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Lena Dunham, Jacqueline Rose, and Other Writers Think of Sylvia
Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, and at The Guardian, several poets and writers have reflected on The Bell Jar: “My focus through most of college was ‘confessional female poets’ with an emphasis on those who had committed suicide,” writes Lena Dunham. Huh! Sharon Olds, Jennifer Egan, Jeanette Winterson, Jacqueline Rose, Lionel Shriver, Margaret Drabble, Sarah Churchwell, Lavinia Greenlaw, Ruth Fainlight, Lisa Appignanesi, and Kate Moses conclude the list of contributors. What does this list of women remind you of? Well, we can’t help but think of this oldie, from Dorothea Lasky’s Thunderbird: “Why do young women like Sylvia Plath? / Why doesn’t everyone?” No kidding. Could’ve asked some men, Guardian eds. We digress! On to a reflection from Dunham, who, for better or worse, attempts an imagining of a 21st-century Plath:
I wonder if Plath would have been saved had she been born in a different time: in a time when psycho-pharmacologists are no more shameful to visit than hairdressers and women write celebrated personal essays about being bad mothers and cutters and are reclaiming the word slut. Would she have been a riot grrrl, embracing an angry feminist aesthetic? Addicted to Xanax? A blogger for Slate? Would she, like me, have found a cosy coffeehouse environment on the internet, a way to connect with people who understood her aesthetic and validated her experience? Would she have been less dependent on the approval of viewers and critics and more aware of the positive effect her book was having on splintered psyches and girls with short bangs everywhere? Or would that kind of connectedness and access to unmitigated and misspelled negativity have driven her even madder?
In recent discussions of The Bell Jar a number of things seem to me to go missing.
First, this was Plath’s foray into popular fiction. Writing for the popular press was as much her ambition as “high” art. “Either Kafka lit-mag serious or SATEVPOST,” she wrote in her journal in 1957, when she was already writing the poems to appear in her first published collection: “Try both styles: do it to your heart’s content.” At moments, she sounds like an advertising copyist for Mills & Boon. “I shall write a complete fantasy life of tearful-joyful stories for women,” again in her journal in 1959, “tremulous with all variety of emotion.” It is therefore my hunch that she would have loved the most recent cover of the book that has provoked such indignation.
Secondly, if the book is important, it is because it weaves its brilliant depiction of the tortuous professional and personal life of a young would-be female writer into the landmark events of 1950s America – the novel opens with the execution of the Rosenbergs. The personal diagnosis is therefore part of a much wider political malaise. For that reason alone, the tendency to read The Bell Jar as if it were the unmediated biography of Plath’s personal life seems to me to diminish its significance. Why do readers of her work always reduce it to her biography, thereby cheating her as a writer, cheating any writer, of the power to transform their lives in their art?
On this too, The Bell Jar has a story to tell. In 1987, Jane Anderson brought a legal suit against the 1976 film of the book for its portrayal of her as a character, Joan Gilling, a friend of the narrator who makes a lesbian pass at her and commits suicide near the end of the book. Although she was finally given a financial award, her case was remarkably weakened by the fact that, as the defence argued, her objections to the representation as untrue simply confirmed that the book was fiction not fact (clearly she had not committed suicide). It is of course a tragedy that it would seem libellous to an American woman in the 1980s to be portrayed as a lesbian. But it should also help us to be cautious, to remember that Plath was above all a writer, who plucked the best and worst of her own inner and outer landscape and transformed them through her art to create what remain some of the most important poems, and one of the most important pieces of fiction, by any woman writer of the last century.