Sylvia Plath - life and art intertwined
It's the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Sylvia Plath's only novel, The Bell Jar,and of course, it's also the fiftieth anniversary of her suicide. A brace of books about her will be published this year - I'm about to review one of the first of these, Andrew Wilson's Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (Simon and Schuster). Articles by journalists like Hadley Freeman's in The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/22/syvia-plath-50-years-bitter-arguments) considered their own relationship with this iconic writer and her tragic life story, whilst others like Ruth Padel in The Independent called for more of a focus on the poetry, than on the life: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/sylvia-plath-the-idol-the-victim--and-the-pioneer-8446373.html.
I have some sympathy with both views. Part of the appeal that Sylvia Plath still has for subsequent generations of women is her tragic end, and what happened to her legacy after her death. And part of her appeal is that poetic voice, one that was rarely heard at the time (perhaps only Anne Sexton matches her for violence and darkness). 'Let me be tough,' Plath would plead with her muse in her journals.
It's those journals, though, that really captivated me when I set out to write my book, Between the Sheets: the Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers. The title I'd originally favoured for my book was a line from Plath's journals: "Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists." I'd read the biographies, many of them superb, especially Jacqueline Rose's The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (Virago) and Janet Malcolm's exploration of her legacy in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Granta). I'd read the poetry (two of her poems, 'All the Dead Dears' and 'Mirror' had actually inspired some of my PhD research on the character of Issy in Finnegans Wake many years before), and had reviewed the Karen V Kukil volume of journals that covered the years 1950 to 1962. I read Ted Hughes's final volume of poetry, Birthday Letters, where he voiced his feelings about her suicide, and read his letters about it, too. And of course, the 'letters home' that her mother, Aurelia Plath, published.
What interested me was to do with the theme of my book - why women writers stayed with male writers who seemed only to be bad for them. It wasn't difficult to see why Plath stayed with Hughes - from the moment she met him, there was tremendous passion, both literary and sexual. He kept her going when she dealt with rejection and after rejection - for the first time in her life she actually had a partner in her poetic quest and this shored her up tremendously. It's quite possible that Hughes was the one who actually prevented another suicide attempt for a long time - Plath had tried to kill herself once before, when she was rejected for a place at a prestigious summer writing school, long before she met Hughes.
The intertwining of the life and the art is a fascinating thing, and when an artist meets and lives with another artist, that intertwining becomes even more intriguing. It's important to remember that Plath herself believed she needed both a writing partner and a lover - "physically" she wrote her mother in 1953, "I want a colossus...someone who isn't jealous of my creativity on other fields than children" (although she did also write that year that she couldn't "marry a writer or artist - after Gordon, I see how dangerous the conflict of egos would be"). But Plath was always contradictory - she wanted to be a perfect wife, but she wanted the freedom to be a poet too - "I so long for someone to blast over Richard...My God, I'd love to cook and make a house, and surge force into a man's dreams, and write, if he could talk and walk and work and passionately want to do his career." This was written the day before she met Hughes in February 1956.
Artists' motivations are important. We want to understand where they come from. We want to know about their influences and inspirations. With the volume of personal material we have on Plath, we can see what motivated her in her private life. And we can see the impact of that private life on the public poetry - Plath's poems change after she meets Hughes, with more animal imagery, tighter structures. She was also, as biographer Diane Middlebrook notes, "seizing important images from Hughes and refashioning them to say something entirely different." This is hugely important to an understanding of the poetry, and how Plath developed as a poet. And when two poets write in a room together day after day, comment and talk about each other's work, then the personal can tell us a great deal about the creative impulse.
It's inevitable though, in a situation like Plath's which ended so tragically, that one written text is privileged over another, in the aftermath of it all. Are Plath's letters to her mother less important, for example, than her journal entries? Are her poems more crucial than the prose? That the power of deciding which mattered most was in the control of her husband, Ted Hughes, who reputedly destroyed her last journals, has caused problems for critics ever since. All we can do is be grateful that so much of both the life and the work is available to us.