following BridgertonIn 2021, Avon did what any good publisher would do: it rolled out new tie-in covers for each of the books in the series that inspired Netflix’s megahit. The covers of the first two books are, naturally, the only ones to show the actors’ full faces, as many of the characters from the later books have yet to be introduced or even cast. The rest features a cropped torso photograph, hiding each individual’s characteristics while providing visual clues to their personality, such as the bright yellow dress and auburn hair that sets a character apart from the series. The pseudo-anonymous torso photo is a common romance cover trope, allowing readers to project themselves onto romantic characters that are still somewhat left to the imagination. The cross-promotion, however, isn’t meant to be so subtle – each cover also includes a prominent Netflix badge.
This isn’t the first revamp of Julia Quinn’s eight-book romance saga: Over the years, the Bridgerton the books were redesigned with several different covers for English-speaking markets, reflecting the changing strategies of romance publishers over the decades to appeal to wider audiences. While romance is often associated with the “cinch covers” popular in the 70s and 80s, featuring couples in a dramatic and passionate embrace, these designs have evolved considerably. Inherent in the design of genre covers is the assumption that readers would feel embarrassed to be seen reading novels: readers and writers of novels face gendered social stigma for showing interest in erotic content, the “sneers and sneers” described by a 2015 study. While covers can’t solve this problem, they still engage in it, whether it’s obscuring their texts with images more reserved or to push back expectations with bold, unashamed illustrations.
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The first consumer edition of the first book in the series, The duke and mepublished in 2000, featured a chaste pink cover with flowers surrounding a business card with the names of the main characters. “I still have a soft spot for the very first edition of The duke and me“, Quinn told me by e-mail. “There was something so sweet about Daphne’s name handwritten on the Duke’s card.” The style was probably influenced by the prevailing trend of romantic covers of the 1990s, which favored delicately pretty scenes over the clunky covers of the previous two decades.
The 1990s also saw the introduction of “throwbacks”, a two-layer cover with the top page “pushed back” a quarter inch from the side to conceal (usually much sexier) artwork underneath. By hiding suggestive winks and implausibly fitted cover models behind a more innocuous screen, throwbacks provided readers with cover – quite literally – if they didn’t want to be seen reading a gripping story online. public. The cover of the 2002 consumer edition of Book 4, Romancing Mr. Bridgertonshows a landscape background with a lipstick-kissed handkerchief removed from the oversized title, but scrolling back this page reveals a painted body-to-body of the protagonists, whose clothes seem about to succumb to the forces of passion and/or gravity.
Publishers have used a myriad of strategies over the years to try to balance competing desires for public excitement and discretion. In the United States, the Bridgerton books published or updated in the late 2000s featured serene English landscapes with more sensual scenes hidden under the covers. But the book’s British publisher took a different approach: the covers published by Piatkus used an elongated arch style of illustration that was popular among covers targeting female readers at the time (called “chick lit”) . The shy reimagining of elegant 1950s-60s fashion illustrations revived the Regency characters from the books in a marriage of retro and pseudo-progressive styles.
Beginning in 2015, Avon remade the covers of the series with inanimate objects, meant to be more allusive and calm than the dizzying contrast of setbacks between demure and dramatic. The symbolic objects of these blankets – a style popularized in the late 2000s dusk minimalism – provide more obvious clues to their plots than the generic landscapes of the first editions. The abandoned slipper on An offer from a gentlemanthe cover signals the third book of the Cinderella plot in the series, while a stack of letters on a desk reveals the epistolary yard of book 6, To Sir Phillip, with love. Without human figures, the scenes also emphasize sentiment rather than sexual tension.
The duke and meThe new tie-in cover, released with the show’s December 2020 release, capitalizes on both sentiment and sex. The main actors (Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor) are depicted in a quasi hand-to-hand combat, the duke in black velvet gazing enviously at the first lady dressed in white, juxtaposing the experience and innocence of the characters, the sadness and optimism. While the characters in Quinn’s books are white, the Netflix series has expanded the diversity of the world with their cast, especially compared to the historically seamless antics of Regency. (More recently, authors like Vanessa Riley, whose book has been adapted by several Bridgerton alum – have also expanded representation in the Regency romance on the page.) So far, The duke and me and The viscount who loved me are the only two Bridgerton the books feature characters of color on the cover, but future cover adaptations may reflect as-yet-undetermined casting choices.
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Meanwhile, the covers of translated editions of Quinn’s books present a fascinating array of approaches, from adapting Avon or Piatkus covers to branching out into new covers. The Croatian and Japanese editions both portray entirely new cover designs and a floral, wispy look. Others follow the abstract and symbolic approach, such as flower-wrapped frames surrounding Turkish book titles, and birds and butterflies fluttering above a stylized “B” on Estonian covers. The most diverse set of covers are the Vietnamese editions of the books, which vary drastically from the art of paper cutting to graphic design to a cropped and edited photograph of Keira Knightley in The Duchess.
The popularity of Bridgerton on Netflix, and vivid book covers, may inspire some new readers to discover the joys of romance and its imagery. But while the streaming platform helps pull romance out of its silo, the genre still suffers from dismissive and gendered attitudes towards sexuality that continue to influence covers and marketing decisions. the Bridgerton the books’ visuals show how the novel covers have both combated – and been shaped by – sexist attitudes towards a genre that centers and celebrates women’s sexuality and romance. While the shameless winks persist, other covers tend to make the romance “respectable” by offering subdued imagery instead of overt sensuality, just as the sexual escapades of historical romances usually end within the confines of the wedding and conventions. There’s a lot going on on book covers these days. It’s up to readers how they judge the book below.