The affect of this interpretation’s proliferation is to devalue girls’s engagements with Plath. To learn her coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar, for instance, is seen by many as a girlish ceremony of passage in direction of extra severe literature, a notion usually reflected in the YA-style cover designs. This is not the case for narratives of male comings-of-age, from the works of JD Salinger to David Foster Wallace. However the reality is that Plath was one of many first authors to faucet into the uncooked actuality of being a lady. Earlier than feminism’s second wave and Betty Friedan’s The Female Mystique, Plath wrote of her discontent with a lady’s inferior place, her sexual urges, and the way these pressures affected her psychological well being.
On the identical time, The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are works of fiction. They’re grounded in Plath’s lived expertise, as all literature have to be, however the declare that she solely wrote direct autobiography is misogynistic. Biographies usually cite Plath’s works as proof for real-life occasions, and, as is the case with Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, use them to say Plath was at all times depressed; Stevenson ends a chapter about her youth with the egregious assertion: “The thought of suicide shaped in her thoughts like the last word and irrevocable fig”, referring to the well-known metaphor from The Bell Jar the place the heroine Esther Greenwood sees all her potential futures as figs on a fig tree. An identical prejudice has continued to have an effect on inventive girls, whereby they’re dismissed as utilizing artwork as remedy. The issue we face with Plath is that the mythos of her life and dying has made it tough to disentangle her artwork from that – but additionally know who the “actual” Sylvia Plath was, in any case.
The Plath cottage business
The will to know Plath has nonetheless fuelled an business. A brand new biography claiming to shed extra mild on her life than earlier than seems on bookshelves with rising regularity, together with three notable releases prior to now 18 months alone. One in every of these books, The Final Days of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, printed in March 2020, focuses solely on her suicide. One other, Three-Martini Afternoons on the Ritz by Gail Crowther, printed in April, is a twin biography of Plath and fellow Bostonian poet Anne Sexton, who met at a writers’ seminar held by poet Robert Lowell in 1959. The third ebook is Heather Clark’s huge biography Pink Comet: printed final October, it’s, alongside Crowther’s, one of many first books about Plath to make full use of the recently-published, full and unabridged volumes of her letters, and intentionally subverts the reverse, death-focused chronology of earlier tomes.
Whilst these books could hope to grasp Plath from a contemporary perspective, their mission is arguably rendered ever more difficult by the regular stream of essential and biographical works able to supplant them, alongside the ever-increasing quantity of printed materials from her archive. There has even been a biography of her biographies: in 1994, the good New Yorker author Janet Malcolm, who died final month, printed The Silent Lady, a research of Plath books (together with Stevenson’s controversial Bitter Fame) which sought to contemplate the forces of affect which decide the character of biographical writing.
When getting ready her ebook, Malcolm contacted Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and the literary executor of her property, in search of an interview with Ted to complement her analysis. The response she obtained was an extended, unprompted critique of the “myth of Sylvia Plath”, one thing Olwyn believed was fuelled by a mixture of Plath herself and Plath’s mom, Aurelia, who was, Olwyn claimed, “ashamed of the psychological sickness”, and decided that solely her daughter’s “finest facet” was remembered. Olwyn was horrified, she went on, by a scarcity of “human feeling” proven by writers and the general public for Plath’s household and had in consequence “completely modified [her] complete perspective to individuals”. Nonetheless, what Malcolm achieved with The Silent Lady was to remind us that Plath was not a delusion, however a lady who had lived and breathed as we do. By bringing herself into the story with the intention to mirror on her personal function throughout the posthumous narrativisation of Sylvia Plath – moderately than appearing beneath the pretence of objectivity – Malcolm wrote probably the most human ebook on the poet up to now.