A literary milestone,” and an“essential to any student...of modern literature,” is how Kirkus describes the forthcoming collection, The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume I: 1940-1956. This new volume of Plath’s early letters, edited by Plath scholars Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil is, by all accounts, a serious and successful academic endeavor; a corrective to the 1975 edition of the poet and novelist’s early letters that, according to Steinberg and Kukil, is marked by “editorial omissions and alterations.”
As such, the cover for the American edition of The Letters of Sylvia Plath (available on October 17th) reflects the heady topic—namely letters by Plath which include the fraught and difficult period that she would later describe in The Bell Jar. On the American cover, Plath is pictured in a black-and-white photograph dating from 1955. She wears a dark coat, bundled up for the cold of Cambridge, and smiles as she glances away from the camera. This is a familiar image of Plath—put together and sharp, the photograph belies the difficult years that preceded it, years that included depression, a suicide attempt, electroshock therapy, and institutionalization. Yet, it’s also a hopeful photograph in some respect, an image Plath on the verge of becoming an enduring voice of the often gendered confluence of pain and joy and rebellion and resignation.
But if the American cover winks at history, emphasizing who Plath would become then, as one critic notes, the British cover of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, is “sexualized and frivolous.” In the British edition (published by Faber), the more familiar image of Plath walking has been replaced by a color photograph of Plath, hair dyed blond and perched on her knees wearing a white bikini. The two photographs are almost visual counterpoints; two entirely different ways of both seeing and presenting Plath.
At The Guardian, Plath scholar Cathleen Allyn Conway argues that these two Plaths typify the visual tension of how publishers continue to sell the writer long after her death. “This is not the first time Plath’s image has been used to make her appear trifling or superficial,” Conway writes of the bikini cover
In 2013, Faber, the publisher of the bikini-lead UK edition, released a much-derided anniversary edition of The Bell Jar that showed a woman checking her makeup on the cover. Whatever symbolism intended was overwhelmed by the proto-chick-lit design; a story of an attempted suicide and subsequent hospitalisation is somewhat undermined by the focus on matching lipstick and nails. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, a collection of her prose, is also bedecked with the bikini shot, which the Telegraph also recently used to illustrate a story about her love letters. Plath’s volume in the Faber Poet to Poet series, in which a poet selects work by another they admire, sees her estranged husband Ted Hughes’s choices illustrated with a photo of Plath semi-undressed; and the biography Mad Girl’s Love Song, by Andrew Wilson, is covered with a blond, bare-shouldered Sylvia in profile, cropped to suggest a nude nymph.
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Conway argues that the British cover engages in a handful of stereotypes about Plath, many of which continue to be cultivated by the “British literary establishment” to protect Plath’s husband, poet Ted Hughes (previously unpublished letters written to Hughes are included in the volume). In depicting Plath as a “nymph,” the photograph undermines the intellectual and difficult nature of both Plath and her writing, reproducing instead, Conway argues, a handful of tropes about women, mental health, and literary accomplishment. Choosing the blond, bikini-clad Plath instead of a host of other photographs of her reaffirms that blend of alluring but toxic sexuality, tragic self-destruction, and fleshy irresistibility that is often the cliche stuff of so-called crazy women. It’s telling that the poet Anne Sexton has also received similar visual treatment on her covers.
If the bikini-beach-read Plath is eye-rolling, then it’s indicative of a broader problem of how to handle the visual representation of women writers and also their books. “Feminine signifiers” are standard for the covers of women’s books: lipstick, laundry on the line, and laying on a beach commonly grace the covers of books written by women, no matter how highbrow or serious. More than five decades after her death, not even Plath can escape such trivial visual treatment.