I was standing in the office of my wonderful editor Kathryn Court at Penguin books when I first saw the mock-up for the cover of First Impressions. Apparently several previous designs had been rejected before my arrival and this one had just arrived a few minutes earlier. Everyone in the room immediately sensed that it was right. There are wonderful details in the design that one might not fully appreciate until reading the book—but I’ll let you find those for yourself. I did not ask where the painting of the English country home at the bottom of the dust jacket had come from. I assumed it was just a stock item from an image bank. It worked well in the design and that was all that mattered . . . or so I thought.
Flash forward a few months later. We were spending three weeks at our cottage in Oxfordshire and I was taking frequent day trips for “business” purposes. That is to say, I was visiting spots connected to Jane Austen in preparation for the final editing of First Impressions. Most of these places I had been to before, but I wanted to re-visit not only to see if there were any new details that caught my attention, but also to put myself in an Austenesque mood. One sunny morning, my goal was Chawton—the village in which Jane lived with her mother and sister for the last years of her life and did much of her writing. The only other time I had been to Chawton, I was leading a group of teachers, so I was more than a little distracted. This time I had plenty of time to wander through Jane Austen’s cottage and I had also made arrangements to tour Chawton House.
Chawton House was owned by Jane Austen’s brother Edward, who was adopted by childless, wealthy cousins and became their heir (it’s all very Downton Abbey, which is appropriate because it’s only about a twenty minute drive to Highclere Castle, where Downton is filmed). The house is now owned by an American philanthropist who has restored it and installed her magnificent collection of books by eighteenth-century English women. It serves as a research library, but on certain days you can take a tour.
There were three of us on our tour plus two tour guides. I was amazed how much artwork and other décor survived from Edward’s time. In one room the tour guide showed us an elaborate silhouette of Edward meeting his new parents for the first time—but I was distracted by the painting next to it. It looked almost exactly like my dust jacket, though that design had been modified slightly to more accurately reflect my story. When I asked the tour guide, she explained that it was a view of Chawton House painted around 1780 by Adam Callander. Even though I had seen Chawton House from the outside on my previous visit, I hadn’t recognized the view, as it was painted of the side of the house from across the fields rather than of the more recognizable front view.
It’s a wonderful thing to discover that one’s publisher’s attention to detail is so great that even the author can discover hidden connections in the dust jacket design—and for this I must especially thank the jacket designer Kristen Haff. The house on the cover of First Impressions is one in which Jane Austen dined on many occasions. While it was not her brother’s primary residence, he did spend quite a bit of time there. And certainly when Jane went out for a walk while living at Chawton, she would have encountered something very like the view on the cover of First Impressions. So, while the Busbury Park in which my fictional Jane Austen walks is very much a product of my imagination, there is no doubt that the real Jane Austen walked the grounds of the very estate pictured on the cover of First Impressions.