Following Bridgerton’s surge of popularity in 2021, Avon did what any good publisher would do: It rolled out new tie-in covers for each of the books in the series that inspired the Netflix megahit. The first two books’ covers are, understandably, the only ones to show the actors’ full faces, as many characters in the later books have yet to be introduced or even cast. The rest feature cropped torso photography, hiding the features of each individual while still providing visual clues to their personality, like the bright yellow gown and auburn hair that distinguish one character in the series. The pseudo-anonymous torso shot is a common romance-cover trope, allowing readers to project onto romantic figures that are still left somewhat to the imagination. Cross-promotion, however, isn’t meant to be quite so subtle—each cover also includes a prominent Netflix badge.
This is hardly the first makeover Julia Quinn’s eight-book romance saga has undergone: Over the years, the Bridgerton books have been redesigned with several different covers for English-speaking markets, reflecting romance publishers’ changing strategies over the decades to appeal to broader audiences. While romance is often associated with the “clinch covers” popular in the ‘70s and ‘80s, featuring couples in a dramatic, passionate embrace, those designs have evolved considerably. The assumption that readers would feel embarrassed to be seen reading romance is inherent in the design of the genre’s covers: Romance readers and authors alike face gendered social stigma for showing interest in erotic content, the “sneers and leers” described by one 2015 study. While covers cannot solve this problem, they are always engaging with it, whether masking their texts with more reserved imagery or pushing back against expectations with bold, unashamed illustrations.
The first, mass-market edition of the first book in the series, The Duke and I, published in 2000, featured a chaste pink cover with flowers surrounding a calling card with the main characters’ names. “I still have a soft spot for the very first edition of The Duke and I,” Quinn told me via email. “There was something so sweet about Daphne’s name handwritten onto the duke’s card.” The style was likely influenced by the dominant romance cover trend of the 1990s, which privileged delicately pretty scenes over the clinch covers of the previous two decades.
The 1990s also saw the introduction of “stepbacks,” a two-layered cover with the top page “stepped back” a quarter inch from the side to conceal a (typically much sexier) illustration beneath. By hiding suggestive clinches and implausibly fit cover models behind a more innocuous screen, stepbacks provided readers with a cover—literally—if they didn’t want to be seen reading a titillating story in public. The cover of the 2002 mass-market edition of Book 4, Romancing Mr. Bridgerton, shows a landscape background with a lipstick-kissed handkerchief being dropped from the oversize title—but pulling back that page reveals a painted clinch of the protagonists, whose clothes seem about to succumb to the forces of passion and/or gravity.
Publishers have used myriad strategies over the years to try to balance the audience’s competing desires for excitement and discretion. In the US, the Bridgerton books released or updated through the late 2000s featured serene English scenery with more sensual scenes hidden beneath the covers. But the book’s UK publisher took a different tack: The covers issued by Piatkus utilized an arch, elongated illustration style that was popular among covers targeting women readers at the time (so-called “chick lit”). The coy reimagining of elegant 1950s-60s fashion illustrations revivified the books’ Regency characters in a marriage of retro and pseudo-progressive styles.
From 2015, Avon redid the series’ covers with inanimate objects, meant to be more allusive and sedate than stepbacks’ giddy contrast of demure to dramatic. These covers’ symbolic objects—a style popularized amidst late 2000s Twilight minimalism—provide more obvious clues to their storylines than the generic landscapes of the first editions. The abandoned slipper on An Offer from a Gentleman’s cover signals the third book in the series’ Cinderella plot, while a stack of letters on a desk reveals the epistolary courtship of Book 6, To Sir Phillip, With Love. Without human figures, the scenes also emphasize sentiment over sexual tension.
The Duke and I’s new tie-in cover, issued with the release of the show in December 2020, capitalizes on both sentiment and sex. The main actors (Regé-Jean Page and Phoebe Dynevor) are pictured in a quasi-clinch, the duke in dark velvet gazing longingly at the leading lady wearing white, juxtaposing the characters’ experience and innocence, gloom and optimism. While the characters in Quinn’s books are white, the Netflix series has expanded the diversity of the world with their casting—especially compared to historically homogeneous Regency romps. (More recently, authors like Vanessa Riley—whose book is being adapted by several Bridgerton alum—have also broadened representation in Regency romance on the page.) So far, The Duke and I and The Viscount Who Loved Me are the only two Bridgerton books to feature characters of color on the cover, but future cover adaptations may reflect as-yet-undetermined casting choices.
Meanwhile, the covers of the translated editions of Quinn’s books feature a fascinating array of approaches, from adapting the Avon or Piatkus covers to branching out to new cover art. The Croatian and Japanese editions both depict entirely new cover models and a gossamer, floral look. Others follow the abstract, symbolic approach, like the flower-wrapped frames surrounding the books’ Turkish titles, and the birds and butterflies floating over a stylized ‘B’ on Estonian covers. The most diverse set of covers are the on the books’ Vietnamese editions, which vary radically from papercut art to graphic design to a cropped and altered photograph of Keira Knightley in The Duchess.
The popularity of Bridgerton on Netflix, and the books’ vivid tie-in covers, may coax some new readers into the joys of romance and its imagery. But while the streaming platform helps pull romance out of its silo, the genre still suffers from dismissive and gendered attitudes towards sexuality that continue to influence covers and marketing decisions. The Bridgerton books’ visuals show how romance covers have both combatted—and been shaped by—sexist attitudes towards a genre that centers and celebrates women’s sexuality and romance. While unabashed clinches persist, other covers lean towards making romance “respectable” by offering subdued images instead of overt sensuality, just as the sexual escapades of historical romances still typically end within the bounds of marriage and convention. There is a lot happening on book covers these days. It’s up to readers how they judge the book beneath.