I’m so happy to have Kate Emerson, author of the Secrets of the Tudor Court series, guest post on my blog today. Her newest book, AT THE KING’S PLEASURE, was so great and I’ll share my review of it tomorrow (along with an autographed copy of the book for giveaway!!).
Without further ado, welcome Kate!
Headless Women—Cover Art on Tudor Historical Novels
Love them or hate them, those book covers featuring pictures of women from the middle of the face down signal that the novel inside is historical fiction. I’m not sure when the first of these appeared. The earliest one I have in my personal library is the trade paperback edition of Philippa Gregory’s THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL. Certainly, after the enormous success of that book, it seemed as if every novel set in the sixteenth century, especially those taking place at the court of Henry VIII, had a headless woman on the cover. Given that Henry had two of his six wives beheaded, there is a sort of macabre appropriateness to this.
But before long the fashion for headless women spread to historical novels set in other time periods and even to some nonfiction books about the Tudor era. By the time I sold the first of my “Secrets of the Tudor Court” novels, THE PLEASURE PALACE, it was a pretty good bet that I would have a headless woman on my cover. I just kept my fingers crossed that she’d be wearing something vaguely accurate for the period. The author, you see, has no control over cover art.
All in all, I was pleased with that first cover. The gown wasn’t too far off the mark and fact that the woman was “headless” did what it was supposed to do. It told readers, at a glance, that it was historical fiction, probably set in Tudor times, and that the novel featured a woman as the main character. The same cover art now appears on the ebook omnibus edition of all three Secrets of the Tudor Court novels (THE PLEASURE PALACE, BETWEEN TWO QUEENS, and BY ROYAL DECREE).
But what else does this book cover tell a potential book buyer? According to a reader I met several years ago at a Historical Novel Society conference, the subliminal message is two fold. First it says that the woman as no brains. And second, since the title of that book is at crotch level, emphasized in the cover of THE PLEASURE PALACE by the fact that the model is holding her skirt out to both sides of her body, it says that a woman’s primary function is as a sex object. Harsh judgment, you say? Maybe, but there is an element of truth in this interpretation. I have no idea what the art departments of all the publishing houses who use headless women covers had in mind but, intentionally or not, they pretty much summed up what most sixteenth-century men thought of their wives and daughters.
Except in a few limited circumstances, women had no legal rights in the sixteenth century. They started life as the property of their fathers and were handed off to husbands. They owned nothing of their own, not even the clothes on their backs. As for independent thought, that was almost universally discouraged. Women were not even supposed to read the Bible for themselves. They were supposed to accept whatever their menfolk—fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, and priests—told them to believe.
Ironic, isn’t it, that the heroines of modern historical novels rarely fit that profile? Of course, they’d make very dull reading if they did. And in fact, sixteenth-century women, just like women in every era, managed to get around the restrictions men placed on their lives. The women in my three “Secrets of the Tudor Court” novels and in my latest offering, AT THE KING’S PLEASURE (in stores January 3, 2012), are capable of thinking for themselves, and they are very aware of the obstacles they face.
The heroine of AT THE KING’S PLEASURE, Lady Anne Stafford is victimized by the men in her life, particularly her brother, but she is a survivor. She is also strong-willed and passionate. Although history does not provide many details, we know that she held the lifelong devotion of two very different men. She loved them both, a difficult situation for any woman, and it was made much worse because who she was—the sister of the 3rd Duke of Buckingham—placed her at the center of intrigue and danger.
Lady Anne Stafford is portrayed on the cover of AT THE KING’S PLEASURE as a headless woman, missing the part that contains the brain, but in real life she made good use of both mind and heart. She had to in order to survive the tangled loyalties and treasonous schemes rampant at the Tudor court.