Our heroines don’t need to eschew beauty
Outrage over glamorous covers of Sylvia Plath’s books denies the author’s many-sided personality, writes Sophie Donaldson
THE 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s acclaimed and only novel, The Bell Jar, was marked with a special edition cover in 2013. Publisher Faber was savaged by Plath fans for the new edition which depicted a woman, with matching red lips and nails, touching up her make-up with a powder compact.
The book’s title is spelt out in a jaunty, acid green font that would look more at home on a lifestyle blog. It jars spectacularly with the scarlet chosen as the background colour. Readers accused the publishing house of trying to dumb down the nature of the novel and market it as chick-lit.
Four years on, Faber finds itself in a very similar situation. The Letters of Sylvia Plath (available from October 17) is a collection of previously unseen letters written by Plath throughout her short life. The US edition, published by Harper Collins, features a close-up shot of Plath dressed smartly in a belted jacket, smiling quietly as she glances out of the frame. Faber’s UK edition shows a very different Plath; a buxom blonde grinning at the camera, wearing a white two-piece swimsuit, while kneeling on a sandy beach.
Cathleen Allyn Conway, managing editor of online academic journal Plath Profiles, wrote a searing critique of Faber’s latest cover for The Guardian’s book blog. She describes the chosen photograph as the “visual antithesis” of the poet, adding that depicting female writers as “sexualised and frivolous diminishes their intellectual credentials”.
Although Plath is never far from the collective consciousness, this year has seen a renewed interest in the life and work of the poet. Following the announcement of Faber’s volume of letters, in May, two previously unseen poems were unearthed in one of her old notebooks, found imprinted on a piece of carbon paper within the pages.
Beyond academia, Plath is also serving as a source of inspiration within popular culture. A film adaptation of The Bell Jar is currently under way, with Hollywood starlet Dakota Fanning in the lead and Kirsten Dunst making her directorial debut. With the release of Taylor Swift’s highly anticipated new single in August came a slew of new comparisons between the singer and poet.
In June, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington opened One Life: Sylvia Plath, an exhibition that explores the poet through an array of her personal items, from sketchbooks to locks of hair. It is the first time an exhi- bition on Plath has been contained in an art and history museum. Dorothy Moss, lead curator of One Life, explained that her aim was to create “a balanced view of her whole life that represented all aspects of her personality”. This means presenting as many versions of Sylvia Plath as possible; the poet, the student, the lover, the wife, the mother, the intellectual and the clinically depressed.
Moss also asserts that Plath was “very savvy about controlling her image”, adding that she was “like a chameleon” for the myriad ways she would present herself.
In a 1954 letter from Plath to her mother, she describes her “brown-haired personality”, adding that while applying for scholarships, she wanted to look “her most studious and charming”.
Not only was Plath keenly aware of her own transformative abilities, she often explored reinvention in her work. It seems gratuitous to bemoan an image of Plath that doesn’t conform to our own expectations, as is the assumption that the blonde, bikini-clad Plath undermines the serious, brunette Plath. To assume a woman can only be one thing or another, dark but not light, undermines not only her character, but her complexities and her wholeness.
There is no doubt that the publishing industry panders to a certain aesthetic when marketing novels by women, regardless of the subject matter. But this is not an anonymous blonde, or some cheesy stock photo. It may not marry up with some people’s expectation of what a serious writer should look like, but the simple fact is this is a legitimate portrayal of one of the many Sylvia Plaths.
Far more concerning is the underlying implication that women must not be interested in the slightest by their appearance. The belief that an attractive woman is not an intelligent woman is reinforced by these very notions. Plath’s publishers did not do her a disservice by choosing a photograph that was attractive instead of intellectual — we do her a disservice by denying she could be both.
OPPRESSED BY THE FIGURES OF BEAUTY: Sylvia Plath, whose work has been presented with a wide variety of covers