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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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?