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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Viewpoints -

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

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