Thursday, 31 March 2011

Book Review: The Other Sylvia Plath

There are so many books out there on Sylvia Plath, each with their own story to tell and their own agenda to put forward. It's fair to say that for even a hardened Sylvia Plath fan, the quest to read a factual, interesting and informative book on her life and work is a veritable minefield!

If you have followed this blog for a while, you'll know that I have very strong opinions regarding Plath and the critical work surrounding her. For my PhD, I aim to draw focus away from the famous life-story and concentrate on the literature: what the words on the page are actually saying. So much interpretation of Plath's poetry is rooted in her biography, I believe a lot of texts are deeply reductive and rather insulting not only to Plath's intelligence, but to readers also! Main offenders for me would be David Holbrook (who uses his book, "Poetry and Existence" as a thinly veiled attempt at diagnosing Plath. His findings? She was a schizoid. End of story.) and Anne Stevenson, author of "Bitter Fame", the notoriously bitchy Plath biography. My view on Plath's criticism would go so far as to tell any reader wanting to embark on secondary reading about Plath - ignore ALL biographies!!! They only cause harm and leave the spectre of Plath's life hanging over the work.

"There is much unkindness, not to mention little value and reliability, in using poetry and fiction as evidence for Plath’s supposed anger towards her husband or parents… or, at the opposite extreme, as proof of her presumed victimhood. To treat Plath’s writing in this way is to belittle her work, for the implication of such an exercise is that Sylvia Plath was too unimaginative to make anything up, or too self-obsessed to consider anything of larger historical or cultural importance".

The previous quote is taken from Dr Tracy Brain's excellent "The Other Sylvia Plath". Published in 2001, I believe that this book and Tim Kendall's "Sylvia Plath: A Critical Study" (also published in 2001) were the main instigators in setting a new trend for Plath analysis. I have chosen to review "The Other Sylvia Plath" because I believe, firstly, it appeals to a mass-market of readers. The style of language used throughout is friendly and explanatory, without being patronising. Brain speaks in plain terms, and is both serious and happily animated - illustrating her genuine love and interest for the work of Plath.

The main chapters of the book look at a variety of different issues which are in no way pre-determined by biographical fact. Brain analyses the power of book covers in 'Packaging Sylvia Plath' and discusses whether we as readers are influenced by Plath's image appearing on her book covers. If you think about it, Brain makes a very interesting point. How many W.B. Yeats volumes of poetry show his face on the cover? Are scenes of nature, fairies, Byzantine artwork not more common? What does the image of the pretty girl (as on the cover of "Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams") say to the reader?

Brain comments here not on Plath as person, but Plath as a woman. The photo on the cover of JP&TBOD was taken during Plath's 'platinum summer' where she swam, sunbathed, dated and larked around. The image on the cover of the book re-inforces this. Even without the background biographical knowledge, the image on the cover forces a certain type of analysis. The point Dr Brain makes here is fresh, new and interesting. Raising questions about the place of women in literature in the world today. Are women still so connected to being just that - women - that their writing cannot be read without their photograph attached? And once determined as "women's writing", how does this change the perspective of us, as readers? Also, why aren't men subjected to the same kind of treatment? These issues raised are very important to note!

The trend of uncovering new themes of discussion continues throughout the whole book. Brain devotes time to looking at Plath's American and English lives in a chapter entitled 'Straddling the Atlantic', as well as analysing an entirely new mode of thought regarding Plath's poetry - her environmentalism. Complete with rare images of girlhood collages archived in the Lily Library; a brand new insight to Plath's motivation is evident. Time is given to "The Bell Jar" also: with Brain employing original theories Gilbert and Gubar stated in their "Madwoman in the Attic" collection of essays: the links between Plath and the Bronte sisters. Brain looks at Sylvia's personal copy of "Villette" and suggests elements of the story that interested Plath (as Plath herself had highlighted passages and annotated her book).

Perhaps most interesting is the final chapter where Dr Brain looks to the future. She analyses the closeness of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's writing - noting that many poems held at Smith College written by Plath were, in fact, etched on the flip-side of paper Hughes wrote his poems on. Brain terms this as "bleeding through the page", and by doing so, opens up a new method of thought regarding Hughes and Plath. Not as lovers, married couple, enemies. But as two writers, inherently linked with each other; so much so that the ink between their poems intertwine through thin paper pages. It is an inspiring statement and one very important to hold onto when trying to establish serious Plath criticism.

In her conclusion, Brain hopes for the future and her Plath-fan emerges when she excitedly speculates that Plath's final diaries, the mythical maroon-backed ledgers that Hughes confessed to burning, may in fact be stored in his locked trunk at Emory University. As speculatative as this is, Brain instills an optimism in her reader and reminds us that the literature of Sylvia Plath is very much alive and only now are more accurate and less biography-driven interpretations of the work beginning to emerge.

"The Other Sylvia Plath" is a fascinating read. Prior to starting my PhD I devoured it as a fan and now, as a scholar, it has become more useful to me than I could ever have imagined. I would recommend it to even the casual fan.

Click the link to purchase "The Other Sylvia Plath".


Carl Rollyson said...

You might take a look at my column on Plath available at BiblioBuffet, where I write a regular column on biography called Biographology

The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks Carl! I will surely check it out! Hope your biography work is going well:)

Bybee said...

This looks really good. Some of those biographies make me want to tear my hair out.

amy said...

Yes! Your blog is a beautiful blog. Tributing one of the finest poets and ladies

following x

amy !

tulip and willow said...

How's your phd been going over the last few weeks? I feel like my MA is almost over :(

The Plath Diaries said...

@Amy - Your blog is wonderful! I really love it, such beautiful designs and photographs!:)

@Zoe - Are you thinking of going to for a PhD?? Email me if you want to chat about it!