From her celebrated poetry to her acclaimed novel, The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath is one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her tempestuous (and possibly violent) relationship with fellow poet Ted Hughes and premature death has only worked to solidify a legacy that has received increased scrutiny over recent years. The publication of a new collection of letters, documenting her adolescence and early twenties, was always likely to spark debate.
Rather unexpectedly, however, it is not the content of these letters that has caused controversy this time. Rather, it is the collection’s UK book cover. It features a colour photograph of Plath on a beach in white swimming clothes. She is tanned, blonde and smiling at the photographer. The use of the image has led one critic to accuse the publisher (Faber) of sexualising Plath to increase sales and rendering her “trifling” and “superficial”. Worse still, they argue, the beach scene is “a visual antithesis to the ambitious, intellectual poet” who would be better represented by the photograph chosen for the US cover. This depicts the “poet bundled up in a coat” with a “thoughtful smile”.
But would Sylvia Plath really be better represented in this conservative manner? Surely, we’re past the point where a woman has to look a certain way (covered up with only a half-smile) to be deemed an intellectual.
Let’s be honest here, Sylvia Plath is a Pulitzer-winning poet (one of only a handful women to win the prize). If she were dressed in bunny ears at the Playboy mansion, her literary merit would remain intact. Yet, for what it’s worth, I do not think the UK book cover sexualises Plath at all (judge for yourself). To me, it shows a young woman who appears confident in herself and captured in a moment of joy. Yes, her arms are on show, but it is no more sexual than the photograph used on the cover of Ted Hughes’s 2006 biography where he’s pictured in a boat, trousers rolled up and grinning from ear to ear.
As well as engendering a sense of fleeting happiness, what these images of Plath and Hughes also have in common is that they take the poets out of their study and place them in the real world. The photographs offer some light to the shade we usually associate with their lives. What’s more, in Plath’s case, the image distances her from Hughes because it was taken in America a couple of years before they met.
We know Plath led a troubled life and that her unhappiness and depression led to her untimely death, but we cannot deny the existence of this time in her life – even if it jars with our preconceptions. This moment happened and it happened during the period covered by the letters. It may well be that underneath the smiles Plath was suffering from depression, but that’s part of the story, isn’t it? If this is a real picture of a real poet, how can it diminish her intellectual prowess? As Plath scholar Maeve O’Brien has argued, dogmatically focusing on the sadness of her life actually risks demeaning Plath’s literary output because it rests upon the assumption that she “was neither intelligent nor inspired enough to employ any imagination in her writing, and wrote solely from personal experience”.
Indeed, the very idea that we can know exactly how a historical figure would have wanted to be presented for posterity is deeply problematic. It plays into wider debates about the way in which women are depicted.
We seem fixated on putting them into easily identifiable boxes: Blonde Bimbo, Angry Feminist, Downtrodden Mother, Suicidal Writer. Just a quick glance at the reaction to recent literary television adaptations is testament to this. Sally Wainwright’s series about the Bronte sisters, To Walk Invisible, was criticised because the women were thought to be swearing too much; and the BBC’s drama about Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, Life in Squares, was accused of featuring too much sex.
Central to Plath’s novel The Bell Jar is the disconnect between collective societal expectations and the reality of an individual life. By seeking to shield, deny or even undermine the reality of Plath’s life, are we not guilty of imposing our own societal expectations on her? By forcing Plath to conform to the Suicidal Writer ideal-type, are we not also guilty of placing a suffocating bell jar over her legacy?
No one has ownership of the past. It is open to interpretation precisely because people are various. To suggest a youthful and playful image of Plath demeans her worth is to not only ignore a crucial aspect of the poet’s short life, but to forget the very essence of what it means to be human. To use the words of another woman who often suffers similar treatment, Virginia Woolf: “I am not one and simple, but complex and many.”