Letters of Sylvia Plath book cover


Sylvia Plath was a poet who wore a bikini. That’s not oxymoronic

A row has broken out over a Sylvia Plath book cover in which the writer beams on a beach. But intellectual and depressed women can smile, too, says Ella Risbridger

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By Ella Risbridger on

Another day, another Sylvia Plath book, another Sylvia Plath controversy. This time, it’s not about her words, but her picture: blonde, tanned, and smiling on the front of the new UK edition of her collected letters. This picture, according Cathleen Allyn Conway, writing in The Guardian last week, is all wrong. Plath in “a bikini, blond and beaming [is the]...antithesis to the ambitious, intellectual poet”. Apparently. It doesn’t seem to matter that the picture is a real photograph of a real intellectual poet.

This is always how we talk about Sylvia Plath. Every essay, every article, every new biography of her too-short life comes through the lens of what we want to see. Ted Hughes fans write about a crazy, delusional ex-wife. Plath fans write about an abandoned, abused genius. Old male critics see a silly little girl. Lost young women see a soulmate. We pore through her letters and her diaries, looking for clues to make her in our own image. As Rebecca Rideal noted when writing about the row over the cover image in the New Statesman, we’re desperate to put women into boxes: “Blonde Bimbo, Angry Feminist, Downtrodden Mother, Suicidal Writer.” The thing about Plath, of course, is that she’s all four, depending on who you’re asking.

This is why everything Plath-related comes under such scrutiny – we’re worried someone is going to show a Sylvia Plath that doesn’t work for us. And that’s scary. The idea that somebody might be more than we’ve bargained for is scary – and it’s especially scary when we’re talking about a young woman. For a lot of reasons (well, patriarchy, really), we are particularly concerned with policing the bodies and the minds of young women, and Sylvia Plath, practically the patron saint of young women, is the perfect vehicle for all those cultural anxieties.

You see it with other women who died young, too, though – Marilyn Monroe, for example. What size was she really? No, really? Was she really a bit fat? Was she really unhappy? Was she really beautiful? Was she really, in those pictures of her reading Ulysses, really reading? A professor (male, obviously) was “so curious to know if Marilyn was indeed reading Joyce's novel or if she was merely posing for the photo” that he actually wrote to the photographer to check.

I wondered, when I first read about this guy, whether he was struck by similar curiosity every time he saw a photograph of somebody reading. Did he always write to the photographer to check? Of course not – it’s only that girls in bikinis don’t read big books. It’s the same impulse that underpins this constant analysis of Sylvia Plath, too. This discussion about the cover image is supposed to be a literary controversy, but as always with Plath, it’s more than that – it’s about young women and what a young woman should be.

Writing, just like reading, can be for anyone. So is ambition. So is intellectualism. And so, unfortunately, is single motherhood, domestic abuse and mental illness

It’s also, of course, about what a young poet should be. And some think that young poets should be presented more sombrely. A serious-looking photograph, Cathleen Allyn Conway said, is what it looks like to be “an internationally recognised poet and novelist, an icon, an alleged victim of domestic abuse, a single mother”. As somebody with depression, who coped with trauma by writing about make-up and taking a lot of frivolous pictures, I feel pretty well placed to say this is nonsense. More than that, it’s dangerous nonsense.

Poetry happens to people in great bikinis just as often as it happens to people in wire-framed glasses with unbrushed hair; poetry is for people smiling on beaches as much as for people gritting their teeth in silent libraries. Writing, just like reading, can be for anyone. So is ambition. So is intellectualism.  And so, unfortunately, is single motherhood, domestic abuse and mental illness. You cannot tell a poet by looking. You also cannot tell who is a single mother, or who is being hurt by their partner, or who has depression.

By claiming that poets – and single mothers, depressed people and victims of domestic abuse – should look sombre, buttoned-up and black-and-white, we claim that these people look different, that these people can’t be like you. And not only does it reinforce a social stigma, but it seems to imply that if you don’t look like this invented sombre idea, it isn’t happening to you. You can’t be depressed – look at that selfie! You can’t be being domestically abused – you’re on a beach! You can’t be a poet – you never go to the library! That kind of thing – poetry, abuse, depression – doesn’t happen to people like you, after all. It only happens to this black-and-white kind of person.

Here’s the thing: people don’t come with a label. People are often contrary and capricious and always, always contain multitudes. Marilyn Monroe really was reading Ulysses, by the way – she kept it in her car and read it aloud to herself to understand it better. She was reading it on that photoshoot to pass the time while they loaded the film. Just like Sylvia Plath did dye her hair blonde for a bit and smile on beaches. It really happened. It was part of her life.

Models can read big books. Great writers can wear a bikini. Young women are people, and people are complicated, and an acknowledgement of that complexity is at the heart of all really great literature. From Ariel to Ulysses, there’s an understanding that everyone – everyone! – is more than we bargained for.


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