On a Sunday last month I was possessed by an odd compulsion that I should read Sylvia Plath. The source of this notion can be traced to an idle morbid state of mind. Not a specific train of thought, just a collection of impulses. The result was that I went to Unity Books in the afternoon and bought a copy of Plath’s pothsumous poetry collection called Ariel, and her only novel The Bell Jar.
I finished the latter before bedtime. It was written in the fall of 1962 during Plath’s remarkable burst of creativity which is comparable to Keats great year a century before, or even Van Gogh’s artistic outpouring of 1889-90. Like Van Gogh, Sylvia’s creative pinnacle was swiftly followed by her death. In the early hours of February 11, 1963, not even a month after The Bell Jar was published (under a pseudonym) Sylvia Plath committed suicide by gassing herself in the oven of the kitchen in her London apartment.
Many things led to that and snowballed until Path was unable to cope. She had a history of depression and serious suicide attempts in the past. Her marriage had recently broken down, and she was raising two small children on her own during the coldest winter in London for at least sixty years. Also, her novel had not been received well in her native America. That must have been quite a blow to her. The result was her suicide. She was thirty years old.
That is what is remembered of her now; she is a tragic figure, a shadow of Virginia Woolf or something. A line in pop culture to be remembered at a pub quiz night. But read her and she steps out of those shadows. Watch her walk along side you, her prose so much more accessible than her poetry that she has been acclaimed for. I have read enough Virginia Woolf to know that no matter how much I read and gain knowledge, she will always be several steps ahead, and it will be all I can do to simply catch up. Sylvia Plath is the writer that hold your hand.
I realise this is sentimental, and one’s reaction to literature depends greatly on one’s particular experiences. If I may say so I think Plath is more relevant now than ever when the very illness that choked the life from her preys upon many millions today. Look her up if you are so inclined, and let me know what you think.