In the spirit of Sylvia Plath's poetry, let's start with a confession: I spent two years of my life with her. Don't worry, you're not about to be plunged into the reminiscences of Plath's college room-mate, her orthodontist, her landlady. The poet died in 1963 and we spent less than a year on this Earth together. Mine are the reminiscences of the poor sod who chose the American poet as the subject of her Master's Degree thesis.
You ask why, and I spent most of those two years asking myself the same question. Like many bookish women of my generation I was fascinated by her - and wanted to get to the source of that fascination. Nearly a year of eating, drinking and sleeping with her poetry left me still dazzled by their surface but unable to get beyond the skeletal biographical facts - the death of her father when she was eight, her suicide attempt when she was 20, her marriage to the English poet Ted Hughes when she was 25, the birth of her children when she was 28 and 30, her suicide as her 31st birthday approached.
Reading Plath's journals, first published as The Journals of Sylvia Plath under the editorship of Frances Mc Cullough with Ted Hughes, helped me make the breakthrough. It confirmed Plath's relationship with her mother as the major source of tension, not her love of her dead father; and further to this, it confirmed her fear of her woman's body, her mother's body, as the core of her poetry. Hold on, now, you're saying, if you were reading the headlines on the Guardian's extracts from the Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962, which were published last week as a "world exclusive" ("Her journals revealed at last") - when were the journals first published? They were first published in 1982 in the US by the Dial Press, heavily edited by McCullough and Hughes. The thumping volume which came out last week is unabridged. However, the chronological entries only go as far as 1959, before the poet returned with her husband to settle in England and start her family; only fragments and notes towards writing from the last three years of her life are included. The journals from these last years are lost: one, according to Ted Hughes, "disappeared around 1970" and "may still turn up"; the last one he destroyed because he "did not want her children to read it". The publication of the unabridged journals would still be a major event if they revealed, by comparison with the version Hughes helped edit, much about him or their relationship, or a hidden side of Plath. They don't, and the newspaper headlines suggesting that they do signal a new low for British broadsheet journalism. What is new is that all Plath's readers on this side of the Atlantic now have access to the insights the journals give. By releasing them for publication before his death, Hughes showed that he had become, in editorial terms, appropriately detached from his former wife's literary legacy, and after his death, their children cleverly entrusted the editing to rare books specialist, Karen Kukil. Her scientific, or, to use a Plathism, Miss Hornbeak-like notes are a strong antidote to sensationalism.
Plath's true devotees will already have got their hands on the earlier edition; for them, what this volume mostly offers is a clearer, fuller version of what they already knew. The 1982 version had the advantage of brevity, however. This version stretches to nearly 700 pages and is a desperately frustrating read. Plath used her journal as a sketchpad for her writing and because her writing was mostly stalled before these journals end, the pages are, as she writes herself, "spattered with imperatives" ordering her to break down her writer's block: "write, write, write".
The very repetitiveness of this version literally leads the reader into Plath's psychological cul-de-sac. It is truly terrible to see her, page after page, struggling to write fiction, when, as she admits herself at one point, she simply isn't interested in other people. She writes detailed pen-pictures of person after person, hoping to haul them into stories. While still at college, for instance, she wrote a long description of a date with a sweet, younger boy, full of lines such as: "In the car we laughed miracles of love and incredulous tenderness . . .". Suddenly, we come slap up against the fact that she only wanted the one thing from the boy: "Hell, you deserve more than being in the Ladies' Home Journal. If only I could get you into the Atlantic."
Her identity was simply not strong enough for her to really like anyone, except her husband, who was part of her own ego, and her incessant bitchiness is sickmaking. Sometimes she even notes this herself; observing a certain threadbare quality in the relationships of her teaching colleagues at Smith College, she told them at a dinner-party, "in a high, clear voice": "I am the only woman on the faculty who has a husband". The woman who emerges from the Journals is very much the vixen described in Anne Stevenson's biography, Bitter Fame, which caused controversy when it was published in 1989. Her loathing of everybody else was, of course, an extension of her self-loathing. The first version of the Journals spelled out to me how much Plath hated her body, how she saw writing as an escape from its confines: "I need to be tan, all-over brown, and then my skin clears and I am all right. I need to have written a novel, a book of poems . . . and I will be poreless and radiant."
We may never fully understand the psychology of art, but all artists are probably trying to create an alternative body outside time. For the female artist, the challenge is often greater, because the female body has, in our Hellenic/Judaeo-Christian tradition been synonymous with "mere" matter. For Plath, the alternative body, the poem, coexists uneasily with the natural, female body. In her great poem "Ariel", the female body is obliterated in the speed of the horse, the arrow, the poem-created body.
The Journals make obvious what is hinted at in The Bell Jar and her letters to her mother, Letters Home; that she was terrified of her female body and the limitations it might place on her. When a boy makes a pass during one of her interminable dates she says: "Damn you. Just because you're a boy. Just because you're never worried about having babies!" She feared terribly that pregnancy would spell the end of her writing, and before you start scoffing, think how many women there are, of 70 and more, who have major literary reputations and families; Doris Lessing, contemporaneous with Plath, had to walk out on hers to begin her life as a writer. Plath still wanted a family, however. She wanted to make childbirth a physical metaphor for authorship, and have both: "I now will turn to my own profession and devote a year to steady apprenticeship, and to the symbolic counterpart, our children," she instructs herself. In some ways the key to Plath's popularity is that she is part of a secret vein of women's literature which explores how an intelligent woman can have marriage and children without a lobotomy. Think of Alcott's Jo, even Jane Austen's Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet - (the vindictive pleasure got from watching Miss Bennet turn down the ghastly Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice is echoed by our laughter when Esther is asked in The Bell Jar: "How would you like to be the next Mrs Buddy Willard?")
It is a shame that no daily journals survive mirroring her experience as a mother, because her poems about her children are probably her greatest gift to literature. This is because she comes to them steeped in the male creation myths of the western world, almost as surprised as her husband would have been when a perfect stranger emerges from between her legs: "What is it that flings these innocent souls at us?" she asks in "Three Women".
But of course, her effort to have it all, writing, husband, babies, ends in tragedy; it is the literary kin, not of Elizabeth Bennet's story, but of Emily Bronte's Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights. When Ted Hughes left Plath for Assia Wevill, she became just like her mother, abandoned by her man, with a little girl and a little boy. This is what she had always feared; she describes her mother's grim life, in the shadow of an authoritarian father and then widowed and bitter, as a "warning beacon". Her sense of being, as she says, "from the wrong side of town", daughter of a house without a breadwinner, of a mother from hard-working immigrant stock who served cranberry juice, not wine, was surely edited out in the first edition for her mother's benefit. It is clear that Plath craved bohemia because only there could a literary woman survive.
Aurelia Schober Plath was an educated and intelligent woman thwarted by a bad marriage, but the terrible weight of her hopes and expectations fell on her daughter. Plath's notes from her sessions with her psychologist in which she explored her hatred of her mother are published in this edition for the first time: "I sure do hate her," she writes.
All of this went into The Bell Jar, almost word for word. What is for me the biggest news in this unabridged version is that Plath also loved her mother, but felt unloved in return: "Old need of giving mother accomplishments, getting reward of love." This is surely where her killing perfectionism came from, and her youthful suicide attempt when she didn't measure up. In the Yaddo writers' colony in 1959 she writes that she is exploring images of the "dark mother" and the "eating mother" who is "all mouth". These images feed into Poem for a Birthday which Hughes considered to contain the beginnings of her mature work: "The mother of mouths didn't love me."
It is surprising that the version of her psychological drama she handed her readers on a plate, her love of her dead father, is considered the abiding theme of her work. In Birthday Letters, Hughes's volume of poems about his Plath, which stunned the literary world in 1998, her wish to rejoin her father makes her death almost inevitable; he writes of making her a writing table in `The Table': "I did not/Know I had made and fitted a door/Opening downwards into your Daddy's grave." In Erica Wagner's Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters, published by Faber to coincide with the publication of the journals, Hughes's poems are laboriously linked to Plath's life, but this pushes Plath into the mythic structure that Hughes created for her. Wagner reminds us several times that this is not necessarily true to Plath's life and work, but she offers us no sustained alternative view, so that the book becomes a rude primer for Birthday Letters which badly simplifies Plath.
It just isn't true, as some newspapers tried to suggest, though, that the publication of the unabridged journals reveal Hughes madly air-brushing his image in the former edition. True, he left out the bits about his dirty hair, nail clippings and baggy trousers, but he left in the scene when Plath suspects him of adultery. In fact, Plath's version of her marriage is unnaturally positive, as if she needed it to be perfect to hold her life together. However, Mc Cullough had written in her introduction to the 1982 edition that she had calmed Plath's eroticism "which was quite strong", and it is something of a disappointment that the unabridged version has nothing saucier in it than a few adolescent grapplings and "good love-making, morning and afternoon".
She prays that "life not end before I am born", but these journals definitely do; they chronicle the pushing and pushing of Plath against the sepulchral pupa of her insecurity. If she was ever born, it was in the poems of Ariel, but they came too late for her to live before she died.
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