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Book Cover Love Part 1: Non-romance edition

One of the things we dream about when writing a book is what the cover will look like. I don’t know how it works at other publishers, but at Entangled, authors are sent a form they can fill in with their ideas. For a debutante like me, it’s a very cool and fun experience. Obviously it’s down to the cover designers and marketing department to decide which ideas might actually make for a salable cover. Anyway, I’ve seen the mock-up and I can’t wait to be able to share the finished product.

Meanwhile, all this has me thinking of book covers in general and what appeals to me as a reader. I thought it might be fun to do a post highlighting some of my favorite cover art. I’ll do romance next week and other stuff this week. Why that way round? Well, I got a few new followers after last week’s post, which made me feel like I need a thematic stepping stone between it and the probable fest of purple, fuchsia and heaving bosoms (both male and female) that will be next week’s romance covers post. Ease ’em in gently, I always say.

The wonder by Emma Donoghue: Find on Goodreads.

Wonderful historical novel about an English nurse who goes to a tiny Irish village “to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle – a girl said to have survived without food for months.” I loved this way more than “Room”. As for the cover, I own this on kindle but I regret not buying the hardback just so I can physically hold this artwork. The colors, particularly the use of gold, are stunning and the cover as a whole is so evocative of what’s inside; a bleak yet haunting story of how people can transform each other’s lives.

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter: Find on Goodreads

How can you not be intrigued by this cover? I want this framed and displayed on my wall. For the two people in the world who haven’t read Angela Carter yet, she wrote magical realism often with a distinctly Gothic twist. The angel on the front cover is actually a circus performer named “Fevvers” and she’s one of my favorite protagonists in all of literature. She’s warm, earthy, and unstoppable. But is she really part swan? You’ll have to read to find out.

Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters: Find on Goodreads.

This cover has caused me so much trouble over the years. I bought the paperback shortly after it came out and I can’t tell you how many people raised their eyebrows. Shout out to the octogenarian who took one look at the cover, scanned the blurb, then announced in a loud voice to the room at large, “Sex, sex, sex. That’s all this generation ever thinks about.” Tipping the Velvet is an odyssey through the Victorian sexual underworld. If you don’t care for explicit sex scenes, maybe give it a miss, but for the rest of us, it’s a tour de force.

The North Water by Ian McGuire: Find on Goodreads.

This is the fourth historical novel to appear on this list, so I guess we know what my wheelhouse is. I love the simplicity of this cover. The blues contrasted with the black and white. Somehow the blue is both land and sea. I never even noticed the polar bear until today. As for the book, it’s gritty, unrelenting, and almost entirely populated by men doing traditionally “manly” things (whaling, murdering each other etc). None of this would usually be my thing, yet somehow I was riveted and had this finished in a couple of sittings.”

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray: Find on Goodreads.

Bit of a change of pace for this Young Adult satire of the beauty industry. My kindle copy is virtually all highlights because I snort-laughed my way through this tale of a group of beauty queens whose plane crashes on a desert island. Why does this cover work? I guess there’s a hot blonde to stare at if that’s your thing, but for me it was the ammo belt filled with lipstick. Whoever came up with this concept, they sold me the book, for which I thank them.

From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty.: Find on Goodreads.

If you’re scared of dying or death, I highly recommend anything by Caitlin Doughty, including her Ask A Mortician YouTube videos. I devoured “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, her memoir about the funeral industry, but I might not have tried “From Here to Eternity”, which is about her search for cultures with healthier attitudes to death than the western one, had it not been for this cover with its dramatic color contrasts. Something about putting flowers on a skull immediately renders said skull 95% less scary. Which is basically what Caitlin Doughty does in a nutshell.

I hope you enjoyed this blatant excuse to post gorgeous cover art as much as I did. I hope you’ll come back for next week’s look at romance novels.

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History as a Moving Target: Did Victorian doctors really use clitoral stimulation to treat hysteria?

As a history geek who also writes historical romance, I do a lot of research. One of the things that strikes me is how our image of the past is less fixed than we think. The 19th century as written by Jane Austen differs drastically from the version we find in a primary document like The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. And, contrary to what I’ve read in romance novel reviews over the years, members of the ton occasionally married sex workers (e.g. Elizabeth Armistead, Lady Meux etc.), trans people existed, and same sex couples occasionally lived together happily and even occasionally *gasp!* openly.

I’ve always been fascinated by Victorian sexuality, probably because it diverges so widely from the stereotype promulgated by nineteenth century novels. The idea that Victorian doctors used clitoral stimulation to treat female hysterics has long been accepted as fact. There’s even a book about it written by an actual scholar and published by John Hopkins University Press. So it must be true, right?

EPSON scanner Image

There’s even a (very fun) film about the invention of the vibrator. Here’s the trailer in case you’re interested. Which you should be because Rupert Everett is in it.

When I started writing The Madness of Miss Grey, I certainly believed Maines’s research to be solid. There was never a draft of my story where this particular treatment was practiced; I was writing historical romance, not historical fiction, and I decided including scenes (in which inmates of a lunatic asylum are masturbated to orgasm to relieve hysteria) presented too much of an ethical minefield.

How could such a thing have been true given what we know (or think we know) about Victorian society? According to Maines, the medical profession didn’t view clitoral stimulation as sexual because they had a woefully penis-centric attitude to intercourse. This didn’t jibe well with what some primary sources had to say regarding the Victorian belief that female orgasm was necessary for procreation, but I reasoned that, then as now, different doctors held differing opinions. I wonder if, on some level, I wanted to believe it because it’s so titillating (see the trailer above) and because the artwork is seductive:

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Cure

I came across opposing opinions, particularly Dr. Fern Riddell and Oneill Therese, but it wasn’t until I read this article that I realized I was going to have to reassess my beliefs. Maines responds to criticism of her book by declaring her ideas only an “hypothesis,” adding :

“I never claimed to have evidence that this was really the case.”

As the article states, “she was a little surprised it took so long for other scholars to question her argument, given how admittedly “slender” the evidence she gave in The Technology of Orgasm was. “I thought people were going to attack it right away. But it’s taken 20 years for people to even—people didn’t want to question it. They liked it so much they didn’t want to attack it.””

As someone who has read The Technology of Orgasm, this may be true, but her tone was certainly authoritative.

So, can we definitively say that Victorian doctors didn’t use clitoral stimulation to treat hysterics? Well… not really. As with so much of history, we can’t be absolutely sure. Maines includes a lot of very suggestive stuff. But if we can’t be 100% certain, it’s still fair to say there’s little to no evidence.

Fortunately, it wasn’t hard to remove and adapt the few references in The Madness of Miss Grey. It just goes to show that, even when you’ve done the research, even when you think you know what the past was like, you really don’t. Whether its historical fiction, historical romance, or even non-fiction we’re writing or reading, we’re all imagining our own versions of the past.