Monday, 11 February 2013


This day fifty years ago Sylvia Plath took her own life. She was a mother of two and a writer. If she were alive today she would be 80 years old. I am a fan of her work - she wrote motherhood and inner turmoil so well - and her prose is as bright and energetic as her poetry. What would she have written if she had lived? Wonderful things, no doubt. She may even have grown into her own skin and mind more, and come to terms with her troubles.

Sylvia Plath was clever, beautiful, sensual and ambitious; she was an American living in England. One gets the impression that people were afraid of her (men and women) because they had never met anyone quite like her. Much of the world's opinion of her depends on the testimony of people who maybe were not the best witnesses: her estranged husband Ted Hughes and various friends of his; her mother with whom she had an up-and-down relationship since the death of her beloved father when she was just eight.

It bothers me that suicide is the word most often attached to Plath, as if that were the most important thing about her. The word is not attached to Ernest Hemingway or Vincent Van Gogh in the same way - neither they, nor their artistic output, is defined by the fact that they killed themselves. I also dislike the choice of title of the newest biography of Plath: Mad Girl's Love Song. It is the title of a Plath villanelle but hardly appropriate as a book title. Mad? Really?

So maybe today the best we can do to honour Sylvia Plath's memory is to remember her with sympathy and empathy as the brilliant writer and, at the end, distressed young mother that she was. And we can read her work - there is plenty online if you don't have one of her books. Alternatively you can listen to John Bowman's excellent programme from yesterday morning on RTÉ Radio 1 about her here. The contributions from Eavan Boland are particularly good.

The Guardian also ran a piece on Saturday where various women writers, including Lena Dunham and Sharon Olds, reflect on Sylvia Plath's legacy - lots of sympathetic viewpoints. In the article Jeanette Winterson says, about The Bell Jar and its author: 'The early 60s was a terrible time for women. Worse for clever ambitious women...The Bell Jar was a call to action because it is a diary of despair. Plath was gifted. She could have been great. Wrong generation. Wrong medication.' Read the full piece here.


Anonymous said...

It's so good to see Sylvia Plath being remembered so fondly on this her 50th anniversary.
Her legacy is great and there is so much we can learn from both her life, work and tragic death.


Cheers, Jean, thanks for stopping by and commenting. Appreciated :)

Shane Breslin said...

Nice piece Nuala.

I'll be honest - the way in which I've treated Plath is coloured by the way she has been presented almost everywhere. Which is, as you say, a writer who killed herself.

I wonder whether it owes something to a male-dominated and as a result (consciously or otherwise) misogynistic cultural landscape. I'm not sure. Maybe it was partly that, and partly her age.

Someone like David Foster Wallace is also defined by suicide, I think. Unlike Hemingway, who had already contributed his body of work, the deaths of Wallace and Plath and others - Elliott Smith is someone who comes to mind - leaves us with a feeling of incompleteness.


Yes, I think you may be right, Shane, re. the age profile and incompleteness. DFW didn't even know his book was published (similarly Plath with Ariel). So the fame/success they may have hoped for came after their deaths, which is sad.
I do think male dominated literary worlds and an impatience with her and her themes has lead to her name being 'blackened' to an extent, with the notion of hysteria. It is so annoying - she was a consummate writer.
Thanks for yur comment :)

creativepalabras said...

Very nice, it's a very human and sensitive portrait of a writer.
Italian newspapers have dedicated some articles to Sylvia Plath too these days and have inevitably stressed on her tragic death. However, I like remembering her today for her amusing, never banal short stories for children. I remember "The Bed Book" specially, I often told it to my son before going to sleep. bye alessia


Hi Alessia, thanks for the comment. It is good to know that Sylvia is being remembered in Italy. Good luck with your blog.
Nuala x

sally said...

Winterson saying she could have been great? She was!


Sally - I agree 100%!

Lola Montez said...

Thank you Nuala, for the links you have gathered here. I agree with what you say about the word 'suicide' being attached to her name and the (bad) choice of title for the latest This is a nice piece from The Irish Times by Edna Longley. And another thoughtful piece by Hadley Freeman from The Guardian - along the lines of your comment. Thanks - Bronagh


Cheers, Bronagh. I find some of the coverage disturbing and annoying - v down on feminist readings of Plath, for example. It's good to have a little redress. Thanks for stopping by. Nuala