Judging a book by its title: the renaming of The Whores’ Asylum

Welcome to Katy Darby whose debut novel The Whores’ Asylumpublished earlier this year, is to be renamed The Unpierced Heart for the paperback edition.

Katy, your novel The Whores’ Asylum has an interesting title. Taken in tandem with the book’s rather lovely Victoriana jacket, it doesn’t seem that scary. So why did your publisher take the unusual action of changing title for the paperback edition? How did the title change come about?

Actually my very first working title for the book was The Walls of Jericho – a reference to the part of Oxford in which most of the action is set. Jericho is now a rather expensive and cute area by the canal – a sort of boho neighbourhood with bookshops and nice cafes and lots of great indie clothes shops … However, back in the day (and up until the 1950s) it used to the be the red-light area; not very well-off at all and more than a bit dodgy after dark – so I thought it would be a natural place for my heroine Diana to set up her shelter for fallen women. “Rescuing” prostitutes was a big thing in the nineteenth century – Gladstone was somewhat obsessed with the idea, and Dickens did his fair share too. Prostitution was seen as the great “social evil”, and there were numerous attempts, both legal and charitable, to stamp it out, such as the hugely controversial Contagious Diseases Act, briefly alluded to in the novel.

The title changed to The Whores’ Asylum when I was about three-quarters of the way through, because I thought it was more dramatic and also more descriptive of the story and setting. When I sent it to my agent I gave her the choice of the two titles, and she loved the second one, so I went with that. I also gave it a subtitle, The Unpierced Heart, because (a) that’s a common feature of many novels of the period, and (b) this was a theme that came through in writing the ending, and the redrafts – that love wounds us, and yet it’s an essential part of what it means to be human. As Edward, the main narrator, says in the last pages:

“They are happy in this world who have loved, for that greatest of gifts rebounds upon the giver. Whether they have been loved in return is immaterial: the heart cannot remain inviolate – it must be pierced. The joyful sacrifice, the willing submission, is all.”

So I’m actually not too gutted about the change of title, in terms of how well I feel it fits the story as a whole – but I do also really like the first one, even if it suggests a perhaps eyebrow-raising level of raciness … The title was changed simply so that, should supermarkets and WH Smith’s want to stock it, they could display it next to the birthday cards and so forth without upsetting any customers. The supermarket customer and the bookshop browser have different levels of tolerance for sexual words, it seems – though I’m not sure what (or where!) the “banned” list is …

It’s fascinating to find out how other writers work when choosing titles, Katy. When I’m working on a short story I give it a computer filename first,  to help me remember the story, which may or may not end up being the actual title when it’s published. I sometimes find the shift from filename to official or public title hard to make, and connect the piece more with my working title than the one it’s published under. Tell me about the process you go through when naming a story.

Oooh, short story naming is a bit of a different beast. Some of my stories have several different titles in different versions. I think novels are easier because you live with them so long, you just know what title suits them best by the end. Stories on the other hand, I tend to give a working title first – something really obvious and descriptive, like Disease (Sci-Fi) – a dystopian story which was eventually published in Mslexia under the title Quarantine.

Another story about a bunch of hipsters making a horror film was originally called Nazi Sharks in a Trench, because that was an in-joke with a friend (and readers will be glad to know that Nazi sharks do indeed feature) – but I ended up calling it The Horror, the Horror, as a nod to Apocalypse Now – the sort of film the characters would venerate.

Actually, I’ve just remembered that the original filename of my novel was Holmes Watson Love Triangle – because the central relationship between the narrator Edward and his best friend Stephen is disrupted when Stephen falls in love with Diana. I always thought it was a bit unrealistic in the Sherlock Holmes stories that Holmes and Watson just carried on having adventures as before even after Watson got married – twice! – and I thought it would be interesting to investigate what effect a beautiful woman really would have on a very close male friendship.

Sometimes I never quite find the right title for a story – there’s always an element of trial and error – and sometimes I’m struck by a phrase from the story as I write it, and use that. I do that quite a lot, actually. I don’t tend to get desperately attached to specific titles – I just want them to express the nature of the story if possible – though I do insist on my writing students titling their work. It’s important to name things: it makes them real.

Agreed.  The new title may be more supermarket-friendly, but do people buy books in supermarkets? I never have. The other day I saw Fifty Shades lurking in among the cocktail snacks at Waitrose, as if to say, “You bought our dry white wine and organic breadsticks, you might like to try a little over-hyped soft porn with that”. So, Katy, will The Unpierced Heart soon be available at branches of M&S and Waitrose?

Heh. I can only hope! Obviously bookshops are able to be more broad-minded about risqué titles, but supermarkets definitely have to have an eye to what Disgusted of Maidenhead might consider disgusting to find on the shelves opposite their cornflakes. The last thing large retailers want is a boycott or complaints, and hence there’s a certain risk-averseness when it comes to what titles they will and won’t stock.

But there’s also an irony there: my book is actually not nearly as filthy as it sounds, and is much more a story of love and friendship than anything else – and yet the title had to be cleaned up … whereas Fifty Shades of Grey, whose coy title and cover art conceal the rampant S&M sauciness of its contents, is all over the shop(s)! Still, you live and learn – and if The Unpierced Heart has the good fortune to become popular enough that Smith’s and supermarkets want to sell it, obviously I want them to be able to.

Katy, thanks so much for dropping by, and here’s wishing you every success with The Unpierced Heart. The blue-in-colour but non-blue-in-title paperback edition of the book that was The Whores’ Asylum goes on sale this week. Jackets for both books below – compare and contrast! 

9 thoughts on “Judging a book by its title: the renaming of The Whores’ Asylum

  1. A most thoughtful explanation from the author, but I’m still a bit sad to hear the title had to be changed for the sake of Outraged in Tunbridge Wells or Disgusted of Maidenhead.

    (Tee-hee-hee, I see what you did there!)


  2. Hey Sam. I asked Katy about this because I wondered if it was connected with sales to the American market. Apparently not, but Wikipedia has an incomplete list of works with different titles in the United Kingdom and United States, covering Film and TV, games, literature and music. Guess which takes longest to scroll through?…


  3. Hi Nuala, if you are still around, I’ve been reading your new collection of stories ‘Mother America’ and wondering why it got its title, as a lot of the stories appear to be set in places other than America… Really enjoying reading it, btw


      • Yes, I noticed it was the title of one of the stories, Nuala. I guess I wondered why that story, though I can see it has a strong title. The one that stayed with me most so far I do not remember the name of, but it is where the mother and son go to live in America but he goes west and she is in New York on her own. So the overall title also fits that story, in a way… I am thinking about this kind of stuff a lot because it connects to a project I am working on myself. 


    • Hello Evan, Nuala, Sam, thanks for reading – that Shakespeare phrase about a rose by any other name keeps echoing in my head when I think about titles now, but it’s certainly taught me the crucial importance of picking the right one! And as long as the book gets read that’s the main thing.

      Nuala, glad you like the cover – that’s one thing that’s been right pretty much from the start (my editor is a C19 buff and collector of first editions from the period so she knew exactly what she wanted).


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