Okay, I finally understand my feelings about illustrated covers!! Sophie Irwin’s The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting was a very illuminating case study for me. First off, I really enjoyed this book, which was a bit surprising for me, because there wasn’t even a hint of steam. Unlike Martha Waters’s To Have and to Hoax, which was a regency rom-com but also had a very strong central relationship thread with some steam, this book was more on the comedic side than the romantic side. That is not to say that there isn’t a romance—there is, between Kitty and Radcliffe—but it is secondary to Kitty’s story and her desire to secure her sisters’ futures without consigning herself to a truly miserable marriage. It is also, without officially being so, a Pride and Prejudice retelling—or, perhaps put more accurately, a Pride and Prejudice fan fiction.
Before I get into the details, though, let me state my main takeaways, both in terms of my reading experience of this book overall and what I learned about illustrated covers in reading it. First, this book was completely delightful, and I loved every second of reading it. I definitely recommend it to readers who love Jane Austen and/or the Netflix Bridgerton. Second, to me, this illustrated, restrained cover seemed completely appropriate and fitting to the book---it effectively telegraphed the difference between this book and, say, a historical romance in the Lisa Kleypas vein (i.e. the type I usually read). Third, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting is so different from what I would conventionally call a “romance novel” that I would argue it forms a different genre altogether. The illustrated cover made sense, in my mind, because it indicated a different genre than the books that we would usually see now under clinch covers. (And granted, even as illustrated covers go, this one is very restrained, leaning almost literary).
Before I say any more about covers, though, I want to dig into the details of The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting. As I said, it is a remix of the premise of Pride and Prejudice. Instead of the Bennett parents being alive, Kitty’s parents have recently died, and she and her four sisters are in danger of losing their house to debt collectors (due to their fathers’ gambling). Kitty is the oldest and she decides that she has to go to London to find a rich husband to bail the sisters out of their financial problems. At times, the book felt like Pride and Prejudice if Lizzy and a version of Mary (Kitty takes her middle sister, Celeste, with her to London, because she is both the prettiest and the most educated) were unleashed on the high-society Season with one mercenary goal. In many ways, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting is exploring terrain that Pride and Prejudice evokes but leaves unexplored—it dramatizes the full ramifications of a world in which marrying for financial motivation is normal and expected; the nuances of a relationship like the one between Lizzy and Mary; and what would happen if the Bennet sisters truly had to fend for themselves. In addition to Pride and Prejudice, the novel also seemed inspired by earlier eighteenth-century novels like Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda and Fanny Burney’s Evelina. I also know that Irwin wrote a thesis on Georgette Heyer and so I am assuming that she is also a big inspiration here, even though I myself haven't read any of her books.
I also really appreciated the vision of history and the Regency period in The Lady's Guide to Fortune-Hunting---the book is obviously focused on high society and the glamour of the period, but Irwin has a nuanced view of how nineteenth-century society worked and the different subtleties of rank, wealth, etc. I thought that Kitty's struggles within the high society world were pretty realistic and Irwin really shows how important money was to this social world--she captures how people were willing (as they are now) to do almost anything for money. Irwin also didn't shy away from the war and violence of the Regency era.
Of course, many novels could be said to write in this same vein, but what makes The Lady’s Guide to Fortune Hunting stand out is Irwin’s voice and how she captures the entertaining verve of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narrators. It is hard to capture that voice and she does so in a truly delightful way—much like the London ton, the reader is charmed and drawn in by Kitty’s unscrupulous scheming. Kitty’s warm relationship with her faux-Aunt Dorothy, her affectionate rivalry with Celeste, and her indefatigable approach to marrying money: it all proves irresistible.
The cover of this book captures the sparkling clarity of the narration and the low-steam, high-charm of the novel. But, as I said above, while I really enjoyed this book, it is not in the same genre—in my opinion—as a typical historical romance. To say that there was no steam, for instance, isn’t even quite accurate, because the central romance was ultimately on the same level of importance as so many other aspects of the book. It was really Kitty’s story, as opposed to the story of a single couple. Scenes full of deep POV sensuality between the main characters would have felt out of step with the ensemble cast (many of whom receive quick focalizations of their perspectives) and the sprightly pacing.
In this way, The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting confirmed my feelings about illustrated covers because I felt so strongly that this cover fit the subject matter. I think that my issue with illustrated covers is when they are being used to distance a book aesthetically from the “typical” historical romance…despite the book largely fitting within the genre. I understand why publishers might be tempted to make this move (because they are hoping to draw in new readers who are interested in romance but not in its stereotypical trappings), and I know that a lot of readers have mixed-feelings about clinch covers, but nevertheless illustrated covers can feel disingenuous. Some illustrated covers feel like they are positioning a book as introducing something brand new…when it really fits within the very well-established historical romance genre that already has a broad readership. The Lady’s Guide to Fortune-Hunting crystallized these feelings for me because I felt that the cover signifies its differences from genre contemporary historical romance in a productive way. Irwin’s novel is a literary-leaning regency rom-com…and its cover reflects that.