Book covers: some history and a quandary

I’m “rebranding” my Moriarty series, which mostly consists of redesigning the covers. I love my cover creator, but I wanted a fresh take on the whole situation, so I hired the amazing Jane Ryder of Ryder Author Resources to study the scene with me. We spent quality time (on my ticket) browsing images: Victorian mysteries at Amazon, Victorian sensation novels in the British Library online catalogue, and endless Google image searches for things like “nineteenth century painting man on stage,” which yielded bupkiss. (It’s hard to find images of sufficient quality for a paperback.)

In olden days

An alchemical treatise bound in 1568. Be prepared before you open this one!

A book cover, according to Wikipedia, is “any protective covering used to bind together the pages of a book.” The article notes that books were originally handwritten on parchment, so that each page was an expensive item. The covers, often luxuriously decorated with leather or velvet, with gilding and even jewels, were meant to protect those precious pages and keep them together.

Obvious, you say; but not any more. Where are the pages being protected in the digital books I’m mostly concerned about? I sell paperbacks too, but my covers are chiefly designed to catch the eye, not entice the fingers. They’re attractive images which serve no tangible purpose. I rarely look at the cover of the books on my Kindle, once I’ve downloaded them. They don’t look like much in black and white anyway.

The dawn of the popular

 old-bookAlong comes the printing press, and that stack of paper isn’t so valuable, in and of itself. What’s wanted is quantity. It’s not the publisher’s job to make sure the product will survive for centuries, so now we get covers of simple printed pasteboard. They might be covered with thin leather and sewn closely, for a more expensive volume. But they might be pretty flimsy, almost like modern paperbacks. 

You’d enter the shop and flip open the cover to read the frontispiece, which is where the marketing happened. Consider these favorite examples.

Not that the author’s name isn’t shown. This short book was published anonymously. It’s loaded with scandel-mongering scurrility.
By the inimitable Christopher Marlowe, here spelled Marloe. 1593, the year he died.
Don’t you love the way Francis (Bacon, of course) had them dude up his first name there? He was Baron Verulam at this time, the Roman name of St. Albans, the town nearest his home at Gorhambury.

Onward, into the recent past

You have to have lots of readers as well as lots of paper to produce a truly popular press. So we fast-forward to the late Victorian period, after the new and improved public school program (the Elementary Education Act of 1870) has managed to push literacy out to the masses.

But are the masses clamoring for an updated copy of Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration in Latin? No, they most emphatically are not. What they want is sensation, thrills and chills. They want tales of romance obstructed and rewon; tales of battles, tales of strange occurrences. They want fun!

Scholars of literature date the novel from the early 18th century. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was written by Samuel Richardson in 1740. I recently tried to read another early novel – Daniel Defoe’s 1724 Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress – but I got bored and gave up. I should’ve read the blurb: I didn’t know there was a murder in it! (Wait. 1724 is before 1740. Isn’t Roxana a novel? Also, I think Thomas Nashe’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveler is a novel. That one is a fun read, if you don’t mind early modern English. But I’m not qualified to define the term ‘novel.’ I just write the things.)

Genre fiction

A plain and sturdy cover

These days, ‘genre’ means ‘fiction that falls into one of several recognizable categories.’ Romance was the first, but by the late nineteenth century, the time toward which I struggle verbosely, we also have crime (mystery, thriller, suspense), fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and horror. The list at Wikipedia includes inspirational as a genre, but I think that’s more mid-20th century. Before that, all literary fiction was supposed to be uplifting.

But we don’t care about all that. We’re looking at covers. Many of the ones you find if you search for “Victorian era book covers” are practical, sturdy, leather-bound volumes that look like they were meant for the burgeoning library trade. You probably had to know which book you wanted when you went in. You’d fill out a slip at the desk and the librarian would go get it for you. So you cared as much about that cover as I do about the books on my Kindle.

But what if you’re browsing in a bookstore, for yourself or for a gift? Then the cover really matters. Also, let’s remember that the Victorians invented advertising, in the sense of big, eye-catching images with bald-faced lies around them. Perfect for fiction!

Here’s sampling of what we might have found.

rudyard-kipling-jungle-book            john-lang-the-ex-wife










Haunted House in Berkeley Square          book-cover-vic4


Spring-Heeled Jack was only a penny! That wasn’t a lot even back then. I would have read these by the barrow-load.

The Haunted House in Berkeley Square — actually, all of these — display most of the characteristics of a modern popular book cover. We also have a very abstract contingent, but for genre fiction, it’s still most commonly a frame of some sort in which the title and author’s name are displayed clearly. These books put the publisher on the front and even the price, for the penny dreadful. I don’t see any puff quotes — I guess Stephen King wasn’t around yet to tell us what a heart-pounding read this is. But we have the compelling central image that gives us an instant sense of what kind of ride that book is going to take us on. Moody and dark, for the Haunted House. Exciting, non-stop action for Jack.

A Walk through the Covers of Time

We can easily observe the changing taste in book covers by looking at everybody’s favorite lady novelist, Jane Austen. The first one is undated, but probably much like the originals in the late 18th century. Then we have a sensational one from the Age of Sensation, 1870. Then a milder one from 1946. Then one from probably the 1980s, when we’re reading Jane because we have to. Then we get through the whole Jane Reboot with movie after movie (all of which I’ve watched and loved, except for anything with Keira Knightley in it.)




The Quandary

If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a big chocolate cookie. The quandary is which direction to go in for my covers. Not all the way to early c18, definitely. But neither do I wish to get into the full abstraction of literary fiction in c21. I don’t write literary fiction and my name is not that well known. I think my covers need images that give a good sense of content.

But should I go full-on Victorian? It’s not that easy to find images that are of sufficient quality for my cover creator to work with and also relate to my story. I’m spending a lot of time grazing for images… The have to be in the public domain, absolutely. I’m even considering commissioning some original art, but that’s probably out of my reach.

If you like this sort of thing and want to watch the process, you can tune in to my Pinterest board. Note that not all of these are in the public domain! They’re there so I can contemplate having something similar made for me by an artist.

Anthony Munday, London's offspring

Anthony Munday is a minor Elizabethan writer — in our time, not his. In his time, he was more or less everywhere in London, writing anything that paid.

Munday was baptised in October of 1560 and died in August of 1633 — a goodly age in any century. munday_coverNote that his life nearly spanned the reigns of both Elizabeth I and James I, a period of tremendous literary achievement. Munday is remembered chiefly for his non-writing activities, pursuing religious non-conformists on both extremes — Catholics and Puritans. He wrote some viciously anti-Catholic tracts and informed on Catholic recusants to curry favor with powerful potential patrons. He bragged about helping to get some Catholic priests hanged. Not a pleasant man, by most contemporary accounts, though if he had been a better writer, that might have been forgiven.

Tracey Hill shows us a more well-rounded view in Anthony Munday and Civic Culture, which is mostly about his works and their situation in the literature of that era. My purposes are other: I look for snapshots of the man and his milieu to use in building a minor character in my books. He appears in Publish and Perish and will undoubtedly come back, because he seems to have been ubiquitous in the London writing world.

Printer, draper, player, writer

Munday’s father Christopher was a member of the Worshipful Society of Drapers, but worked as a stationer. That makes sense to me, since both drapers and stationers kept shops in which they sold a variety of goods. He apprenticed Anthony to a printer named John Allde in 1576, but the lad didn’t finish his term. He left after only two years to go to the Continent and enroll in the English College at Rome. He must have been working as an intelligencer for someone like Sir Francis Museum_of_London_entranceWalshingham, the queen’s Secretary of State. People of Munday’s class didn’t get permission to travel abroad without good reason, especially not to soul-endangering Catholic Italy. We don’t know how young Anthony got himself chosen for such work.

Munday was made free of the Drapers in 1585 by patrimony. Sometime before that, he married a woman whose name has not been preserved. They lived and raised their children in Cripplegate, a London ward just outside the city walls which was largely demolished in the Blitz and is now mostly the Barbican Centre — a twisting concrete wilderness outside, with wonderful plays, movies, and the incomparable Museum of London within.

In the 1580s, he worked as a pursuivant of Catholic recusants. This mainly meant traveling around the country digging up names of people who failed to attend their parish church on Sunday, as required by law — a law created for the purpose of exposing hidden (recusant) Catholics. Then in 1589, Munday was hired by the Archbishop of Canterbury to track down Puritan Martin Marprelate‘s secret press, which was cranking out rebellious pamphlets with unstoppable glee.

He worked for the Earl of Oxford in some secretarial capacity for a while. That doesn’t imply a close association with the erratic nobleman. Persons of great wealth and stature in those days maintained large households, with lots of retainers of the sort we would call an entourage. They hung out, ready to run errands, answer mundane mail, or deal with lesser visitors. 

Hall’s book isn’t a biography, so I don’t have details of any period of Munday’s life. From the 90’s on, he seems to have made his living writing.

The Mirrour of Mutabilitie

mirrorThat’s the title of Munday’s first published work, or rather, the short version. Here’s the full, from the University of Michigan’s indispensable database of early modern booksThe mirrour of mutabilitie, or Principall part of the Mirrour for magistrates Describing the fall of diuers famous princes, and other memorable personages. Selected out of the sacred Scriptures by Antony Munday, and dedicated to the Right Honorable the Earle of Oxenford.

Munday’s works span the literary genres of his day, excepting ballads, as far as I can see from Hall’s bibliography of his works. He wrote pious tracts, like Two godly and learned sermons. He wrote history, like The famous, pleasant, and variable historie of Palladine of England, about knightly deeds. 

A banquet of daintie conceits, furnished with verie delicate and choyse inuentions, to delight their mindes, who take pleasure in musique, and there-withall to sing sweete ditties, either to the lute, bandora, virginalles, or anie other instrument. Published at the desire of bothe honorable and worshipfull personages, who haue had copies of diuers of the ditties heerein contained. Written by A.M. seruaunt to the Queenes most excellent Maiestie. This is a book of poetry. Here’s a taste:

“A Diew my former pleasure,
for I of force must leaue thée:
I see my state is most vnsure,
and thou hast long deceiude me,
Time bids me minde my latter end,
and that I am but clay:
And euerie howre I doo offend,
in manie a wicked waie.
Then farewell sinne,
I will beginne.
To sorrowe for my wicked life at the last,
and feare to sinne any more:
For when I remember all that is past,
my hart dooth bleede therefore.”

Fidele and Fortunio

That’s the title of Munday’s first play, dated 1584. It’s a comedy including an opportunistic character named Captain Crackstone, which is enough to get me to the theater. Alas, it’s not playing this year. Scholars find connections to Shakespeare, who seems to have remembered every word he ever heard, spinning it into later gold. Read an example at the Wikipedia page for this play

He wrote plays and sometimes acted in them, for the Lord Strange’s Men and Oxford’s men, robin_hoodperformed at the Rose in Southwark. Two popular ones were The Seven Deadly Sins and his smash hit, The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington, a play about Robin Hood for which he was paid a walloping five pounds. This was performed in 1597-8, perhaps giving Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor a little serious competition.

The Downfall was successful enough to merit a sequel, The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington. Munday wrote or co-authored over a dozen plays, collaborating with writers like Michael Drayton, Henry Chettle, Thomas Middleton, and John Webster. If it weren’t for Shakespeare, these guys would be more famous — or the whole period would have sunk beneath the tidal wave of Victorian literature. Who knows?

The triumphes of ancient draperie

Munday made most of his money writing and staging pageants for the livery companies of London. These groups of solid citizens enjoyed their annual festivities, which included processions through the city streets and pageants in which they attached their history to the glories of the ancient world.

Drapers_COAI like this title: Metropolis coronota, the triumphes of ancient drapery. You can lisp your way through the early modern spelling of this not-quite-forgotten work at the Map of Early Modern London. Here’s a taste, transliterated by your friendly blogger:

“On Monday, being the 30. of October, 1615, according to ancient and most honourable custome, the L. Mayor being to pass by water to Westminster, in company of his worthy Brethren, and attended by all the other Companies in their several Barges made fit for triumph, after such manner as formerly hath been observed: the first device that welcometh him to the water, is an invention proper to that nature, and thought apt to conduct him in his passage. He being both a Draper and Stapler, and these two processions (in former times) appertaining to the Brethren of London’s Drapery, trading only in wools and woolen cloth, the then chief riches of the kingdom: both these mysteries meeting together so conveniently in one man, I did account is as a sinne in me to sunder them, and therefore made use of that Creast [??] or Cognizaunce of the Golden Fleece, give by ancient Heraldry to them both, and remaining still in firm force with the Draper, as their Escutchion of Armes makes manifest.”

London City Mayor’s parade

This sounds like fun, actually. The guildsmen and their wives set out on the Thames in decorated boats and barges, being rowed gently upstream toward Westminster. Perhaps they time it for an inflowing tide, so little rowing is needed beyond steering the group around a central barge, whereon a pageant is performed. This would be a dumb show of youths and/or children wearing costumes designed and supplied (at a decent mark-up) by Anthony Munday.

London’s livery companies still process through the streets to celebrate things. There are 110 livery companies in London at present, in case you thought these things had slid forever into the past.

We get another hint at Munday’s character in his last will and testament. At his death, his moveable property was valued at L135 7s 10d. But he only left 12 pence each to his children (however many there were.) Why so cheap? He explained because their “expectation of me can be nothinge because they live in as good (if not better estate) than I did.”

That seems a little unfriendly for a dear old Dad. suggesting he was no such thing. He outlived his most famous rivals — Robert Greene (d. 1592), Thomas Nashe (d. 1601), and William Shakespeare (d. 1626). I don’t know where Munday’s legacy went. His church or the Worshipful Company of Drapers, one supposes. He may not be favorably remembered, but he’s remembered, and perhaps, in the end, that’s enough.


Hill, Tracey. 2004. Anthony Munday and Civic Culture: Theatre, history and power in early modern London, 1580-1633. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Nicholl, Charles. 1992. The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe. Picador.

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