Girls Running from Houses…

Herondale Edit cover     What is behind all those fabulously lurid 1960s romance novel covers showing a beautiful young woman fleeing a dark, sinister house in the middle of nowhere? Not what you might expect…!

Although the cover art of these 1960s and 1970s paperbacks has become increasingly popular on internet sites, the origins of this particular genre of novel, together with the images that represented it, are swathed in as much mystery as the gloomy, fog-enshrouded castles from which these girls are so desperate to escape. Why did this particular image become such a powerful symbol? Joan Aiken would never have expected her 1960s suspense novels to be seen as part of the genre but the rather astonishing artistic conventions of the time dictated otherwise. She was often amazed to see her heroines flamboyantly pictured on American paperbacks, caught up in fantastic scenes which hardly ever took place between their covers. What were the literary roots of these ‘Gothic Romances’, and what caused  their popularity in the middle of the twentieth century? Women of the period were torn between a post-Second World War retreat to the ‘haven’ of marriage and domesticity and the stirrings of consciousness brought about by the newly developing feminist movement, which began to offer an alternative prospect of independence and fulfilment in the wider world.

2.Trouble with product XThe recent TV series Madmen has portrayed this period vividly for a whole new generation of women, who have been amazed not just by the fashions, but by the unexpectedly oppressive conventions of the time. Whether as a bored and trapped housewife, or sexually vulnerable office girl, these women did not necessarily have the freedom to enjoy the changes that the rest of society was going through. Gothic Romances offered an escape; the chance to experience, if only vicariously, some of life’s alternatives. They seemed to be an adult version of fairy tales, or girls’ adventure stories, where independence of mind and feistiness of spirit were rewarded, not squashed, and girls had the freedom to discover their own true selves and abilities. The women might start out single and unsupported, but they used their talents as nurses or governesses to win the hearts of wealthy heroes – not unlike the Cinderella plot of the film Pretty Woman, only in Gothics, prostitution wouldn’t have been a career option – the heroine was expected to defend her virtue until she got a wedding ring. 4. Austen Gothic

These novels, aimed primarily at women, had first appeared in the eighteenth century at another time of change and revolution, and the genre was later parodied by Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, which made fun of young ladies who read too many sensational novels about sinister goings-on in dark castles, and were thus blinded to the rather more present perils of single women in real life. The option, even half a century later, of becoming a governess like Jane Eyre led more often to a life of drudgery than to romance and marriage. In Victorian times, although marriage was still the safest option, women may yet have dreamed of escaping their idealised role as ‘Angel of the House’ and yearned to go off into the world like Mary Kingsley or Florence Nightingale.

Meanwhile, popular novelists like  Dickens and Wilkie Collins were having their vulnerable heroines incarcerated in mental asylums, or dying of wasting diseases, and so kept firmly in their place. It wasn’t until after the First World War that women novelists really began to make their ideas heard, and to cater, with more realistic writing, for the many single women who found themselves with no alternative – like those writers themselves, perhaps – but to make an independent life when, following the vast losses of men, married domesticity was not an option. At the same time, the growth of local lending libraries, distributing novels by and for women, sustained and tantalised their married sisters, who, like the heroine of Brief Encounter, had given in to a safer solution, but with it given up all hope of adventure or personal fulfilment. At the very end of this inter-war period, one of the great romantic literary models appeared – Daphne du Maurier, who, with her novels such as Frenchman’s Creek and more especially Rebecca, set a trend for later romantic novelists to follow.

5.Mistress of Mellyn You have possibly never heard of Eleanor Hibbert, but under the names of Jean Plaidy, Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr, she sold more than 100 million copies of her own romance novels. Her first title was Mistress of Mellyn – in plot terms, the ultimate Gothic Romance, modelled on Rebecca – in which a governess goes to a lonely Cornish mansion haunted by presence of the hero’s mysteriously deceased previous wife. The novel is credited with establishing the form, and is now widely regarded as the model for the last flowering of the Romantic Gothic novel of the 1960s. It also bore the cover that would set the trend for the many that followed – the haunted heroine, torn between past and future, traditional relationship or escape?  The girl running away from the house.

Until then, especially in the USA, pulp fiction magazines (so called because they were printed on cheap wood-pulp paper, unlike the more expensive ‘glossies’) were providing most of the escapist fiction available, whether horror or romance, with gaudy, sensational artwork on their covers. The new paperback companies, like Ace or Dell, who took pre-published novels from the hardback houses and produced them in inexpensive ‘pocketbook’ editions, began to take over the market, but they continued the tradition of illustrated magazine covers and used them to signal particular ‘genres’, such as what came to be known as the Gothic Romance.

7.Jane Eyre6.Argosy Weekly

Suddenly these paperbacks were available everywhere, in drugstores, supermarkets, train stations and, of course, airports – leading to the term ‘airport reading’ – and they had to be eye-catching and easily identifiable, or ‘cover coded’, with what was now a brand image of the girl and the house. Authors like Joan Aiken, who might be perfectly aware of the conventions of the genre, and who were more likely to be writing parodies of the style, in the manner of Jane Austen in her own Northanger Abbey, could nevertheless find that paperback copies of their novels featured startling images on their covers that bore no relation to the content. Even if your heroine was a jeans-wearing, car-driving, educated working girl, she could still find herself depicted at a complete loss, running away from a haunted house in her nightdress, if the publisher thought this would sell more copies. 3.The Fortune Hunters2Apparently women readers identified with the fantasy of a heroine of spirit, intelligence and heart, battling alone against tremendous odds of a rather colourful kind.

But it is worth looking, as feminist critics of the genre have since done, at what is beneath this lonely quest. Is the choice really between submission to marriage and its hoped-for security, or being swept into the evil embrace of a dark stranger – or is the escape depicted on these dramatic covers actually from something still more sinister? There is a reason why no actual villain appears on these covers, because it is the House that they are escaping from, and all that it represents – the life that their mothers led, and the repressive conventions, sexual and social, that would otherwise keep them trapped in the roles expected of them – those hitherto portrayed by male novelists.

Of course they want to escape – even if they have to do it barefoot over the rocks at midnight. And if it had to be shown in these strangely subversive images, then at least it was a format that was recognisable, and that to readers signalled a form of liberation if only in fiction, that they could achieve.

Joan Aiken, Daphne du Maurier and many others, including Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, have all had their work and their heroines apparently belittled by this sensational packaging. But at the same time, a powerful subliminal message was being conveyed: you too could free yourself from the conventions of society!  There was nothing to be ashamed of in using your imagination and reading the works of other women – even just by getting away from the domestic chores with a novel for an hour or so. Years later Joan Aiken was delighted to discover a copy of one of her own early novels on a New York book stand, with its dramatic Gothic cover showing a girl hot-footing it away from an imprisoning past, the book now hygienically shrink-wrapped and labelled:

Used, sanitised, yours for One Dollar!

Reader, she bought it….

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Originally posted on the Orion Murder Room Blog

Now available Joan Aiken Gothic romances in EBook

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10 thoughts on “Girls Running from Houses…

  1. What a wonderful article – it just goes to show that the ‘bookalike’ front cover that publishers adore today (how many front covers of vaguely thrilling novels written by women are modelled on Gone Girl’s artwork?) is as old as the (foggy, menacing) hills. It’s visual shorthand, and it works! None of them have the charm of the covers you’ve chosen here, and I shall be looking out for ‘Beware of the Bouquet’ – it looks brilliant. I love your analysis of what the diaphanously-dressed women were running from, too.

  2. Fantastic analysis, Lizza, made me do a bit of re-appraising as well as that moment of enlightenment that Amy has already highlighted. Great selection of covers too!

    The Mistress of Mellyn title intrigued me. It reminded me of the Marquess of Melyn from Joan’s The Whispering Mountain (1968): in my review I noted “Malyn Castle (and its Marquess of Malyn) is a wonderful composite of malign (a good description of the marquess), melyn (Welsh for ‘yellow’, perhaps a reference to the marquess’ love of gold) and Malin Head (the most northerly point in Ireland, famous from the BBC Shipping Forecast, with its 1805 Martello tower looking very castle-like).”

    I wonder now if I was very wide of the mark and whether Joan was instead just referencing Hibbert/Holt’s 1960 romance. (Or maybe even all of these — it would be nice if she was weaving them all in!)

    • Very possibly! Joan’s Magpie nature, and habitual advice to would be writers to collect useful snippets in a notebook for future use, lent itself to just this sort of conflation of ideas, linguistic twists and newly discovered places – so the combination of malign and melyn – evil and gold would certainly appeal, as would mixing various celtic locations as the possible source of a long lost myth…

  3. “Beware of the Bouquet” retitled as “The Trouble With Product X” — I wonder if there’s such a thing as gendered book titles. Any idea, Lizza, who was responsible for each?
    As for girls running from houses — the perfect metaphor for a long history of women trying to take control of their lives. Like poor Jane Eyre, they may end up no better off, sleeping in ditches and nearly dead from hunger and cold, only to be rescued by someone who thinks they’ll make great missionary wives. I’m glad 20th century authors (well, some) stopped punishing their female characters for desiring independence.

    • Joan’s original UK title was Trouble with Product X – probably in-house Ad. speak for a new and as yet untitled perfume line. The book was retitled, wittily? by Doubleday with the pun on bouquet/ perfume – the product in question… These days I think authors can resist these title changes, it makes everything so confusing!

  4. Reblogged this on Lizzie Ross and commented:
    Great post from the great Lizza Aiken, about one of the great guilty reading pleasures. A bit of background, an excerpt from a “poem” I wrote in 1982:
    She threw the novel on the dying fire.
    “Such passion should combust spontaneously!”

  5. Thanks for the re-blog! But what a crime to throw them on the fire – why not pass them on like Joan’s own wonderful ‘used, sanitised’ find! Or keep for soul soothing comfort read again…they are one of my not at all guilty pleasures, especially as for me the locations, whether Yorkshire moors of Herondale or rocky Cornish cliffs of Product X are a getaway treat in themselves…

  6. “Used, sanitized…” — how marvelous! I can well imagine Joan’s bemusement, as it has been odd to see a 21st-century version of those Gothic Romance covers on my own recent books. As for the old covers, I think you’re right about those subliminal messages about escape from the House and all it stands for. Interestingly, I recently re-read Rebecca, and both Max and Manderley are far more sinister than I remember them being, and the end much more chilling. At 16, I expect I missed a lot of the subtext, but this time around I wanted to say, “Run away!”

    • It’s very hard to stand up about covers isn’t it – and even titles can get changed, as above..but Joan did sometimes get quite irate about editors – the writing was hers and going to stay that way – and she wrote some wonderfully steamy letters…! And as for that Max, yes indeed run girl!

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