Female images : the message on romance covers?

Historical Covers : what do they say to readers?

I usually write Regency romances. So I have to keep an eye on developments in the market. And covers are a vital part of getting readers to pick up a book.

female images to match the story

What prompted a modern woman to pick up a Regency romance?

If I were to generalise from the many Regency covers I’m seeing these days, I’d say that quite a lot of them look too modern. They don’t say “Regency” to me.

I’m not sure whether it’s the heavy make-up, or the hairstyles, or the clothes, or just the knowingness that 21st century models seem to display. Whatever it is, very few of the females on today’s Regency covers look (to me) anything other than a modern woman playing at being in the Regency.

To work out whether my gut instinct was valid, or just my prejudice, I checked out the Top 20 free Regencies for the Kindle on a random day in June. Some are free taster books from bestselling authors. Some of them featured really striking female images. But very many of them — to me, as a reader — looked or felt wrong.

Have a look for yourself and see what you think (though the Top 20 may have changed when you click through).

So who does get female images right?

If you’re wondering what I’m on about, think back to any relatively recent BBC adaptation of Jane Austen. The BBC’s costume and make-up departments go to great lengths to get things right nowadays.

Susannah Harker (Jane) & Jennifer Ehle (Lizzie), Pride & Prejudice, BBC, 1995

Susannah Harker (Jane) & Jennifer Ehle (Lizzie), Pride & Prejudice, BBC, 1995

Did they always do so? In the 1980 Pride and Prejudice adaptation, Elizabeth Garvie was beautiful as Lizzie and the clothes were exactly right but, as I remember the production, she wore heavy eye make-up. That didn’t seem right to me, even at the time.

I might have been swayed, more generally, by the fact that the 1980 Darcy, played by David Rintoul, was not my mental image of Darcy at all and so I had a little trouble in the suspension-of-disbelief department. (Picky? Yes, but aren’t all Austen fans picky, when it comes to Darcy?)

female images: Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie BennetInterestingly, when I checked up on it for this blog, I discovered that Elizabeth Garvie’s eye make-up was not as I remembered.

I thought I’d seen eyeliner and mascara. What they actually used was subtle shading over and under the eyes. There may have been mascara, too, though I can’t be sure from the photographs.

But what I remember is the very modern look. It stayed with me. And it jarred.

female images: Mary Bennet and Kitty Bennet

Clare Higgins (Mary) & Tessa Peake-Jones (Kitty)

Perhaps you don’t agree?

That subtle shading was obviously in vogue for that version. Even staid Mary (shown here with Kitty in the 1980 production) had shading behind her glasses, I think. I suspect Kitty has shading beneath her eyes, too, which emphasises that sexy sideways glance.

In the BBC’s famous 1995 adaptation, the make-up was, in my view, much more subtle. And much more of the period. The female characters look as if they’re wearing no make-up at all which is, of course, what would have been the case in the Regency for such young ladies. Compare the two Lizzies (below) and see what you think.

female images: Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie Bennetfemale images: Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie Bennet

Jennifer Ehle as Lizzie, BBC, 1995 (left) & Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie, BBC, 1980 (right)

Female Images for Historical Romance Covers : is there a solution?

Commissioning a special photo-shoot for a cover is very expensive. It’s quicker, easier, and cheaper to use shots that are already available to purchase from photo galleries. But there are a couple of tricks that can help if the model doesn’t fully fit the historical context.

female images on covers : To Save A Sinnerfemale images on covers: Stone Devil DukeCovers can show models headless, as in this example (left) from that Kindle list of top 20 Regencies. Easy solution, eh?
(Almost) no head, so no disturbing modern make-up.

Or covers can show a back view with most (or all) of the model’s face obscured. The example (right) is another from that Kindle top 20 back in June.

Headless or back-view covers can risk being boring unless something more arresting is pulling the viewer’s gaze away from that missing face. With Adele Clee’s cover, you may conclude there’s plenty of other distraction.

Authors and cover designers can, of course, use both wheezes at once. I did that with the cover of His Silken Seduction. The cover background shows old Lyon, where the story is set. So far, so authentic. I wanted a sexy female but I didn’t want her to look too modern. After all, my heroine, Suzanne, was a young French woman of 1815. But finding an appropriate shot for the female was difficult. So, in the end, we cropped the top of our model’s head, because her eye make-up was too modern for the feel I was after.

Without the eyes, she’s a naked female swathed in gold silk who should (I hope) be pretty timeless. But that’s just the author’s take and possibly biased. What do you see, as a reader?

His Silken Seduction by Joanna Maitland Paperback Cover

His Silken Seduction by Joanna Maitland, Paperback Cover

Contemporary Romances Have an Easier Ride with Female Images?

Contemporaries could easily show the model’s face on the cover. No problem with her make-up or hairstyle being out of place. But often, they don’t. Why? I’d say it’s because it leaves it up to me, the reader, to create my own mental image of what the characters look like. I reckon that’s a good thing, for the reasons I gave in my previous blog on this subject. Maybe that’s why such shots are so popular on covers nowadays, even for contemporary stories.

In my view, the covers for Tule’s Royal Wedding series used that approach really well. Three out of four were headless; three out of four were back views; all of them had an uplifting feel. And they’re all great reads, too, much recommended. (You may have noticed 😉 that one of them is by Sophie, of this parish. Shameless promo, I admit, but it’s a wonderful feel-good romance.)

female images on covers: The Prince's Bride female images on covers: The Baronet's Wedding Engagement female images on covers: The Bridesmaid's Royal Bodyguard female images on covers: The Best Mans Bride

Where next for female images on covers?

The headless and back-view solutions may go out of fashion. Some readers complain that they’re overused, and they may have a point.

But, as an author of historical romances who’s trying to create authentic covers, and who’s struggling to find pictures that fit the bill, I think I might have to stick with those solutions for a while longer — unless you can suggest a better approach that doesn’t break the Maitland bank?

Joanna Maitland, author


14 thoughts on “Female images : the message on romance covers?

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    It’s tricky, I agree. My current designer is using a fade-out look which seems to help, plus the backgrounds have an authentic feel. The latest trend seems to be in huge swathing dresses, some of which are doubtful as far as accuracy goes. Your heroine is depicted with yards and yards of flowing garment. Some of them work quite well, others look more like a prom dress or something out of Hollywood.
    It’s a fine line, I think, between getting the cover as authentic as possible while going for what is going to sell the book.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I think your latest covers are lovely. And in period. I’m reminded, by your comment about prom dresses, of the film of Pride & Prejudice with Laurence Olivier and Greer Garson, where they had huge floaty crinolines. Definitely Hollywood, which thought Regency gowns not glam enough.

      But you’re also right that the cover has to induce the potential reader to pick up the book. The job of an indie author is even more difficult than non-indie, in some ways.

  2. Jan Jones

    I may be in the minority in preferring people with heads on covers. For my own covers, I go mostly for the expression on the faces as an indicator of the character of the heroine. That, plus a Regency(ish) frock and an authentic background do me.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Now that’s a really interesting approach, Jan. And, as a reader, you’re of course entitled to prefer pics with heads 😉

  3. lesley2cats

    Really interesting piece – always are, of course. Why, I don’t know, but it made me think back to the Steepwood Chronicles, which I really enjoyed. Those covers were very dark blue, or red or mauve and a few barely featured people at all, or only in carriages. Elizabeth’s one (the first I read) had a single female in profile, cloaked, I think, but when I googled them I discovered that most of the people featured actually looked Victorian, not Regency, and once I saw that, I remembered feeling slightly irritated by it back then. And as for the modern women – well! Very wise to hide their eyes, Joanna! But are all readers as picky as we are?

    1. Joanna Post author

      Picky? Well, Lesley, I’d be interested to hear from any other authors who have had reader letters/emails/reviews complaining that they (they author) got the cover model wrong and couldn’t they remember that their heroine was actually brunette rather than blonde? I’ve certainly had those. And of course there’s no point in replying that the author had absolutely no say in the choice of cover. Readers don’t believe it. (They also believe we all earns squillions, a là JK Rowling, but that another story…)

  4. Lynne Connolly

    Thery’re known as “Prom dress” covers, or “bridesmaid” covers, and I dislike them intensely. You can actually get rid of heavy makeup in Photoshop, but many cover artists don’t bother. However that woman in the green dress has appeared on so many covers, it’s not funny (one of mine, too!) There just aren’t the images. I get complaints all the time, since I write mid-Georgians, where the clothes were very different. I relay the complaints to my publisher. One of mine had a woman in a gorgeous gown, but her hero had a beard!
    you can’t win. I’ve just signed a contract for a series of detective historicals, so maybe I can ask for image covers, or something like that, you know, a book and a dagger, that kind of thing. But you get what you’re given. I went with landscapes for a recent reissue.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Welcome to Libertà, Lynne. And sympathies on the inappropriate covers. And on the beard. As I mentioned in the previous blog on this, I had the beard problem too, and was unable to get anything done about it. Sigh.

  5. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Personally, I prefer the as-little-makeup-as-possible approach as being more Regency. And I agree with Jan, that to have the heroine in a genuine Regency surrounding also helps – that’s why Arthur Barbosa’s brilliant covers for many of Georgette Heyer’s novels are so spot on.

    But I fear I am fighting a losing battle.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree, Elizabeth. I think, too, that the Jennifer Ehle makeup is much preferable to the Elizabeth Garvie one. I’m interested to learn that it’s possible to Photoshop off heavy makeup (thanks, Lynne) and will bear that in mind for future covers. I’ve never used paintings as covers for my books, but I’m beginning to see the attraction of doing so, perhaps especially for Georgian-set books. I noticed that the revised edition of Lucasta by Melinda Hammond, has a gorgeous painting as the cover.

  6. Maggie Craig

    I don’t like the dress falling off the heroine and the bare yet usually hairless chest on the hero style. Prefer them to look a little more demure and buttoned-up, all the more exciting when the buttons get undone! Then again, a lot of modern Regencies have much more explicit love scenes than GH used to favour, so they probably reflect the book better. I’m probably very old fashioned here!

    1. Joanna Post author

      Georgette Heyer was a woman of her time, wasn’t she? She was born in 1902 so perhaps it’s not surprising that she didn’t do explicit love scenes. I’m a bit of a contradiction here: I do write explicit love scenes but, like you, I don’t much like the sort of cover that has hero naked to the waist and heroine with dress falling off. However, I understand that such covers sell well, especially in the US market.

  7. lesley2cats

    Just had to come back to say I have just come across a horrendously anachronistic cover. Not Regency, but World War One, and just post. I don’t know if I dare post the title or author name. Let me know if you want it!

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