Then and Now

The first edition of The Bell Jar to appear under Sylvia Plath’s name was published by Faber in 1967, with a cover designed by Shirley Tucker. This month Faber have brought out a 50th anniversary edition of the novel (it was first published by Heinemann in 1963 under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), with a cover about as far from Tucker’s Bridget Rileyish concentric circles as you can get: a stock photo from the 1950s of a woman with a powder compact. As Dustin Kurtz, a marketing manager at Melville House, tweeted, ‘How is this cover anything but a “fuck you” to women everywhere?’ Andy Pressman, a graphic designer, called it ‘Awesomelycomicallyhistorically inapprop’, adding: ‘And by “historically” I mean “incorrect on a scale of which we have few historical precedents”, not “That typeface didn’t exist in that era”.’ You don’t need to have read the novel to see what the problem is; the blurb on the back of the offending cover makes it clear enough: the narrator, we are told, ‘grapples with difficult relationships and a society which refuses to take women’s aspirations seriously’.

I was lucky with the way I came to Plath, reading her work before I knew anything about her life or reputation, or had access to the internet. The edition of Ariel in my school library (one of the last books of ‘modern’ poetry on the shelves) had no biographical note or, if it did, it wasn’t memorable. I read it the same way I read Donne’s Songs and Sonnets, my other ‘discovery’ of the time. Then the other collections of poems, then the The Bell Jar, which sent me to Anne Stevenson’s biography – not what I wanted at all, though I should have suspected something was up from its title, Bitter Fame. Once I realised that there were very many other people interested and invested in Plath and her writing (and that some of them – dear god! – were other teenage girls) it was one more thing to avoid. But I haven’t forgotten Esther imagining herself sitting in a fig tree, watching the fruit ripen, fall and rot because she can’t choose one. As she says later, ‘If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m as neurotic as hell.’

It should be possible to see The Bell Jar as a deadpan younger cousin of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, or even William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But that’s not the way Faber are marketing it. The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover. (Things are slightly better for lady authors in the US.)

I can imagine complaining along these lines in an editorial meeting at a British publishing house, and being sighed at: ‘Yes, of course the 1960s cover is beautiful – I love it – but Waterstones and Tesco won’t stock it.’ It sounds like a reasonable point. And it may be true that paperbacks with photographs of people on them shift more copies in supermarkets. But it isn't as if The Bell Jar has to earn out its advance. And for some reason the rule doesn't apply to recent anniversary redesigns of Orwell (by David Pearson for Penguin) or B.S. Johnson (by La Boca for Picador). Lucky them.