Friday, 1 February 2013

look what they've done!

Sylvia Plath in 1957

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, had a profound influence on me when I read it in my teens. At that time I had never heard of Sylvia Plath, and I read the book because a classmate had chosen it for a book report and it sounded interesting. I'm glad, as this blogger, Fatema Ahmed, is too, that I read it without knowing anything about Plath or her work. There is so much baggage around that whole story now, her husband, her suicide, that it is almost impossible to come to her work fresh - unless you have never heard of her or of Ted Hughes. I read the book again some years later and thought parts of it were very funny, which I had not thought the first time. I still have my paperback copy from that time - I quite often pass books on, but not this one - and its cover is the one on the left. Fab, I think you will agree. I was utterly horrified when I saw the cover on the right, which has been produced for the 50th anniversary
edition. Lipstick and a powder compact? What were they thinking? Twitter and other places have gone ballistic. But then I thought again. Not only is there a whole new generation, or two, of girls and women who do not know who Plath was (I don't think men ever read her - am I wrong?), but maybe the cover designer had a point. Whatever else Plath was, she was a woman of the 1950s. Lipstick and powder compacts would have been important to her. Maybe to buy the book with the cover on the left you needed to know already approximately what book you were choosing, and the cover on the right allows you to choose this book if you are just browsing, thereby increasing its sales. Nothing wrong with that. And in these days of Kindle and other e-readers (which is how I do almost all my reading these days) does the cover design matter? I submit that yes, it still does, but nowhere near as much as it did when books only existed on paper.  So I'm not joining the twitterstorm of outrage about this.

When I first read The Bell Jar I did not know anything about depression either. I'm glad to say I still don't, not really, in terms of personal experience, though I have lived with someone who suffers from it and have thus seen it at close hand from the outside. This book should be required reading for anyone who has encountered depression in any way, and that means most people.

I hope a great many people discover Sylvia Plath and her work this year, half a century after her suicide. Even the manner of it (gas oven) is ancient history now.


jodymerelle said...

Totally agree Jane,I remember reading this when I was sixteen and was very marked by it. I know why more now than I did then. Will read it again now that I've had my memory triggered. Thanks for this post x

Norma Jean said...

I have ordered the latest biography of Sylvia Plath, 'The Mad Girl's Love Song'. I will let you know what it is like.

'I rise like the phoenix with my red hair.
And I eat men like air.'

And 'Love set you going like a fat gold watch.'

Before she died, she left milk and bread for her children in bowls and sealed the room so that the gas coudl not get to them.

A few years ago, the then baby, Nick, committed suicide.

When she met Ted Hughes for the first time, she bit his face.

He left her for Assia Weevill - who had his daughter; Shura. When Shura was four, Assia gassed herself and took Shura with her.

I still have that book on the left with the circles. I don't care how relevant or not the one on the right is. It is not right. The bell jar is represented by the design on the book cover on the left. And that is that.

In photographs, Sylvia in a bathing suit looks like a young Marilyn Monroe. Who died too. They were both beautiful and blonde and rounded and healthy girls. And destroyed. They both had father issues and were abused by men. Women friends were not kind to them. You would have expected them both to be thin, nervy and dark. But they were rounded and blonde and luscious. They died within months of each other. It happens. Rest in peace Sylvia. And Marilyn. I love you both.

Jane Griffiths said...

"I rise like the phoenix with my red hair
And I eat men like air"

A man sent me that line once. Can't think why!

Sylvia, Marilyn, I love them both too. Men don't understand that.

Anonymous said...

They don't. And they are the poorer for it.

Buddy Willard said...

A slightly unfair feminist theme coming out in the comments...

Maybe it is rare for a man to have read The Bell Jar - but I did. In my late teens as recommended by my then girlfriend (now wife 20 years later). And it had quite an impact on me too.

Themes around identity and mental health are surely not just restricted to women. And I hope that I've been influenced by the awareness it raised in me of the impact of our patriarchal society. Perhaps it was too late for me, having been raised in a patriarchal household, but I hope that I'm not passing that on to my children now. I can only try.