“Finally now, young women writers can cease to identify with the apparent self-destroyer in Sylvia Plath and begin to understand the forces she had to reckon with.”

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Except the obvious

I want this review to mean something to me. Something big. Because I don’t ever want to forget how this book made me feel. Her words should be branded on my mind for as long as I live, so that I remember what living on the edge really feels like, without ever having to experience it. A cold stark reminder of the brutalities of a deeply depressed mind. It can’t get worse than this and that’s why her story is important to me.

When I first read SP’s semi-autobiography The Bell Jar I saw an uncanny resemblance to my inner most thoughts with those of Esther’s Greenwood’s (fictional character). The book reminded me of an old Hemingway quote:

“Write hard and clear about what hurts”

She said certain things so easily, where I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s not often that you ask yourself “How did the author know so much about me?” It wasn’t enough, I needed to know more. I decided, that an autobiography wouldn’t be enough; too many angles, too many perspectives and none of them hers. So I picked up her memoirs. I needed to understand what made her express her emotions so vividly, so easily. She removes all abstract elements out of complex emotions and strips them bare of any ambiguities until you finally see with your own eyes, the complete mental illness manifesto and in it all the bleak colours that ever existed:

“Depression isn’t just sadness or self-hatred, it’s like the numbness you feel when your limbs fall asleep, but it’s in your head all the time” (Source: Unknown)

The journals begin in the summer of 1950, when Plath is just 19 years old starting off at Smith College Massachusetts. And her last entry was in April 1962, 10 months before her death. This memoir was like her personal playground where page after page, she evolved from a girl to a complete writer, poet and novelist. But the poetry was always there from the very beginning:

“I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a taj mahal in the future.”

Her words are overwhelming, mentally entangled and hard to decipher sometimes. You could follow through the timeline of her literary activities, achievements and failures. She makes her failures your failures, you dread her rejections as if they were yours. She has YOU living each of her experiences. Where in some places, there was self-scorn, extreme pain, sadness, mental paralysis, there was also a lot of self-motivation and the urge to keep pushing her creative drive:

“Winning or losing an argument, receiving an acceptance or rejection is no proof of the validity or value of personal identity. One may be wrong, mistaken, a poor craftsman, or just ignorant –but this is no indication of the true worth of ones total human identity; past, present & future!”

Not a lot of sources talk about her happy side, but she talked about it often in her journals. She loved to travel, to bake cakes and pies. April’s spring time was her favourite season. Her favourite accessory was a worn out red head scarf and red gloves, one of her favourite pastimes was at the beach tanning her body or lightening her hair. She was a meticulous housekeeper and a tidy home made her happy. She loved clipping rose buds from gardens at night, so it could bloom in her sitting room window the next morning.

If her writing liberated her, I felt she was also weighed down by it. Her failures seemed heavier when she scarred her journal with each and every one of them. Like heavy chains that followed her everywhere. She dreaded the ticking clock that never hesitated to remind her of every wasted second. She always felt horribly lacking, always felt incomplete. Her love in herself depended highly on the approval and rejection of her work by others:

“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”

Deep inside, she always knew that she was on the path to self-destruction from the onset. But it wasn’t all of her doing. Was it the lack of love from her mother? The trauma from her father’s early demise? Her failure to get into Harvard? The pressures she faced when she was a guest editor for the Mademoiselle Magazine? Or her husband’s (Ted Hughes) infidelities? Or was it one of London’s worst winters of February 1963?

She was raised by her single mother, her father Otto Plath died when she was 8 years old. And she loved her father dearly. In her poem ‘Daddy’ she wrote depicting Ted Hughes as a male presence to substitute her father:

“And then I knew what to do.

I made a model of you,

A man in black with a Meinkampf look”

Her mother, constantly weighed her down with criticism for her life’s choices. And it was much later when Sylvia understood that what she thought was love, was merely approval. And that made her feel terribly sad:

“It is not that I myself do not want to succeed. I do. But I do not need success with the desperation I have felt for it: that is an infusion of fear that successlessness means no approval from mother: and approval, with mother, has been equated for me with love, however true that is.”

Love; SP was love hungry just like you and me:
“I want to love. Because I want to be loved”

Critics say her failed relationship with Richard Sassoon drove her into the arms of Ted Hughes whom she married in June 1956 and eventually separated in December 1962 due to his many infidelities. Ted’s betrayal was her last and ultimate blow:

“What I cannot forgive is dishonesty – and no matter what, or how hard….. So what now?”

Suicide; SP made 2 known failed suicide attempts. Her first was in August 1953 by taking a dose of sleeping pills. She was found 3 days later under her house by her mother and brother. Post this attempt she did not keep a journal for one year (I wish she did). She eventually succeeded on the early hours of the 11th of February 1963 by gas asphyxiation in her kitchen. Leaving her two children Frieda and Nicholas in the safer part of the house. Below is an excerpt from her poem ‘Lady Lazarus’:

“Dying is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well. I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real. I guess you could say I’ve a call.”

The journals leave me pretty much hanging and without closure on SP’s last crucial months. The Journals from late 59 to “within last 3 days” of her death are not included in this book (Dec’59 to Feb 63). One is said to be destroyed by her husband for the sake of their children. The other is still missing. These 2 journals were her most important journals as they documented her most progressive time while working on the bulk of her last poetry works Ariel and her writing for The Bell Jar. They were also covering the period that SP discovered Ted’s affair with Assia Wevill who later committed suicide in a similar way as SP in 1969 as well as taking the life of her four year old daughter, Shura.

SP’s last words in her main journal were: “A bad day, a bad time.”

Note to reader: the lines from the above poems are not included in the journal. They have been included for the understanding that her personal life greatly affected her work.

 

Reviewed by:

Vasudha Sharma

Added 14th October 2017

NO MAJOR SPOILERS

Except the obvious

I first took an interest in Sylvia Plath from reading The Bell Jar aged 15 (much to my mother’s chagrin). From just this narrow source material I felt such a connection to her; what slightly awkward, nerdy teen girl wouldn’t? I’m pleased to say my love of this book turned out not to be just teen angst and it remains 13 years later firmly on my list of favourite books.

However I never went much deeper into finding out about Sylvia herself beyond a quick skim of her Wikipedia page. Which is why I was thrilled to receive a first edition copy of Letters Home from my mother for my birthday this year (presumably now I am older she is less weary I am going to follow in Syliva’s melancholy footsteps). How exciting; a collection of letters written from Sylvia to her mother, dating from her college years right up to her death aged just 30. A chance to meet Sylvia personally, and to be able to glimpse into her mind even a little.

Apart from being a wonderfully thoughtful gift for the collectable appeal alone this book turned out to be a fantastic read. From the first slightly homesick letter written on her first night at Smith University I felt absolutely absorbed in her life. I celebrated every time she wrote a triumphant letter to her mother telling her she’d got another poem published in a magazine.

As she agonised whether she had taken on too much work and was about to let down everybody who’d supported her, I too felt like I had such a weight on my shoulders. Even in her day-to-day letters home, Sylvia has such a way with words that makes you empathise strongly everything she was feeling. Imagine writing to that extent in your weekly ‘I’m still alive’ emails to your family nowadays! And as I experienced every high and low alongside her, I started to see perhaps how she had ended up in such a desperate place. Every little success sent her soaring impossibly high; “Oh, mummy, I am so happy…How can I bear the joy of it all!” Every tiny road block caused her to crash into absolute despair; “Every fibre of me rebels against the unnecessary torture I am going through… how very desolate and futile and trapped I feel!” What a roller coaster ride of a life she had.

How insightful her mentor Olive Higgins Prouty was when she wrote to Sylvia “A lamp turned too high might shatter its chimney. Please just glow sometimes”.

That being said, for those of you who have read The Bell Jar, you will see a stark contrast in style and mood in this collection of letters, which covers the same time period. As the ill-fated trip to New York started being discussed, and her first nervous breakdown and suicide attempt loomed, I braced myself for the same dark tortured Sylvia to appear in the letters, which of course she never did. (Thinking about it, that was rather naive of me. Everyone wants their parents to see the best of them and to not worry about them). The result being another, perhaps more measured telling of this period of her life.

On that note, it is worth remembering that these letters have been edited by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother. Not every part of every letter written was included in the book, and one can only wonder why her mother decided to show the world some of the details in each letter (the amount of times ovens are mentioned may raise a wry smile from the fans of black-humour amongst you), and what was left out and why. For example, her mother doesn’t seem to subscribe to the view of some that Ted was a negative influence on her daughter’s life, and is quite happy to print the many gushing letters Sylvia sent during their courtship of how amazing a man and poet she thought him to be. The cynical part of me has wondered if this is due to the fact she had to ask Ted Huges for permission to print these letters at all, but that is a discussion for another day.

So should you read this book? I think it’s clear by now that for me it is a resounding yes. If I were being completely honest, I would say the endless day-to-day recounts do drag a little near the middle but this is ultimately a wonderful, heartbreaking insight into her life. However, this recommendation does come with a warning. If I felt before like I personally knew her, that is nothing compared to how I feel now (you will note my possibly insolent use of her first name throughout this review). In reading this book you will grow very fond of this dear, sensitive woman and, like me, as the date on the letters grows closer to February 1963, you may start to mourn the loss of someone you have come to think of as a very close friend.

 

Reviewed by:

Sophia Carleton

Added 30th August 2015

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