Tag Archives: Books

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

The Best Non-Fiction I Read In 2011

Happy New Year everyone. One of my resolutions is to update this blog far more often. I thought I’d start with some of my reading highlights of the past year, starting with non-fiction.

My non-fiction star of 2011 was Lost Girls, which I’ve written about before so won’t do again. I love it though.

My other non-fiction highlights have included Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker which I found second hand. It was first published in the 1970s after the author experienced one of those strokes of luck historians dream about: he uncovered previously unpublished records. Buried in the extensive Florentine archives were records of a marriage trial from the 15th century. His book is a fascinating account of the case brought by a widow against the young nobleman she claimed had married her. He did not acknowledge the alleged marriage and had married another woman. It may not have quite as exciting as Martin Guerre but it is a wonderful insight into marriage and sexual politics in the Renaissance.

I am currently reading Paul Strathern’s new book, Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City. I was thrilled that this one is available on Kindle (none of his others are). The book looks at Florence, the Medici and the radical Dominican preacher Savonarola. Strathern depicts Lorenzo and Piero de’ Medici and Savonarola as complex individuals when it is easy to portray them as caricatures- Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero the Unfortunate and Savonarola as the “mad monk.” Despite knowing where this story is leading, I’m hooked.< Christmas presents have also added to my already long list of books to be read, including Lauro Martines’s Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy which might be a good follow up to Death in Florence. As a leaving present from my old job, I was given a lot of book tokens and have so far bought Italy in the Age of the Renaissance (john Najemy, ed.) which is an academic introduction to the period. I am eying up Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence by Sharon T. Strocchia

St Catherine of Siena


As is probably obvious, my interested have swerved sharply towards the Florenitine and Italian Renaissance! This is in no small part due to visiting Florence for the first time last April.

Early Modern Carnival!

This month, I’m proud to be hosting the Early Modern Carnivalesque here at Harlots, Harpies and Harridans. Nominations have been filtering in all month, with some really interesting posts for you.

As a huge bibliophile, I was pleased to see a number of bookish posts. Starting off with a pair of posts from Anchora on A1 pages (the page in an Early Modern book before the title page). The first post is fascinating and full of wonderful photographs of early books, including some beautiful engravings and illustrations. In a second post on the subject, Anchora-author Adam G. Hooks has some lovely owner’s marks in the form of notes and underscoring in an early seventeenth century book. The book was written by Robert Cecil (councillor to Elizabeth I and James VI & I) and was written in the wake of the Gunpowder Plot (1605). This post is also full of photographs, including some excellent examples of secretary hand from the period.

Elizabeth I's secretary hand signature

Over at Wynken de Worde, there’s a fascinating post about the arguments around digitising historic texts. There are some valuable contributions in the comments too so remember to read them! Despite my love for physical books (I am a hobby bookbinder after all), I am definitely on the side of digitisation, even if only for the accessibility. The Wynken de Worde post goes far beyond the accessibility argument and provides a highly convincing case for digitisation.

The next post, from the Folger Shakespeare Library is not only a great account of the wealth of new information old documents can provide but also features some excellent examples of digitised texts (in this case photographic reproductions), as if we needed to add further weight to the argument in favour. The deeds photographed are from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and feature some beautiful secretary hand writing.

Some of the submissions took a darker tone, in particular concerning one of the Early Modern period’s favourite forms of popular spectacle: executions. Executed Today has an interesting post on one of Henry VIII’s early executions in 1510 (before he really got into the swing of things!). Henry had acceded the previous year and won himself a big popularity boost by executing Richard Empson and Edmund Dudley. Both men were prominent councillors to Henry’s father but were also focuses for popular discontent over the old king’s taxes. Dudley tried to win Henry’s favour by writing a treatise in favour of absolute monarchy, in the hope of a pardon, but was to be disappointed. His son John would go on to become the Duke of Northumberland before meeting the same fate as his father. John’s son Robert Dudley, who became the Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth I’s Master of the Horse and life long favourite.

Execution of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland

While poor old Edmund Dudley was beheaded on Tower Hill, our next post, over at The Chirurgeons Apprentice looks at hanging, the preferred method of execution towards the end of the Early Modern period. It features a fascinating account of a public hanging in England in 1726, written by a Frenchman and goes on to look at this rather gruesome method of execution in general.

Finally, we have a look at the Hapsbugs’ unwitting attempts to end their line through in-breeding in this post about Charles II of Spain. The Hasburgs, keen to preserve the purity of their bloodline, had an unfortunate habit of marrying their cousins. This was not immediately problematic but generation after generation, problems started to appear. Charles II (1661-1700) suffered from multiple physical and emotional disabilities which may well have been the result of centuries of inbreeding (Charles’s parents were uncle and niece which made Charles’s father also his great-uncle). His disabilities were obvious from birth and he was not expected to survive. He did and suceeded to the throne but was an ineffective king. He had no children of his own and his death in 1700, a few days short of his 39th birthday, sparked the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).

Charles II of Spain

I hope you’ve enjoyed this selection of recent Early Modern blogging. The next Carnival is the medieval edition and will be hosted by She-Wolf next month and the next Early Modern edition will be in November at Anchora which has been featured here. Huge thanks to Sharon of Carnivalesque for letting me host this month!

Summer Reading

History Today has recently made a few blog posts on summer reading so I thought I’d list some of mine.

On Wednesday, I treked half-way across Edinburgh to pick up packages of books from the Royal Mail depot inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere. As well as a box set of American crime drama (Law & Order Special Victims Unit, as it happens- I’m addicted to that and CSI), were two books I’ve been very excited about getting.

Cover imageThe first is Nicholas Terpstra’s Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (2010), about the mysteriously high mortatlity rate in the Casa della Pieta, a shelter for homeless or orphaned girls in sixteenth century Florence. Terpstra claims that of the 526 girls who stayed there during its 14 year life, only 202 left alive. I imagine it’s going to be something of a Magdalen laundry of the Early Modern period. More than that, it looks like an exciting piece of historical detective work. There’s a review of it on the IHR website here which is what first attracted me. Assuming I like it, I’ll doubtlessly get a copy of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna by the same author.

Cover imageIn addition, I got Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith (2011) which takes a fresh look at an old story. Those who have seen Brotherhood of The Wolf (and if you haven’t, I strongly recommend you do) will be at least vaguely familiar with the legendary Beast of Gevaudin which terrorised the French countryside in the 18th century. It claimed over 100 victims but the real mystery was exactly what the beast was. Witnesses were certain that it was not a wolf, although the authorities eventually claimed that it was. Smith looks at the story in the context of French life at the end of the ancien regime, the Revolution only a few years away. There’s a website for the book here.

Other than that, my reading will be focused on the Roman Empire.

Classical Greece by Robin Osborne

Cover of "Classical Greece" by Robin Osborne

Book 1 for the Short Oxford Histories project arrived today. It was a welcome distraction from the horrible weather (pouring rain and snow in Scotland at the moment), leaking roof and the cold that has overstayed its welcome.

I’m excited about starting and now wondering if I should stick to my arbitrary starting date of Thursday or take advantage of some train travel I’ll be undertaking for work tomorrow and the couple of hours of good reading time it will provide. Perhaps 31st March is a more auspicious start date than 1st April anyway.

Reading Project

As a result of working on the Cleopatra research, I’ve remembered how much I enjoyed Ancient History at uni and how much I’ve forgotten. Consequently, I’m now reading The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox. It’s had a few Amazon reviews saying it’s dull but I’m not finding it so. This may, of course, be because I am particularly interested and after some of the course books we used at uni, my standards for interesting are low. It’s a shame though as ancient history, more than any other period IMO, is crammed with fantastic stories and amazing characters.

really want to go through and refresh my knowledge of all the history I did at uni. This means the Dark Age of Greece to the 1950s. I have, therefore, made a plan to achieve this by reading all the relevant Short Oxford Histories: SOH of Europe, the British Isles, France and Italy. I’ve now got a list of 33 books. There’s a series on Germany too but I’m leaving that one for the time being- Italy on got in by virtue of it being so important for the Renaissance and thus the Early Modern period.

I was thinking of adding in another few non-SOH as I go, like the one above; Alexander the Great by the same author as I love Alexander the Great; Caesar: Life of A Colossus, maybe Antony and Cleopatra by the same author if Caesar is any good; and possibly a good biography of Augustus. However, I think that will distract more than anything so I might not put them on the “official” list.

The SOHs list:

  1. Classical Greece 500-323 BCE, Robin Osborne
  2. Roman Europe 1000BC- AD 400, Edward Bispham
  3. The Roman Era: The British Isles: 55 BC – AD 410, Peter Salway (BI)
  4. After Rome: C.400-c.800, Thomas Charles-Edwards (BI)
  5. The Early Middle Ages 400-1000 AD, Rosamond McKitterick
  6. Italy in the Early Middle Ages: 476-1000, Cristina La Rocca (It)
  7. From the Vikings to the Normans, Wendy Davies (BI)
  8. France in the Central Middle Ages 900-1200, Marcus Bull (Fr)
  9. The Central Middle Ages 950-1320, Daniel Power
  10. Italy in the Central Middle Ages, David Abulafia (It)
  11. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries: 1066- c. 1280, Barbara Harvey (BI)
  12. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Ralph Griffiths (BI)
  13. France in the Later Middle Ages 1200-1500, David Potter (Fr)
  14. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance: 1300-1550, John M. Najemy (It)
  15. The Sixteenth Century, Euan Cameron
  16. The Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603, Patrick Collinson (BI)
  17. Renaissance and Reformation France: 1500-1648, Mack P. Holt (Fr)
  18. Early Modern Italy: 1550-1796, John A. Marino (It)
  19. The Seventeenth Century: Europe 1598-1715, Joseph Bergin
  20. The Seventeenth Century: 1603-1688,Jenny Wormald (BI)
  21. Old Regime France 1648-1788, William Doyle (Fr)
  22. The Eighteenth Century: 1688-1815, Paul Langford (BI)
  23. The Eighteenth Century: Europe 1688-1815, T. C. W. Blanning
  24. Revolutionary France: 1788-1880, Malcolm Crook (Fr)
  25. The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914, T. C. W. Blanning
  26. Italy in the Nineteenth Century: 1796-1900, , John A. Davies (It)
  27. The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles 1815-1901, Colin Matthew (BI)
  28. Europe 1900-1945, Julian Jackson
  29. Liberal and Fascist Italy, Adrian Lyttleton
  30. The British Isles 1901-1951, Keith Robbins (BI)
  31. Modern France: 1880-2002, James McMillan (Fr)
  32. Europe Since 1945, Mary Fulbrook
  33. The British Isles Since 1945, Kathleen Burk (BI)
  34. NB: BI indicates SOH of the British Isles; Fr = SOH of France; It = SOH of Italy; otherwise SOH of Europe. Bold are titles I already own.

    I’m not an especially fast reader but factoring in the fact that I need to keep on with the research for my book, I think 18 months is a reasonably achievable target. 78 weeks means just under 2.5 weeks per SOH book, which is quite doable. The first book has been ordered and is due to arrive by 31st March so I’ll start the project on 1st April (how auspicious).
    If anyone feels generous (and it is my birthday in a few weeks), I’ve set up an Amazon Wishlist for all the titles as yet unpurchased here, with the date I’m due to start reading each title.

    Despite intending to blog about this, I somehow suspect that unlike Belle du Jour, Julie Powell et al, I will not come home at any point to find 65 messages on the answering machine from literary agents and publishers desperate to see this project made into books and films. Lack of imagination, I call it.

    I’ll blog any wicked women finds from the books and anything else that it particularly relevant or interesting as well as general things that arise from a project like this. Before I even start, there are a couple of things that spring to mind, in particular Spartan marriage practices, which I hope the first book covers.