Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

8 Responses to Five great covers for five recommended novels

  1. Anne Morris

    It really does show how much the packaging can sell. I looked at buying the Essex Serpent purely by the revue I saw of it but went no further. I think I’m going to get it. It says more about me than about the book perhaps.

    • Caroline

      I too thought the cover of The Essex Serpent was stunning, and it led me to look at the comments of readers I trust, and in that way did its work I think.
      Yes covers and books, but we should be careful.
      Thanks for your comment, Anne


  2. Jennifer Evans

    I’m just reading The Essex Serpent and was drawn to it by the cover. I’m really enjoying the book too. One of my favourite covers is of ES Byatt’s The Children’s Book. The hardback cover has a beautiful art Nouveau brooch in the shape of a dragonfly and reflects the book’s setting in the V&A.

    • Caroline

      Enjoy the Essex Serpent. I look forward to hearing your views of the experience!
      Thanks for the suggestion of The cover of Children’s Book, which I can’t bring to mind. A little research is necessary.

      Thanks Jennifer.

  3. Gosh, I love that cover for The Eagle of the Ninth – great book too, what got me into reading historical fiction..

    • Caroline

      It seems that this book is remembered in similar terms by lots of people. I hope Rosemary Sutcliff knew this.

  4. Marianne Coleman

    I too am reading The Essex Serpent having been drawn in by the cover and the reviews. Not sure yet, but I have only read a few chapters.

    The cover that sticks in my mind is the paper jacket for The Hobbit that was given to me around 1955. The images of the forest and the mountains absolutely thrilled me as a child and enhanced the story which I loved.

    • Caroline

      I think that the Essex Serpent cover must be one of the most successful. I look forward to talking with you about how much you enjoyed it, or not.

      That Hobbit cover is the only one I know, or can think of. It’s completely associated with the book for me.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *