Monday, February 4, 2013

People Are Freaking Out About the New Cover of The Bell Jar

Here’s why they should calm down. 

Faber's new cover for The Bell Jar.
Faber has published a new edition of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar for the book’s 50th anniversary, and the internet is totally losing its shit. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider some of these diatribes:

  • “If Sylvia Plath hadn't already killed herself, she probably would've if she saw the new cover of her only novel The Bell Jar.” -Jezebel   

  • “I think, after that Bell Jar cover, my next pitch for a kids book will be The Big Pink Book of Low Expectations For Girls.” -Louie Stowell

The general consensus seems to be that the cover denigrates the content, that it’s insulting to women and to women writers in general, and it doesn’t befit a classic. The cover to the original 1966 Faber edition, designed by Shirley Tucker, is being touted as iconic all over the blogosphere. It’s a good cover design, that’s true

Shirley Tucker's design.

But it wasn’t the first one. Plath originally released the book under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. That edition was published by William Heinemann Limited, and featured a rather feminine cover, with a loopy font and a woman-on-the-verge:

The true first Bell Jar cover.

What people really seem to be forgetting is that both Tucker’s 1966 cover and the original Victoria Lucas cover are for the UK editions of The Bell Jar. Unless you picked up a copy in England, they're not the ones most Americans are familiar with, so the fawning nostalgia for the Tucker cover is partly contrived, Brits excepted. The novel wasn’t published in the US until 1971, where it was given this cover:
First US edition of The Bell Jar.

And this is paperback version many, including myself, first encountered in the ‘70s:

While the two US versions above may seem somber by today’s standards, they were very similar to the mass market covers marketed to women at the time. In fact, they bear a strong resemblance to the types of books my workplace used to label as “true insanity,” before the category was renamed something more politically correct.

The ‘70s American versions of The Bell Jar were designed to appeal to those who were enjoying sensationalistic novels and memoirs of women and madness, such as I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and Sybil. Even the stylized Gothic font on Plath’s book was a trendy cover convention in its day.

And guess what? We picked it up anyway, we read it, and we loved it.

If young women pick up the new edition because of the chick-lit cover, they’ll find plenty to like, from the moment on page one that they learn Esther’s patent leather shoes came from Bloomingdale’s. They’ll like that she interns at a fashion magazine -- a thinly-disguised version of Plath’s time at Mademoiselle. There’s plenty about her to appeal to young women today.

But they’ll quickly find that it goes much, much deeper and gets much, much darker.

Hannah Griffiths, a publisher at Faber says it’s working: “We love it and the sales since publication suggest that new readers are finding it in the way that we hoped.”

I call that a success. It matters less that the cover appeals to me, than that it appeals to the sixteen year-olds of today.

What do you think of the new cover design? Are your panties in a wad? Or does it matter as long as it sells?


  1. It does seem a rather weak attempt at drawing in the "chick lit" audience...but she does look vaguely disgruntled. So, it makes a good placeholder for a DEVIL WEARS PRADA cover. Not an abomination in my eyes, but not terribly impressive either commercially nor artistically.

  2. I actually like it. I like the model's face, which has character, and I like the font. Personally, I think it's a lot better than the rose cover, which is the one I remember best too.

  3. Looks like some tawdry romance novel. I guess maybe that's the audience they're trying to draw..

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  4. And my copy is yet another cover. This cover - not a fan, but I don't LOATHE it.

    Unlike the new Anne of Green Gables somebody is putting out that looks like Sweet Valley High with a BLONDE on the cover.

  5. I like the cover of the first U.S. edition best, though I don't know which of the covers best suits Plath's poetry. Several of them seem like overly literal attempts to render a disturbed psychological state in images.

    As for the diatribes, I suspect from the titles of their publications that the three folks you quote are avowedly feminist critics and may feel compelled -- as would avowed members of any political, social, or literary school of thought -- to let a party line tinge their criticism.
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