This month sees the publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, a new collection of unpublished letters from the late poet and novelist. As is often the case, the book came with two different covers for its U.S. and U.K. editions — but that difference has sparked some outrage in the literary community. While the U.S. cover features Plath clad in a coat looking thoughtful, the U.K. version is emblazoned with a photo of a blonde Plath smiling in a bikini.
As Plath scholar Cathleen Allyn Conway writes for The Guardian, this is a long-standing issue not just for Plath, but other female writers as well. Using sexy images seems to undercut the gravity of these authors’ work, which in Plath’s case often dealt with the darkness of madness and abuse. As Conway writes, “Presenting female writers as sexualized and frivolous diminishes their intellectual credentials, tarnishes their work as slight, not to be taken seriously.”
Continuing to plaster Plath’s work with bikini shots plays into the long-standing resentment some Plath fans retain for how her allegedly abusive husband Ted Hughes — who retained control of her literary estate and infamously destroyed the last part of her journal after she died by suicide in 1963 — portrayed her. As Conway explains, “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.”
Plus, as the scholar points out, Plath only even had blonde hair for about three months (“We know brunette Sylvia was how Plath wanted to present herself,” she writes), so using such a photo isn’t even an accurate representation of her, much less her work.