Saturday, October 28, 2006

Connecting with Sylvia

A few years ago I was living in London when I was given 'The Journals of Sylvia Plath' (edited by Karen Kukil) by my good friends and lovely housemates: George and Philine. This book has become an object treasured by me for the associations with people and place that it holds. I love the note written in the front which includes a little drawing of our house at the time and stick figures representing each of us who lived there. To me it is a reminder that the book as a physical object is more than just the words on the page. This is probably the reason that I can never part with books and am surrounded by overflowing bookshelves.

At the time, I skim-read parts of the journals but, let's face it, you have to be in the mood to read the personal journals of a woman you know isn't going to be the happiest of souls. Well, this year I was finally in the mood and over two school holidays I read the whole thing from cover to cover.

My first impression was the surprising discovery that I felt I had a lot in common with Sylvia Plath (with obvious exceptions such as the mammoth writing talent and occasional suicidal tendencies, of course). As a college student she writes about surprisingly everyday concerns; dating, clothes, friends. And of course, she discusses her writing and her confidence in herself as a writer. This theme runs throughout her journals and is fascinating. Her daily life focuses on the postman who brings acceptances and rejections from publishers and magazines. After some initial success, the postman mostly seems to bring rejections, although it can be guessed that Plath was more likely to write in her journal when she felt most despairing about her writing.

As she matures, Plath writes much about trying to balance writing with her personal life. She does not have her children until near the end of the period covered by these journals but before she does, she agonises over the effect they will have on her career, oscillating between craving motherhood and despairing of the drain it will be on her time and creative energies, a theme famously dealt with in her poem 'Ariel'.

Plath seems surprisingly normal in the journals. Many of her concerns could be related to by most young women who spend any time at all in self-reflection. The reason that Plath doesn't come across as profoundly unhappy could be attributed to the fact that Ted Hughes burnt her final journals (those that lead up to her suicide). Presumably these would also contain the most negative depictions of Hughes as they deal with the period in which they separated and she discovered his extra-marital affair. A suicide attempt and stay in a psychiatric ward during her college years is also not covered.

Many of the poems that Plath is most famous for ('Daddy' for example) were published in the period after these journals end and I was disappointed not to be able to read about the creation of these works. But I was surprisingly engaged by the more balanced and 'normal' Plath that emerges from these pages. She creates rag-rugs, goes shopping and bakes, washes her hair, goes for tea at the neighbours and cleans the house. She thinks about trying to get a tan and what she will wear. She grows up and seems to become more outward-looking as the years pass. And all of it is written so beautifully. Which, ultimately, is the reason that we read anything that she writes and remember her life; those perfect words. I'm sure there are many aspects of Sylvia Plath that do not appear in these pages. I'm sure she censors herself, as well as having been censored by others. But what is here are her words, and they ring true.

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