Tale of two covers

April 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

Cover of the British edition of our text.

A couple of sessions back, Irina and Ariel did a close reading of the cover of Purkiss’s The English Civil War–specifically the painting on its cover (“The Execution of Charles I”). Irina later wrote about it–see I’m Not an Art Historian, where you can also see a large, hi-res version. Given the piquancy of the representations of Royalists in the history, we conjectured that the painting, which appeared to be clearly Royalist in its sympathies, was chosen as an analog.

Here’s a caution that’s true no less of 17th-century pamphlets than it is of that paperback on your nightstand.

Most of us assume that authors get to pick what appears on the covers of their works–or at least have a strong say-so in the design–but that’s rarely the case. Most of the authors I know are deeply embarrassed by the covers of their books. My friend Bob, for instance, was appalled by the cover of the hardback edition of his book and was terribly grateful that the paperback cover was just slightly more compelling. (My brother-in-law was luckier with the cover of his second book, but I would like to think that’s because it’s a riff on one of my husband’s photographs: the one on the top. Unabashed family plug.)

The discrepancies we noticed between the title page and contents of the 1649 pamphlet “A brief warning”  we read together last time may make more sense now. The two pages of text seem, we agreed, to be the “I told you so” finger-waggings of a Calvinist who’s horrified by the triumph of Cromwell’s Independents and freedom of conscience in the wake of Charles’s execution. The pamphleteer is interested in the fact of Charles’s beheading only to the degree that it demonstrated the bad judgment of the Independents, who ought to have known that the war was caused not by the sins of one man but by the sins of all men in the three kingdoms. The title page, though, with its Warning against the Souldiers who have deprived of life and murther’d Their KING promises juicier stuff than Calvinist preaching. The title page even tempted us at first to read the pamphlet as Royalist in sympathy.

But it’s all about what the folks underwriting publication think will sell the most copies.

And so back to Purkiss. As it turns out, her book had a very different cover when first published in England. If you were presented this cover image and asked to guess the ideological contents of the book within, what would you conjecture and why? Why this cover for British readers and the other for us Americans?

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