Category Archives: Fiction

The Sinister March of The Headless Women

It has been something of an in-joke for a while now, the proliferation of book covers featuring women with their heads chopped off. I’m not talking about Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, I mean the sorts of covers like those collected by Fizabook. I first became aware of it with historical fiction (most notably Philippa Gregory’s Tudor series) but apparently it’s more widespread than that (I don’t read contemporary books aimed at women since I don’t seem to share the belief set that underpins so many of them).

I rather suspect that subsequent books were trying to grab the coat tails of Gregory’s success by emulating the covers of her amazingly popular The Other Boleyn Girl and other titles, to the extent that the Headless Woman has become a visual cliché.

Of course, the easy response from publishers for this, at best, lazy designing is that people prefer to imagine the characters and find a face on a cover off-putting. I would be slightly more inclined to buy this if it were not for the likes of this:

For starters, Catherine of Aragon was real. We have authenticated portraits of her: we don’t need (nor should we want) to invent or imagine her face. Additionally, we are presented with a Henry VIII full-frontal below. Why do we see all of him but only a gigantic chin for Catherine, the supposed subject of the book? This argument is further weakened by the sheer number of fiction titles which feature a face, sometimes even an entire head:

Philippa Gregory- The Lady of The Rivers

Gabrielle Kimm -His Last Duchess

Elizabeth Chadwick- Lady of the English

Jeanne Kalogridis- The Borgia Bride

Sara Poole- Poison

Sarah Dunant- Sacred Hearts

There are also lots of covers which either don’t feature a figure at all, or feature an image from the art of the period (Italian Renaissance art seems to be popular, likely due to how recognisable it is). There are a wealth of options which wholly circumvent the “problem” of faces.

Wolf Hall sold an obscene number of copies without the help of a headless woman

I don’t think I am unusual in finding that I don’t pay a great deal of attention to the cover of a book. Yes, it may intrigue me enough to pick it up off the shelf but I am more looking for indications that the subject matter is history, in some form or another, than dazzled by a pretty frock and awkward sideways glance. Besides, I find most of my new to-reads through Amazon’s recommendations and there the cover is less important than the title and author. Once I’ve bought a book (often on Kindle where I don’t even see the cover after purchasing), I scan the cover only momentarily, to identify the book. I don’t expect the person on the cover, should there be one, to match my mental picture of the character. I pay so little attention to the cover that I can’t imagine this mismatch is problematic. Does anyone focus so hard on a cover that it can alter their appreciation of the contents?

So if not to protect our fragile imaginations, why the head lopping?

It must be recognised that covers are not the work of authors. In fact, few authors have any say at all in how their book is packaged. This is left in the hands of marketers, who work to  (from what I can gather) a set of preconceived rules about what people want, what sells and what doesn’t. It seems to be an incredibly conservative environment.

An example: my partner was looking to buy a new TV. After looking in several shops, he asked an assistant in a well-known UK department store if there were any black ones, since everything he could see was silver. The assistant was quite certain that nobody wanted black TVs nowadays, that they wouldn’t sell. Well, we wanted a black TV and we’d have bought one. There was a clear implication that we were in the wrong for not following the received wisdom that silver TVs were what sold. That was only true in the sense that you could buy a silver TV or no TV so yes, only silver TVs sold.

My point is that marketing isn’t always right. The response that “this is what sells” is feeble.

The usual way to market anything to do with women is to use a scantily-clad model (which marketers must presume is “aspirational”). Now, until fairly recently, in historical terms, underwear wasn’t very sexy (at least not in marketing terms) and there were not a wealth of opportunities for women to pose about with lots of skin on show. So far, no one has tried to put a cover girl in a velvet and brocade swimsuit.

The headless women are no less troubling because they are covered up, though. Surely we have to consider that a woman with her head chopped off is no less objectified than one inappropriately dressed for sunbathing. Head removal instantly dehumanises: she’s now just a body. She has lost her brain, senses and, in most cases, her voice. She may be clothed, but she’s been stripped of the things which make her a person.

This betrays the contents of the books, which typically feature strong women. Many of the central characters are, in fact, improbably strong for the times they live in. None of us want to read about brainless, senseless mutes. Where would that story go? We want to imagine how life might have been like in the past through the eyes of a fictional someone. Therefore, we need her to have eyes. We need her to have other senses too and a brain with with to understand what her senses tell her and a mouth with which to tell us. We need her, in short, to have her head screwed on.

So, I suggest we call time on the publishers’ headless women. I, for one, am not buying it. How do you feel about the headless women? Do you think it’s harmless, or more problematic?

My Favourite Fiction of 2011

Following on from the previous post, I thought I’d do a short round up of some of my 2011 fiction highlights.

First off, I should say that I am a rampant abandoner of books which I’m not enjoying. I know a lot of people will plough on to the end no matter how much they dislike a book but I’m not one of them. Life’s too short. If I’ve got to the end of a novel, that in itself indicates that I liked it. Having a Kindle makes that even easier- I can abandon a book on my way to work and have another to read on the way home. 🙂

Fiction-wise, I tend to read historical novels- a wide genre covering some wonderful depictions of the past and a whole lot of trash too. I also quite like a bit of European crime.

The Ground Is Burning, Samuel Black

My favourite novel of last year was Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning: Seduction, Betrayal, Murder, a novel with multiple points of view telling the story of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the early sixteenth century. Another point of view is that of Dorotea Caracciolo, a young woman who was kidnapped on her way to her marriage, thought to have been abducted by Cesare. Her uniquely female point of view is an interesting contrast to the various voices of the male characters. Black does a fantastic job of making these larger than life characters multi-dimensional, flawed and fascinating. There are battles, sex, betrayal and complex Italian politics. This is how historical fiction should be!

Another highlight featured the notorious Cesare: Sarah Bower’s Book of Love (entitled Sins of the House of Borgia in the USA). It’s mostly set in the much neglected Este court in Ferrara. Although enjoyable and clearly well researched, the central romantic relationship of the novel (though it’s by no means a romance), I found somewhat unbelievable. It was a bit rushed- the heroine falls in love within about 2 minutes of having met the man in question and the reader can’t quite understand why. If you can get past that (and I did), it’s a great read.

Secret of the Sands, Sara Sheridan

Veering away from my typical literary haunts of fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, I read Sara Sheridan’s new book Secret of the Sands which is set in the Arabian Peninsula in the nineteenth century. The novel is a seamless blend of the factual (the story’s hero and heroine both existed) and the imagined (beyond her name, almost everything about Zena is invented). It’s a gripping account of slavery, cultural clash and adventure in the Arabian desert. Sara’s previous novel, The Secret Mandarin is a similarly engrossing tale of westerners in China just after the Opium War.

My non-historical favourites were Sarah Dunant’s Mapping the Edge, an account of a woman who goes on holiday to Florence and doesn’t come home. Dunant’s my favourite historical fiction author but her contemporary novels, though often neglected, are well worth a look too. This one is unsettling and disturbing but absolutely addictive. Fred Vargas’s most recent novel was translated into English in 2011 too. An Uncertain Place is another outing for Commissaire Adamsberg. A good novel though let down by poor translation. I was, for example, surprised to find out that the translator is a native English speaker.

I’m currently back in the fifteenth century, Venice specifically, with Michelle Lovric’s The Floating Book.

Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book