 1797 edition, so you’ll need to pay a few hundred dollars for your own copy or you can pop into a rare book library (there is a copy at my alma mater, Davidson College, I just discovered by searching on WorldCart). Or you can read the book on Google Books, if you like that sort of thing.
I enjoy writing a book that incorporates real things (like the text of The Selector and a writer named Austen) with fictional things. It made for great fun in writing The Bookman’s Tale, and I hope you’ll enjoy the ride it takes you on in First Impressions. Just remember: Jane Austen—Real; Richard Mansfield—Made up!