Remembering Sylvia Plath
Today, 11 February, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. The papers are awash with tributes, reflections by writers from Lena Dunham to Jennifer Egan, the furore over the ‘chick-lit Faber cover rumbles on, and there is a slew of new books going over what they say is new ground, such as Mad Girl’s Love Song, another by Ted Hughes’ brother, released to coincide with the date.
There was a time when I would have gobbled a new book about her up. Maybe I was one of the peanut crunching crowd, that Hadley Freeman referred to. I don’t know.
I remember the first time I came across Plath. I was an intense sixth former, playing Joy Division and The The on a loop. My English teacher was a stickler for rote learning and tradition and we had ploughed through Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales, Rudyard Kipling’s Kip, reading aloud in class with her taking all the best parts for herself. And then, in the sixth form, we had this new teacher, a Kate Bush lookalike, who dressed part Tenko, part Bloomsbury and we were all a little bit in love with, and she handed out copies of ‘You’re’ and ‘Daddy’ and The Bee Meeting’. She asked us how it made us feel. It was like nothing I had ever read before. My copy from that time has frantic notes scribbled all over it, underlinings, asterisks, as if my thoughts are tumbling out. I read The Bell Jar and was floored by it.
For my eighteenth, newly arrived at university, my mother gave me a copy of Plath’s Letters Home and The Collected Poems writing an inscription in the front. I kept them by my bed and read them from cover to cover. When I saw Plath was on my degree syallabus, it felt great to be able to walk into Heffer’s and buy everything on the reading list. My affinity with her seemed strengthened by being in the same places where she had been, and I thought about her a lot as I rode my black bicycle with its wooden basket perched on the front, round The Backs, passing the same sights.
“…down Great St Mary’s Passage, lined with its parked bikes, wheels upon wheels. The stone facade of King’s and the pinnacles on the chapel stood elaborate, frosty, against a thin watercolour-blue sky.’
Stone Boy with Dolphin – Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams
When it came to my first essay on Plath, I thought I could show off all my knowledge about her and out it all came. My tutor returned it, giving it a disappointingly low mark, with anything even remotely biographical scored out heavily in red with exclamation points in the margins.
My interest in Plath continued – when I stayed with my cousins in Hampstead, I left them at Camden Lock and made a little detour to Primrose Hill to her old house. I gazed up at the windows. I don’t know what I was expecting to see, and still feel vaguely ashamed that I did that. On my first trip to the Edinburgh Fringe, I traipsed all over the city looking for a tiny, out of the way venue where there was a one woman show on about her. The actress playing her wore a white bathing costume perched on a pile of builder’s sand. I read Emma Tennant’s book, Ted and Sylvia, I sat through the dreadful film Sylvia, where it seemed to reduce her to brittle neuroticism with none of the brilliance.
At some point, I can’t remember when, I put away my books about her. I lost the Letters Home, with my mother’s dedication, or lent them or gave them away. It seemed I had grown out of her. It seemed like it had been a phase. Although I bought Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters when it came out, I was never into the blaming, the taking sides, the settling of scores, the commenters who nitpick the minutaie – who seem to think they know more than the people who were actually there, involved, related.
I agree with Hadley Freeman that in the end, it is about the work she left behind. I won’t be buying any of the new books about her, trying to explain her. I’m going to re-read The Bell Jar instead.