Picture: Faber
Show Hide image

Sylvia Plath had depression and a brain – she's still allowed to smile

The cover shows a young woman who appears confident in herself and captured in a moment of joy.

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.”

Show Hide image

Will the Brexit Cabinet talks end in a “three baskets” approach?

The joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. 

It's decision day in the Brexit talks. Again.

The Brexit inner Cabinet will meet to hammer out not its final position, but the shape of its negotiating position. The expected result: an agreement on an end state in which the United Kingdom agrees it will follow EU regulations as it were still a member, for example on aviation; will agree to follow EU objectives but go about them in its own way, for example on recycling, where the British government wants to do more on plastic and less on glass; and finally, in some areas, it will go its way completely, for instance on financial services. Or as it has come to be known in Whitehall, the "three baskets" approach.

For all the lengthy run-up, this bit isn't expected to be difficult: the joy of the three baskets idea is that everyone gets to tell themselves that it will be their basket that ends up the fullest. There are two difficulties: the first is that the EU27 won't play ball, and the second is that MPs will kick off when it emerges that their preferred basket is essentially empty.

The objections of the EU27 are perhaps somewhat overwritten. The demands of keeping the Irish border open, maintaining Europol and EU-wide defence operations means that in a large number of areas, a very close regulatory and political relationship is in everyone's interests. But everyone knows that in order for the Conservative government to actually sign the thing, there is going to have to be some divergence somewhere.

The bigger problem is what happens here at home when it turns out that the third basket - that is to say, full regulatory autonomy - is confined to fishing and the "industries of the future". The European Research Group may have a few more letters left to send yet.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.