Given that Cover Her Face is a P.D. James novel named after a line from The Duchess of Malfi, and shares its title with a draft version of an Agatha Christie novel, it is perhaps unsurprising that I like it. As with other books I’ve discussed in this shambling series of posts, the paperback editions I have of the novel make quite strong, and contrasting, statements about what a reader might expect to find inside its pages. [As ever, spoilers ahoy.] Moreover, those statements seem to be largely about where James stands in crime writing history.
First here’s a 1970s cover. The element picked out of the novel to showcase here is the dead victim, and she’s depicted just after her murder. The reader is implicitly present with the characters who discover Sally’s body and investigate who killed her. The young woman depicted on the cover is not quite the Sally who appears in the novel, however Within the very first scene the narrator draws attention to her green eyes, rather than the blue shown here, and as a card-carrying redhead I am going to object that the hair on the cover is not the pile of “red-gold hair” which Sally tucks under her cap. I may be biased on that issue, however.
The larger point stands though: the cover shows us a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, young woman. As with so many depictions, the dead body is subtly eroticized: the trickle of blood extends the line of her red lipstick, connecting her sexuality with violence. A similar touch shows a necklace lying tightly around her neck, either as decoration or ligature, or both. Her shoulder is bare, making it unclear whether she is naked under the sheet, and the perspective means that the viewer is essentially looking down her top. Another touch of colour, her red nails, highlights her hand, which is clenched on the fold of the sheet, in a gesture which is presumably related to her death struggles but doubles as a woman covering up her chest and trying to inhibit our view of her.
The image presents her as both dead and desirable to the implied male gaze. This might come as some surprise to a reader familiar with James’ novels, which don’t particularly present this view of victims. However, it is true that in both Cover Her Face and Shroud For A Nightingale (published by the time this edition came out), the dead female characters are described arrestingly. I think this cover picks up on James’ dramatic and sometimes brutal depiction of female victims, and filters it through the fiction market of the 1970s. An increasing explicitness in fiction after the censorship cases of the 1960s, and the continuing rise of horror fiction in the 1970s, presumably made this seems a logical way to frame James’ novels. An attractive dead young woman became the salient feature of her work.
This cover, from a edition produced at the very end of the 1980s, offers a very different vision of the book’s attractions.
The scone and jam tarts, reposing on a lacy doily, with a tartan tablecloth dimly visible, flanked by a silk scarf and a handbag, and a Union Jack. This is not the dead blonde school of illustration, but more the Case of the Sloane Ranger. It uses signifiers which were – and still are – associated with a conservative, rural notion of Britain. The items, particularly in combination, summon up a village fete. Of course the fete is one of the major extended sequences of the novel, during which (in retrospect) almost all the important elements of the murder came together. Just as with the 70s cover, this one is picking out particular elements from the novel and deciding that they best represent what it means.
The cover also makes assumption about what will appeal to a reader. In presenting this version of the book’s events, I think it is definitely situating James as a different kind of writer to the previous cover. That one (I think) assumed her writing was a little old-fashioned, but still contained aspects of violence which would appeal to a contemporary readership. This one frames her as a classic Golden Age novelist. The village fete imagery slots her alongside Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and (to a lesser extent) Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers.
By the time this cover appeared, Joan Hickson had already appeared as Miss Marple in four major TV adaptations of Christie’s novels, and would go on to star in several more. Golden Age fiction had passed the point when it was a bit embarrassing and creaky, and into definite classic status. (Mark Aldridge’s Agatha Christie on Screen traces this process in fascinating detail.) I think the same thing has happened here: fifteen years after the 1970s cover James (who was still writing) has been shifted from old-school to classic.
These doilies, scarves and baked items are no longer all the kind of thing that contemporary women who roll their eyes at, and regard as hopeless out of date. They now work as markers of the heritage industry, representing a vaguely idealised past which can be inhabited as a pleasurable leisure pursuit. Reading a P.D. James novel such as Cover Her Face is now offered as part of that heritage and leisure industry.
And that is where I think this cover is rather sophisticated. Or perhaps attempts to have it both ways. After all, as anyone who knows the novel will already be shouting at whatever device they’re reading this on, the whole plot of Cover Her Face hinge on dangerously out-dated versions of British village life. The Maxies scrimp and save, damaging their daughter’s prospects, in order that their son can inherit the family house. Catherine’s embarrassingly pleasurable memories of Stephen seducing her are blended with equally embarrassingly pleasurable fantasies that she will become the lady of the manor when he marries her. Sally gets enjoyment out of making people think she will be the mistress of Martingale instead. Mrs Maxie murders her to prevent her the house of the Maxies from having such a mistress.
In other words, the novel is about the dangerous fantasies of the out-dated middle classes. It is about the lethal idealisation of English village life, which wants to see the world as made from doilies and silk scarves and jam tarts. And so this cover manages to both offer a book as part of the heritage industry, and to ironically sketch the delusion which that book condemns. As I’ve seen before with these covers, every paperback seems to be its own literary critic…