Jenna Mahale explores the controversy surrounding the image chosen as the cover for a newly published series of letters by Sylvia Plath
“How can you be so many women to so many people, oh you strange girl?”
− Sylvia Plath, August 22, 1952
There has always been a strange dichotomy between beauty and brains which I bought into when I was fifteen, and grew out of with age, perspective, and some rudimentary feminism. Because it is rudimentary, the idea that women can conform to standards of beauty and possess great intelligence. Which is why it is surprising to see so many criticising the cover of newly published The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940-1956, which features a full-colour photograph of Plath, smiling on a beach, sporting a white bikini and dyed blonde hair.
The use of the image has been denounced for misrepresenting Plath and her life, however this obsession with the image on the book’s cover, one which demands that the image of Plath conform to a certain ‘style’ more in keeping with her turbulent history of mental illness has, somewhat ironically, turned the focus of the book’s release onto the presentation of female image, away from the multiplicity of the poet and her legacy.
Guardian writer Cathleen Allyn Conway described the image as the “visual antithesis” to the “ambitious, intellectual Plath, saying it reduced her to a “mere sex symbol”. This feels like a step backwards. What do we mean when we exclaim, as Conway does, that the picture makes her “appear trifling or superficial”? It’s not as if it was photo-shopped into existence; the picture was snapped on a beach date by Plath’s then-boyfriend Gordon Lameyer. Surely she cannot appear frivolous by simply being? Picking apart her appearance in the image is a reductive, sexist act, as much as it is to suggest that she looks like a “bimbo”.
This is not to diminish the power of the images as a cultural tool. We know “don’t judge a book by its cover” is an entirely false expectation to place on a prospective reader. However, to say that the cover contributes to a ‘sex sells’ narrative shows a lack of contextualisation; it’s not as if someone is going to buy the expanded collection of a poet’s private letters (the primary use of which is academic) because they look ‘hot’ on the cover of it. Plath’s legacy stands up on its own. The Bell Jar has sold over three million copies. Kirkus Media has called the new collection “essential to any student of Plath’s work and, by extension, of modern literature”. She doesn’t need sex to sell her work.
Conway goes on to add to the criticism of the 50th anniversary edition of The Bell Jar, which I’ll admit to being sceptical of at the time of its 2013 release, but this reaction was in part just because I thought that it was visually unappealing (see, I’m guilty of judging covers too). The cover features the side profile of woman touching up her face make-up, her features squeezed in the reflection of a compact mirror.
“Whatever symbolism intended was overwhelmed by the proto-chick-lit design,” Conway writes, “a story of an attempted suicide and subsequent hospitalisation is somewhat undermined by the focus on matching lipstick and nails”. But in the context of the book, the image is one of vanity, performance, and ambiguity. One could argue that a focus on “matching lipstick and nails”, the pressure of maintaining one’s appearance was a factor in the depression of the autobiographical protagonist. Indeed, Esther expresses a dislike of her appearance at several points in the book. So perhaps the cover does not trivialise the painful, emotionally wrought content, more than it links this with what society perceives as trivial. Again, this content is famous enough for these nuances to translate.
It is true, however, that the handling of Plath’s estate has been something of a shady affair. Since Ted Hughes, her estranged husband and alleged abuser, inherited control over the use of her prose and poems, much of her biography has been written under threat. Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and one of Sylvia’s most ardent detractors, was put in charge of the literary estate, despite her having previously said of Plath: “I thought she was pretty straight poison.” As a result, biographers would only be given permission to quote from the copyrighted material (any of Plath’s poems, prose, journals and letters) if Olwyn could review the full manuscript for anything she deemed to be “defamation” of her family. While Olwyn (now deceased) no longer has control over the estate, I do think it is important to try and bear in mind how Plath would have liked to present herself. Conway asserts that “we know brunette Sylvia was how Plath wanted to present herself”, quoting from a 1954 letter the poet addressed to her mother. In this, she tells Aurelia Plath of her happiness in her decision to switch back to her natural colour, saying she preferred a “demure and discreet” look.
However, poet and Plath scholar Elizabeth Winder argues for the opposite:
The saddest part is that Sylvia loved those ‘platinum [blonde]’ photos. They represented an expansive, independent time in her life—a time of creativity, confidence, good health and joy. But that’s not what the public sees. They see a blonde in a bikini who couldn’t possibly be a ‘writer’.
Is it any wonder that we make women feel like they can only have a certain personality if they look a certain way? When we squabble about the details of trivialities such as hair colour, we fall into the trap of giving discursive power to Plath’s physical appearance in a way we would never do to a male poet’s. The unfortunate reality is that much of women’s value is bound up in their appearance, and so this focus is an inevitability.
We know that what biographers refer to as Plath’s “platinum summer” came about as a bid to brighten her image after her first suicide attempt. Plath was aware of the strange precedent that seems to persist even today, that girls with blonde hair who smile can’t possibly be sad; she tried to tell herself, and the world, that she was one of those. But depression can pervade a head adorned by blonde locks just as easily as a brunette’s. There is no one face of the disease, though many have made Sylvia Plath out to be just this. Using a photo of her from her “platinum” era as a book cover does not detract from the highly intellectual material inside, nor does it negate her mental illness.
Plath’s depression, and depression in general, is too often misunderstood. In an academic setting, one of the first things you are taught when you are introduced to her body of work is the trap of hindsight, for it is far too easy to see her oeuvre and as an ascent and her death as its climax. Plath lived a life full of grief and madness, yes, but also joy and opportunity. She was a genius writer, severely depressed, the manipulator and the manipulated, highly motivated, and completely overworked. She was also, sometimes, just a woman on a beach.