Bell Jar fans protest at new ‘chick lit’ cover

Tragi-comedy? The classic 1967 cover for The Bell Jar and the new edition.

Lovers of Sylvia Plath’s cult coming-of-age novel are scandalised by a new ‘prettified’ anniversary cover. Why do books about growing up mean so much to readers?

Is it The Catcher in The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird or even Le Grand Meaulnes? Perhaps you prefer Great Expectations or the very highbrow choice, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

Most people have a special regard for the book that, to them, best describes the experience of growing up and emerging into adult life. For some, poet Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, best hits the mark. The tale of an aspiring writer, whose sense of alienation from the America of the 1950s sends her into a losing battle with depression, has proved an enduring hit. Too much so, say some parents, worried that their daughters are confusing literary brilliance with the sad life of their heroine, who committed suicide at the age of 30.

With mental illness and thwarted ambition at its heart, The Bell Jar, while witty and beautifully written, is no romantic romp. And this week, the 50th anniversary of Plath’s death was marred by the anger of her fans, furious with a publisher for choosing an overtly feminine cover for a special edition of the cult book.

The ‘welcoming package’ would attract new readers, protested Faber, claiming that book sales have been excellent since the new edition was published. But literary types rushed to condemn this repackaging of a modern classic as a travesty: using ‘a low-rent retro wannabe pin-up applying makeup’ to illustrate a story about a young woman crushed by the limited avenues available to 1950s girls was ‘stupid’, wrote one critic.

What next? Jane Eyre rebranded as a rom-com? The blogosphere filled up with instant parodies of updated classic book jackets. Meanwhile, the occasional brave defender of the new cover popped up to argue that the blood-red background and self-consciousness of the woman looking in the mirror did indeed hint at the ‘cruel world’ of the novel.

But five decades after Plath took her own life, why are readers so upset on her behalf?

A new leaf?

From its famous opening sentence, The Bell Jar is firmly anchored in a particular moment in 20th Century American history – a time when young women were struggling to break free of a constricting and claustrophobic ideal. But, much like The Catcher in the Rye, another story of 1950s adolescent rebellion, also rich in period detail, the book manages to communicate something to successive generations.

‘True,’ say the Plath fans. ‘So leave our heroine unmolested by modern marketing departments: enduring truths will always find an audience’. They may be right: the excitement surrounding this week’s anniversary proves that a classic author’s following can continue without help. But doesn’t every new cohort of potential readers deserve to be tempted in? The replacement of an elegant ‘timeless’ cover design is, surely, a small sacrifice to make to achieve that?

You Decide

  1. Is there a book you would choose as your favourite above all others? Is it a coming-of-age story?
  2. Sylvia Plath is sometimes seen as a bad influence on girls: can a writer lead someone astray?

Activities

  1. Design a cover for your own favourite book. Think about the image, lettering and the mood or idea you are conveying.
  2. Write a review (maximum 300 words) of a book, play, film or piece of music you would recommend.

Some People Say...

“You can’t learn anything about life from fiction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m struggling to get worked up about this.
Really? Even if you don’t have your own favourite writer or novel, you might have a different kind of creative idol: a musician for example. Imagine if after their death a record company used publicity images that you felt made a mockery of what you love about them.
OK, that would offend me.
Exactly. We tend to develop strong attachments to artists who inspire us. Then it feels like an insult if someone else distorts our picture. The great thing aboutThe Bell Jar, with or without its new pink cover, is that no-one can change the power or subtlety of the words Sylvia Plath wrote all those years ago. The Catcher in the Rye even survived a musical tribute by Guns N’ Roses!

Word Watch

Poet
Sylvia Plath, who was born in America, came to the UK to study at Cambridge University and married the celebrated English poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. His fame and reputation was greater, and much of her poetry was published after she died. The literary world tends to ‘take sides’ in a battle of Hughes versus Plath even now.
Great Expectations
Several of Charles Dickens’ novels recount the childhood and young adulthood of a protagonist. In Great Expectations it is Pip. David Copperfield is thought to be most closely based on Dickens’ own early life.
Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man
This classic bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) by James Joyce is quite a challenging read: it starts with babytalk and swiftly progresses to an account of his grim education by Irish priests.
Opening sentence
‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’ Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were a married couple sentenced to the death penalty for conspiring to pass atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. They are the only people ever to have been executed for spying in the US. The novel is set in 1953 but was published in 1963.
Original 1960s cover
The Bell Jar was first published under a pen name. The classic cover of concentric circles, evoking pressure, was designed by Shirley Tucker for the 1967 edition, which appeared with Sylvia Plath as the named author.

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