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Feminine mystique: Why Bell Jar cover obscures real women


Faber's new Sylvia Plath edition has been ridiculed for its coy chic, but many publishers are similarly shy of the second sex

Faber has rightly taken stick for the chick-litstyle jacket of its anniversary reissue of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, with some moved to tweet furiously, others to produce parody covers suggesting further ways it and other well-known novels might be repositioned to boost sales.

But while both the image of a Mad Men-era woman applying make-up and the bright red backdrop are laughably inappropriate for a work tracing a descent into near-suicidal depression (had the designer read past the early, jollier chapters?), the jacket at least deserves applause for taboo-breaking: for today's publishers seem terrified of placing a woman on a 20th-century book's front, even when that book is a woman's story.

This embarrassment explains the peculiar frequency of cover images of silhouettes, shoes, seemingly detached legs or arms, rooms or furniture or clothes implicitly evoking heroines, or of half- or quarter-faces allowed to squeeze into the frame as long as they're merely generic. But often even these feminine traces are seen as too overt, and designers go for symbolic objects (a bell jar, inevitably, for Plath) or abstraction.

As a result – looking at current UK paperback editions – novels where potential buyers are not confronted alarmingly with a female face or a full-length woman include The House of Mirth, Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Rebecca, The GoldenNotebook, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Play It As It Lays, Nights at the Circus, Sophie's Choice and Beloved.

Ask publishers why this might be, and their sheepish mutterings tend to involve the likelihood that images of women deter men; and that the more specific and personality-conveying those images, the more prone female readers are to feel they can't identify with the figure on the cover and hence the novel's heroine.

But it seemsfears of buyers not being able to identify apparently vanish when there's a chance to slap the face of Keira Knightleyon a cover.

Also undermining the bizarre consensus is the fact that for pre-20th century classics, the opposite applies. From Defoe to Austen to Eliot to James, the norm for covers where appropriate is to use paintings of women from the period when the novels are set (a rule so rigid that Penguin's current edition of War and Peace is adorned by an Ingres portrait of a not obviously war-torn Parisienne, although it's manifestly not an individual woman's story or a French novel).

The taboo applied to 20th-century novels not only misrepresents them – as Faber's hapless jacket does The Bell Jar, but differently – but also looks like commercial folly. Choosing a portrait of a lady clearly didn't harm the sales of Bridget Jones'sDiary or Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy (where over the three jackets, starting with a dragon-tattooed back view, Lisbeth Salander turns towards the reader).

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