"The gas sifted in, strange and sickeningly sweet. I tried not to fight it . . . I felt my mouth cracking up into a smile. So that's how it was . . . so simple, and no one had told me. I had to write it, to describe how it was, before I went under." Welcome to the world of Sylvia Plath. Who else could make a trip to the dentist at the age of 17 sound like a failed suicide attempt - or, worse still, like a successful one? Nobody coming upon this diary entry from 1950 will fail to flinch and think of that bitter February morning 13 years later when the poet, recently separated from her husband Ted Hughes, set some bread and milk beside the cots of her sleeping children, taped up the doors of the bedroom and the kitchen and then, having folded a cloth to lay her head on, knelt down by the oven and turned on the gas.
The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 are full of portents and prefigurings - at times so self-conscious they almost stiffen into plans. The book reads like the longest suicide note ever written. Death appears to have taken out a lease on Plath's imagination at the age of eight, when her father Otto died, and never moved out.
It is 37 years since she killed herself, which means that the myth of Plath, her posthumous life as it were, is now longer than the life itself, and shows no sign of giving up the ghost. Piled on top of each other, her novel, The Bell Jar, and the two volumes of verse, Ariel and The Colossus, are barely sandwich deep. The works about her - mainly competing interpretations of the relationship with Hughes - form towers. The effect of Plath's dramatic extinction was twofold: first, she was set on the literary fast-track, becoming what Faber unblinkingly calls "one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century" . Secondly, Plath's story became a favourite feminist parable. A tortured specimen preserved in her bell jar, Sylvia is forever young, forever anguished, forever betrayed by her man. (Hughes had left her for Assia Wevill who, with ghastly symmetry, later killed herself and their child.) When a selection from Plath's journals was published in America in 1982, Hughes co-edited the volume and in the Introduction he admitted that there had been two further journals. The one that covered the period up until three days before Plath's death he had destroyed because, "I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)". The other had "disappeared".
What the unabridged extant Journals force you to ask is: just how suitable a figurehead is she for the sisterhood? Here, for example, is our heroine exulting with Ted in her bed: "This is the man the unsatisfied ladies scan the stories in the Ladies' Home Journal for, the man women read romantic women's novels for: oh, he is unbelievable & the more so because he is my husband . . ." There is something almost unhinged in a phenomenally well-read woman congratulating herself on having bagged the kind of Heathcliff rampant who straddles the pages of Mills & Boon. But this is Fifties America, and there is much to the modern eye that looks not just doolally but diseased in the relations between the sexes.
At the age of 18, a precocious student at Smith College in Massachusetts, Plath tells herself she has "three years at best" to find a mate or risk being a pitiful spinster. For page after page, she keeps a detailed record of her performance in the ancient blood sport of dating. "I was so overjoyed by the fact that I would save my face by being out of the house with a male on a Saturday night that I didn't care if he were five feet tall." The result is a riveting social document, an acid portrait of "the American virgin dressed to seduce . . . We go on dates, we play around, and if we're nice girls we demure [sic] at one point!"
Has anyone ever written better about the heartlessness of the teenage girl in love? Here is the freshwoman weighing up the charms of a dumb rival: "She personifies the word `Cute'. She's short and luscious. You notice her short `thumpable' nose, her long lashes, her green eyes, her tiny waist . . . her insolent breasts . . . " Plath's observations were razor-sharp; the hard thing to accept was that this made her nothing special in the only competition that counted for women of that era. Hers was the last generation of females for whom ambition and high intelligence were a liability. Sylvia's minxy manoeuvrings with men read now as a desperate kind of life insurance. (No wonder Hughes's desertion left her psychologically bankrupt, so great was her investment in marriage.) "I dislike being a girl," she wrote, "because as such I must come to realise that I cannot be a man . . . I must pour my energies through the direction and force of my mate."
We are so used to the Sylvia Plath of those incandescent last poems - "Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air" - that it comes as a shock to bump into this conventional blonde with her polka-dot kerchiefs and her need to be loved. But if Plath wanted to be a wife and mother, she was also desperate to be a great writer, and these two warring impulses - the patient crafting of poetry and the baking of "my superb lemon meringue pie" - fight it out through the Journals. Nice Girl. Nasty Girl. Clever Girl. Pretty Girl. Back and forth it goes as she searches in herself for the ruthlessness necessary to make her poems, only to shy away from that ruthlessness as unwomanly. "I wonder if art divorced from normal and conventional living is as vital as art combined with living . . . Would marriage sap my creative energy? Am I strong enough to do both well?" We all know the sad answer to that question. Male artists - aside from a few modern practitioners wrestling with the double-buggy in the hall - rarely face so stark a choice.
On April 1, 1956, we find Plath drawing up another of her lists: this time a "Program: to win friends & influence people":
Be chaste and don't throw self at people . . . Be friendly & more subdued - if necessary, smog of "mystery woman" . . . Work on inner life - to enrich . . . Don't blab too much - listen more; sympathize & "understand" people - Keep troubles to self. Bear mean gossip & snubbing & pass beyond it - be nice & positive to all . . .
The list is risible - more Bridget Jones than T. S Eliot - but acutely touching in context. Plath was battling what sounds like a vicious clinical depression and her way out of it - with typical Ladies' Home Journal resourcefulness - was to set herself small domestic and social goals. The nice, positive girl would count her blessings; the nasty, pessimistic one was always lashing herself onward. "Perhaps when we find ourselves wanting everything it is because we are dangerously close to wanting nothing," she wrote.
Arriving at Cambridge on a scholarship in 1955, Sylvia Plath made the Austerity Britons laugh, with her bandbox smartness and her matching white-and-gold Samsonite luggage. It was an appearance that could deceive even herself: that was the point of it. (The Journals are full of hair-washing and soaping and showering; not letting herself go.) Grace Kelly on the outside, Plath had the Furies gnawing at her innards. Two years earlier, aged 20, she had barely survived a suicide attempt. The student who impressed her Newnham supervisor with her lovely American freshness had been through electric shock treatment and was confiding to her journal: "God, is this all it is, the ricocheting down the corridor of laughter and tears? Of self-worship and self- loathing? Of glory and disgust?"
No wonder Plath's writing still presses all the right buttons in adolescents. The breathless excesses of the romantic imagination, which can make these Journals so infuriating, corresponds exactly to that teenage sense of being uniquely misunderstood by every creature in the universe, plus your parents. The inside of her head, as we discover through these 674 pages, was an exhausting and pitiless place to be. It's hard to tell which is worse, her hope or her despair; both feel stitched together from barbed wire. In one poem, she wrote of "hag hands hauling me down" and the unwary reader too can feel that sepulchral pull. Plath will depress you and bore you with endless synopses for short stories, which mercifully never got written; but then she will throw in some insight, diamond-hard, or an image that quickens your own senses. On honeymoon in Spain, Ted and Sylvia eat "the best melon in the world". The new Mrs Hughes says it was sweet, "the way sunlight would taste". And that is why we forgive poets so much else.
Do we learn anything new from the Journals? Well, for Plath fundamentalists there is the pleasure of comparing precise dates with those in her letters to her mother, Aurelia Plath. The letters are bursting with gratitude (nice girl); in the Journals (nasty girl), Sylvia tells her therapist that: "It is my mother and all the mothers I have known who have wanted me to be what I have not felt like really being from my heart . . . what a luxury it would be to kill her, to strangle her skinny veined throat which could never be big enough to protect me from the world."
Plath's account of her dramatic first meeting with Ted Hughes at Cambridge in a place called Falcon's Yard - so deliciously Hughesian in its foreshadowing of raptor and prey - has been much reported. What really strikes you, however, is that although Ted is mentioned constantly, Sylvia never bothers to wonder how her husband is feeling. Hughes is always nothing less than a god striding out of the sea or "my magnificent, brilliant poet". It is as though Ted had no inner life of his own, but was simply another archetype to add to Plath's personal mythology - the volcanic bard joins the vampire mother and the deified dead father. Sylvia Plath had a cast-iron solipsism which even the love of her life could not penetrate.
After finishing the Journals, I returned out of curiosity to Hughes's Birthday Letters. Previously, I had found the poems blazing but shifty - blame the father, blame the crazy dame, blame Fate, blame anything but his own unsteady conduct. This time I could hear Sylvia' s vocabulary - her precise words - gonging through his verse. He must have taken those diary pages to heart - and to mind - in a way we can hardly begin to comprehend. Perhaps there are things buried in there which he unearthed from the missing journals: it is a literary riddle he has taken to the grave. "That's why I could marry him," she told her journal, "knowing he was a better poet than I and that I would never have to restrain my little gift." Time has not been so sure. At the end, Sylvia Plath found the ruthlessness she had sought - it allowed her both to write her best work and to die. The poems lost their littleness and swelled to a furious grandeur that was more than a match for Ted's.
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