Sunday 22 March 2009


From the late 1940s to the 1970s, a lot of classic fiction was published by publishing houses like Signet, Pocket Books, Panther and the New English Library--publishing houses not always known for their restraint or commitment to literary values.

The classic books they tended to publish were usually chosen on the basis that they had an air of sensationalism about them: preferably sex and murder (or both together). For these purposes, French writers like Émile Zola and Honoré de Balzac were ideal. They were French (and everyone knew how saucy the French were), they were out of copyright, and they wrote books full of prostitutes and killers.

Zola in particular suffered the full force of this approach: the cover designs of many of his books from this era make them look like the work of a depraved Barbara Cartland.

Here are some of the covers for La Bête Humaine, about a man who suffers Jack-the-Ripper-style compulsions.

This first cover (above) makes it look like a bosomy Western, while this second (below) features cleavage and fails to let you know that the book was published (and set) in the late Nineteenth Century.

This third cover, below, (ineptly drawn yet used more than once) is obviously meant to be a scene of terrible depravity, but instead manages to capture the horror of getting chewing gum caught in your hair.

The Kill/La Curée gets a similarly lurid treatment.

That last cover is from the tie-in edition to a typically sensitive Roger 'And God Created Woman' Vadim film adaption.

Despite being a story about love, desire and murder, Thérèse Raquin gets away with some dignity intact...

..but it's with Nana, the story of a prostitute's rise to a position of power and influence, that these publishers really went to classy town.

That last cover, by the way, is described by some book dealers as one of the first examples of 'Good Girl Art' to feature unambiguous, visible nipples.

Avon Books, meanwhile, worked out how to move copies of L'Assommoir off the shelves:

Zola's many other books received similar facelifts: here are some of the more memorable.

I had never previously suspected that the three faces of desire would specifically be those of (1) a woman wearing no underpants, (2) a woman wearing a maternity dress made from her granny's curtains, and (3) a Pomeranian. Silly of me, really.


Steerforth said...

Superb. What a contrast to today's worthy covers. Zola's reputation as a racy novelist seems to have lingered well beyond its shock-by date (although I found Therese Raquin a bit beyond the pale, even by today's standards).

I must continue my Zola quest as soon as I've finished the pile on my bedside table.

JRSM said...

I'm looking forward to when you do: I've only read the well-known, easy-to-get Zolas--your brave ventures into OP land have given me pause for thought about tackling the whole 20-book RM saga.

Apparently Therese Raquin was meant to be filmed a couple of years with Kate Winslet in the title role--not sure what happened there.

Rex Parker said...

Dude, leave *something* for me.