How Historical Romance Covers Echo Art History

By Holly Perret

Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard C. 1780
Auguste Bernard d’Agesci

What better way to begin this article than with a painting of a woman dreamily reading a book in scantily clad garments? Lady Reading the Letters of Heloise and Abelard was painted by Auguste Bernard d’Agesci circa 1780. The painting title refers to an illicit love affair that took place over one thousand years ago between a teacher and a young girl; his student. 

The story of Heloise and Abelard is not one to romanticize, but that’s not the reason I wanted to open with this particular work of art. I thought it was especially relevant to the world of historical romance. During the eighteenth century, novel reading by proper young women was frowned upon. Here, Bernard d’Agesci has illustrated the supposed dangers of reading by depicting a woman lost in day dreams. Presumably forbidden ones. She’s so taken with the subject that even her dress has responded by dipping below her nipples. 

Hundreds of years later, romance has become the top selling book genre. As an industry, romance makes more than $1.4 billion per year. On the surface, that might seem like romance has lost its negative connotation, that critics have fallen to the wayside, and people have learned that the genre is more than fluff. But you would be wrong to think that. While it’s far more widely accepted these days, there are still those who denigrate the subject as “dirty”, “trashy”, and “smutty.” 

And then there are those who castigate fellow historical romance writers and artists from inside our own community. It’s no secret that in recent months, romance has been imploding under its own weight, and this has encouraged many important conversations about inclusiveness and historical inaccuracy in the genre. At HistoricalRomance.Love, we have several incredible contributions from authors that tackle these difficult issues. 

But what does any of this have to do with book covers? More than you might think. Book covers are the face of romance. You hear “romance novel” and think “Fabio”. And the steamy nature of many of these covers face criticisms, both from people uncomfortable with outward displays of sex, and from those who I will call “accuracy enthusiasts”. 

The thing is, sex has been on display for all of history. It’s not new, and it’s not exclusive to romance. Sex permeates every aspect of society. Most people agree that sex enriches romantic relationships, and yet there are some that believe it cheapens romance novels. But my aim here is not to analyze the perceptions of sex in romance. That subject has been tackled many times and by people who have done a fantastic job of it. A recent article by Jennifer Prokop, entitled The Memorial Johanna Lindsey Deserves, raises many great points, but this one resonated with me:

“Many obituaries of romance writers gleefully embrace the idea that writing about sex -a thing most people do!- renders the author immoral, but writing about murder -a thing most people never do- earns the author no judgement at all.”

It illustrates perfectly why the judgement surrounding romance novels and their covers is nothing more than manufactured outrage. And this moves me into the other half of this article. Just as many perceptions about sex are based in falsehoods, so too are the perceptions that historical romance covers are historically inaccurate. Sexy images are nothing new, and neither are depictions of women reposing in corset-less splendor.

Am I saying the bulk of historical romance novel covers out there are perfectly accurate? Definitely not. But covers probably face the biggest criticisms from authors of the genre which seems rather cannibalistic to me. Moreover, many of their complaints are overly critical and lack something surprising to me considering these accuracy enthusiasts are usually authors themselves. I’m talking about a lack of imagination. 

Modern romance novel covers echo artistic compositions throughout history. Both artists and romance novelists are storytellers and it has never been a requirement for creative work to be explicitly true to life. Nevertheless, if we look at historical paintings, we can find examples that call forth images of historical romance novel covers today.

Three Lovers C. 1817-1820
Theodore Gericault

Three Lovers by Theodore Gericault, painted between 1817-1820, is one such example. On the right side of the painting two lovers embrace, their pose not much different from countless covers. The woman’s dress is thin and gauzy and there’s no corset in sight. 

The Storm C. 1880
Pierre-Auguste Cot

In the 1880 painting The Storm, by Pierre-Auguste Cot, a couple runs for shelter while using the heroine’s overskirt as an umbrella. The girl’s hair is loose and wavy, her dress see-through and provocative. Not at all what young ladies were wearing in public at the time. 

The Kiss C. 1859
Francesco Hayez

For a more modest take, lets look at 1859 painting The Kiss, by Francesco Hayez. The couples’ embrace, the way he’s touching her face, the anonymity of the subjects are all reminiscent of the historical romance covers of today. While she’s likely wearing layer upon layer of clothing, even here we see no evidence of structured undergarments. It’s worth noting that corsets have been around, at least since the 1500s.

Kneeling Nun C. 1731
Martin van Meytens

If someone asked you if it would be accurate (whether historically or otherwise) to depict a nun on her knees with her rear end showing, you’d probably say no. And yet, that’s precisely what artist Martin van Meytens did in his 1731 work titled Kneeling Nun.  It’s true that we’re not seeing naked asses on book covers, but we often do see women in varying states of undress. Just as nuns did occasionally kick up their skirts, the women that grace historical romance novel covers also do, at times, remove their clothes. 

Florinda C. 1853
Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Florinda by Franz Xaver Winterhalter from 1853 is a veritable treasure trove of historical romance novel heroines. They lay upon mountains of unfastened dresses, sun-drenched and exposed, both to prying eyes and the outdoor elements. I’m drawn to the woman in the lower right corner, whose pose and exposed back is one of my favorite styles of romance cover.

I could go on and on with examples, but I believe these are enough to illustrate my point. While the literal components that make up a historical romance novel cover (the clothes, the hair, the setting) may not be perfectly historically accurate, they do accurately portray artistic representations of women and couples that we have seen for centuries. The least historically accurate thing about many romance novel covers today is the fact that the women on them rarely have curves, which, as you can see by these examples, they possessed in wonderful abundance. 

For those accuracy enthusiasts out there, I’d like you to consider something else. This is the year is 2020. We no longer have the same access to historical clothing as we once did. And while tools like Photoshop can help us work miracles, many Indie authors don’t have designer skills (they are authors, not designers, after all), nor do they have the budget to hire a designer with the level of skill required to reproduce a realistic costume or to pay for a photoshoot. Before you are so quick to criticize, consider the restraints, and honestly, whether your criticism even matters. Writing and reading is a passion for many. The point is to find enjoyment in it.

I’ll end on a small point mentioned above: that these critics lack imagination. Would a woman have left her house and gone about for the day in her neglige? Of course not. But these covers aren’t about what they’re wearing in everyday life. They’re private, intimate moments in time, when a woman might peel off the restricting layers she was accustomed to being caged in and relax, or dream, or make love. It’s the moment when her corset was torn away by loving hands and replaced by hot kisses. And they show us a thousand other moments that normally go unseen.

Author’s note: I can’t leave this article without acknowledging the inherent flaws in referencing historical content of any kind. We know know that much of history has been skewed and does not represent reality for the many diverse groups who have been eliminated from historical texts. The same holds true for art history. However, in this article I wanted to focus on the mischaracterization of historical romance novels as being historically inaccurate from a design and artistic perspective.


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