Having dipped my toe into exploring the gendered nature of book reviews, it seems to me to be a topic worthy of a book in its own right. One comparison that stood out in particular while I was writing Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz was the different ways in which Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton were reviewed.
When Lowell published Life Studies in 1959, critics hailed it a brave book full of personal, serious experiences such as the suffering of mental illness and the frailty of recovery. John Thompson in the Kenyon Review wrote, “For these poems, the question of propriety no longer exists. They have made a conquest. What they have won is a major expansion of the territory of poetry.”[i] In contrast, with the publication of her first book To Bedlam and Part Way Back in 1960, Sexton already began to get the type of reception that would dog her career. James Dickey opened his review with the words “Anne Sexton’s poems so obviously come out of deep, painful sections of the author’s life that one’s literary opinions scarcely seem to matter; one feels tempted to drop them furtively into the nearest ashcan, rather than be caught with them in the presence of so much naked suffering.”[ii] The rest of the piece dismisses Sexton’s work as that of a superficial A-student writing contrived and artificial poetry. Sexton was stunned by this review and she carried a copy of it around with her for the rest of her life.
Lowell got praise pretty much across the board, to the extent that twenty-six years after the publication of Life Studies, Stanley Kunitz described the collection as “the most influential book of modern verse since T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.” Sexton’s reviewers were so very obviously gendered. May Swenson regarded To Bedlam and Part Way Back as containing poetic mastery, a “courageous” book which was followed by the “remarkable” All My Pretty Ones containing solidity of form and expertness. Swenson also is one of the first reviewers to identify and point out Sexton’s humour. Yet in reviewing the same book, Thom Gunn claims Sexton’s poems contain “facile” symbols and rely too heavily on the influence of Lowell. Furthermore, he’s sniffy about Sexton’s first volume claiming, “What is most encouraging about this collection is that she is getting rid of the faults of rhetoric and self-dramatization of her first book, in spite of all her admirers.”[iii] Louise Bogan regards All My Pretty Ones as a courageous, highly controlled volume telling women’s secrets in a way that do not normally get told. Sexton, she claims, “writes from the center of feminine experience, with the direct and open feeling that women, always vulnerable, have been shy of expressing in recent years.”[iv] Ian Hamilton appeared to share Thom Gunn’s concern about the number of people reading Sexton claiming the real danger is she will be “translated into yet another cult-figure of neurotic breakdown, valued not for what she has written but for what her suffering seems to symptomize.” Apparently according to Hamilton this sort of reading doesn’t matter if the poet is dead, but since “Mrs Sexton” was still alive, “it is likely to encourage exactly the kind of facile exhibitionism which is even now a constant worry in her work.”[v]
So, for Lowell, the question of propriety when it came to the subject matter of his poetry no longer existed. Sexton was not afforded this honor. When Lowell wrote about mental breakdown and suffering, he was serious and brave. When Sexton wrote about it, she was self-dramatizing and inappropriate. While female reviewers seemed to appreciate what Sexton was trying to do, many male critics simply could not cope.
All of this played out years before Plath’s Ariel was published posthumously. Then, on its release, as my book explores, her male reviewers starting throwing words around like “shrill” and “hysterical”…
For more on this read Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz available to order here
[i] Thompson, ‘Two Poets’ in Kenyon Review 21, 1959, pp. 482-290.
[ii] Dickey, Anne Sexton The Artists and Her Critics, p. 117
[iii] Gunn, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.125.
[iv] Bogan, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.126-7.
[v] Hamilton, Anne Sexton The Artist and Her Critics, p.127.
Sometimes what gets edited out of a book can be just as interesting as what gets left in. There are many reasons why certain stories or lines of thought get removed. Sometimes it can be to do with word length, or that it takes things off at a slight tangent, or that it simply doesn’t quite fit at that moment in the narrative. I am lucky to have a superb editor, Alison Callahan at Gallery Books, whose judgment is always spot-on, because sometimes as writers we get so lost in our own texts that it becomes difficult to see when we are wandering off and losing ourselves.
One story in my new book Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz that ended up being cut was a story about Robert Lowell, Anne Sexton, and Ted Hughes. It is a story not without humour, because it encompasses a classic literary spat – about associations, reputations, and perceived slights.
It all began when Ted Hughes wrote a piece for the fall issue of Tri-Quarterly in 1966. In his essay he made the claim that Plath was different to Lowell and Sexton. Plath, he wrote, certainly shared characteristics with them, such as “shattering the self” and their “East Massachusetts homeland”. But beyond this, Hughes claimed that Plath’s poems were completely different to Lowell’s and Sexton’s whose work was “truly autobiographical and personal, and their final world is a torture cell walled with family portraits, with the daily newspaper coming under the door.” According to Hughes, Plath used autobiographical details in her poetry quite differently, “She sets them out like masks, which are then lifted up by a dramatis personae of nearly supernatural qualities.” (p. 81)
This claim enraged Lowell who appeared to have an active aversion to being what he regarded as “lumped into” the same category of writing as Sexton (this attitude of Lowell’s alone is worthy of study – but that’s another story). A furious Lowell wrote to Hughes accusing him of “tasteless vulgarity.” He felt that Hughes belittled his and Sexton’s work by comparing it unfavourably to Plath’s and no amount of “uxoriousness” excused this. Having agreed to appear at a London poetry festival organised by Hughes in 1967, Lowell said “of course” he would no longer be attending unless Hughes apologised to both him and Sexton. The drama!
A contrite Hughes wrote to both immediately, though he may not quite have anticipated Anne Sexton’s brilliantly defiant “acceptance” of his apology. In his letter to Sexton, held at the Harry Ransom Center, what he actually meant, Hughes wrote, was that he was trying to show how Plath’s poems operated in the “dimension of the spirit”, whereas Lowell and Sexton’s operated in the “dimension of nature and society.”
In a wonderfully grudging response, the fiery Sexton replied that she would accept his apology (although I have to say her letter implies the exact opposite). And in what must be one of the best uses of underlining ever she finished her paragraph with the devastating retort that she was “not sure what your terms ‘spirit or nature or society’ mean…but if you say so.”
In the end, the waters got smoothed over, they all became friends again, and Sexton at least appeared at Ted Hughes’ Poetry Festival in 1967. It was there that she then got into a tussle with W.H. Auden, but that story did make it into the book…
Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz can be ordered here
The essay referred to in this piece is Ted Hughes, ‘Notes on the chronological order of Sylvia Plath’s poems’, Tri-Quarterly, No. 7, Fall 1966, p. 81-88.
(My thanks to Amanda Golden for clarifying that Lowell did not attend the 1967 Poetry Festival in London)
On the day that we arrive in Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston, snow is blanketing everywhere with a silent white. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue, and the sun is bouncing leaving us slightly dazzled and snowblind. We are looking for Anne Sexton’s grave, but the cemetery is enormous and I can’t quite read the map and many roads are hidden by pristine drifts. We drive around and around. We take in the laden trees, the lake, the grand mausoleums. When we eventually find Sexton’s grave, it is in the family plot, a large, beautiful granite tomb etched with the names of all the people I have been writing about for the last year.
I am curious how you photograph a grave, I mean really professionally photograph a grave. How is it different to photographing a person? How do you set a mood? What do you look for? What do you need to do? I am doubly fascinated because the person that I am with, photographer Kevin Cummins, is much more well-known for photographing musicians. How does photographing a grave differ from a living breathing singing person?
Photographing a grave he tells me is like “the extension of a portrait”. You have to turn up, spend some time in the place, get a feel for the environment and how to portray it. Just like photographing a person, you have to spend time with them, understand how they see themselves and how you see them as a photographer. It can’t be rushed. It takes time.
But isn’t there an inherent melancholy of photographing a grave, I ask? The person is gone and absent. How do you deal with that loss, visually? He replies that the one thing about photographing a grave is the “absolute stillness” of it. There is the architecture, the style, the inscription, the objects left behind. But one way to capture that stillness is to place it in context, to show a depth of field. Alternatively, you can isolate it off and focus in on just the grave itself, some sort of detail that captures you (I guess this is a version of Barthes’ punctum?) These pictures of Sexton’s and Plath’s grave show both of these techniques. Plath’s headstone sits forefront in a sea of other graves jumbling back to the edge of the shot. Sexton’s tomb is tight, up close, with a rosary dangling over the edge.
The day we are there, I brush snow off the top of the grave and unearth love letters that have been left for Sexton. One is signed “All your pretty ones”. There are acorns beneath the snow covered in tiny ice crystals. The photographs take time. The light is not quite right. We need to wait so we drive across the cemetery to visit e.e.cummings’ grave and walk by the lake. By the time we return, the light is in the right place and the photographs begin. I am surprised how long it takes. Hours to get the right conditions, the right atmosphere. It’s like re-phrasing Plath: “Photography / Is an art, like everything else.”
The final pictures perfectly capture the dignity of Sexton’s resting place. Just as the photographs of Plath’s grave taken a couple of years earlier capture the wild beauty of her setting in Heptonstall. I am lucky to have photographs from these shoots in my book. There is a true stillness about them. But there is something about the poets captured there too. Gone but not gone. Immortalised and remembered, or as Roland Barthes says, much more elegantly than I ever could: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”
That unique, rare one-offness of Plath and Sexton.
Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton can be ordered here
You can see more photography by Kevin Cummins here
“A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” Chip Kidd, graphic designer.
While I’m a firm believer that the content of a book is the most important part, I do like a good book jacket. I love designs that set a mood, or capture certain times, places, moments. Even an abstract jacket through shapes and swirls can project the feel or tone of a book. In other words, the “haiku of the story”.
I think probably any author is nervous about what their book will look like. I know I am. So it is always a thrillingly terrifying moment when the pdf of your book cover appears in your inbox. With my latest book, Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz, I was sent three potential designs. I liked all of them, but one in particular stood out because for me it captured a very definite cultural moment. Both the front and the back of the jacket have visual prompts to the contents of the book and certain objects that appear in it. The hardback, in monochrome, conjures a particular feel and time.
Both Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were discriminating about their book covers. Sexton obviously got to see more of her own than Plath and loved some more than others. Plath delighted in the green blockiness of The Colossus (but was less delighted with the dreaded typos that slipped through).
Book covers tell their own stories. They set visual expectations. They create the wraparound environment of the book. Here is the book jacket for Three-Martini Afternoons at The Ritz.
I believe that in 1962, Sylvia Plath experienced gaslighting.
I realise that this is a contentious statement and is probably open for discussion. However, I not only believe that she was gaslighted but that in her usual ahead-of-the-times way, she started to offer us a blueprint of how to deal with gaslighting, how to give the gaslighter a chance, and ultimately how to resolve it.
Gaslighting in many ways is a slippery concept. It is mostly (but not exclusively) done by men to women. It is always destructive but seems to reflect gendered power relations in such a way that bizarrely many men who gaslight are not even really aware that they are doing it. However, the nature of gaslighting is such that it is almost impossible to tell a gaslighter they are gaslighting because…well, they’ll gaslight you about that too.
After reading Plath’s letters and endless psychology reports, it seems there are some common features of gaslighting. First of all, it can take a long time to realise you are being gaslighted – sometimes years. This is because the main aim of gaslighting is to make everything seem it is your reaction to things that is the problem. It is also designed to undermine, to create chronic self-doubt, and to make you feel as though you are being unreasonable towards the gaslighter.
Before looking at Plath’s experience and her response, it might be useful to outline some of the key features. This list has been drawn from about thirty different articles and includes those characteristics that appear in all of them:
The downplaying and minimising of emotions – suggesting how you feel is an overreaction, invalid or just plain wrong.
Endless lying, even about meaningless, trivial stuff, as though lying is the default setting. Often the lies will have some kernel of truth but will be slightly twisted. When busted on this there are commonly two reactions from the gaslighter: (a) the decision to lie will be blamed on you because you are so unreasonable they are not able to tell you the truth, or (b) they will persist in the lie and continue to deny the undeniable, even in the face of solid evidence.
You cannot hold the gaslighter to any sort of scrutiny – if you do, they will compound the lie further, become defensive and aggressive, accuse you of stalking them / being a psycho / engage in ‘diversion’ (i.e. turn it on you and your many faults) / engage in ‘countering’ (blame you instead) / withhold or project (accuse you of the very thing they are doing themselves). According to most psychologists, the biggest flaw of a gaslighter is that they are blatant liars and in that sense are bankrupt in character or integrity. The likelihood is that some don’t care, some will have a bizarre way of justifying it to themselves, and others will get so caught up in their lies they may even become to believe them to be true.
Forgetting or denying – gaslighters have very patchy memories when it suits them. They can’t possibly remember something that happened two years ago / last week / yesterday, and if you do, then you are just weird.
Knowledge shaming – as part of the general undermining, gaslighters like to knowledge shame which is a key tactic of humiliation and is always prefixed with something like ‘you can’t possibly NOT know…’ i.e. how stupid can you be? So stupid it bewilders your much better-informed partner, obviously.
Psychologists pulled together the common phrases that gaslighters use all of which are designed to wrong-foot and undermine but most importantly designed to make you understand that everything is your fault: ‘You’re a psycho’, ‘You’re overreacting’, ‘Calm down’, Stop taking everything so seriously’, ‘Stop being dramatic’, ‘You always want an argument’, ‘You treat me like shit’, ‘You are missing the point’, ‘I was joking’. The purpose of these comments is to not only make you take responsibility for everything but to wear you down. To make you realise that you are crazy, unreasonable, self-dramatising, stupid, and a bad person with no sense of humour. A gaslighter uses faux humour to be especially vicious and then has the double whammy of being able to explain it away with the secondary insult that you are just too po-faced to understand how hilarious they are.
Play the victim – gaslighters like this almost as much as lying. If they are challenged or scrutinised about anything, however trivial, they will often fall back into victim mode: ‘what have I done wrong now?’, ‘There’s just no pleasing you.’
They are quite often rude about your friends or family – they will expect you to fully assimilate into their life, but they will not return the favour. There will always be something wrong with your friends, and they will sometimes make you choose between seeing your friends or seeing them and this can be incredibly stressful and upsetting (and dangerous – the obvious extreme end of this is that gaslighting can result in isolation).
For a gaslighter, nothing is ever their fault; they are never wrong, they never apologise, or they engage in insincere non-apologies that suggest how you feel is the problem not that they caused it (‘I’m sorry IF you feel upset…’)
Given this list, the obvious question to ask is why anyone would go anywhere near a gaslighter in the first place once they reveal these delightful characteristics. But gaslighters are often charming, talented, interesting, so it is possible for people to become sucked in before the more undesirable aspects begin to emerge. Plus, according to psychologists gaslighters know when to pull back – they often counter all of this behaviour with regular declarations of love and tell you just how amazing you are. In fact, gaslighters are very good with words, just as they are very adept at managing people.
From spring 1962 onwards, I would suggest that Plath was subjected to gaslighting. My purpose here is not to indulge in any Hughes-bashing. As mentioned above, he may not have realised what he was doing. There would be an argument that he would have even less chance of realising it back in 1962, pre-second wave feminism when gendered behaviour was much less scrutinised. Plath though, realised that something was ‘off’ with Ted Hughes’s behaviour, but when she questioned him about it, she was told she was pathologically jealous and suspicious (i.e. the ‘you’re a psycho’ line). Of course, the reality was that Hughes was starting an affair with Assia Wevill, but his response made Plath doubt herself and what she was feeling (despite her gut instinct and just knowing). Her emotions were minimised, she was accused of overreacting while simultaneously being lied to. When the affair was exposed, the type of conversations placed the blame on Plath: she was unreasonable, the marriage had stopped Hughes being able to write, she wasn’t physically attractive enough anymore (‘a hag in a world of beautiful women’), she had trapped him into having children he didn’t want, he only married her because she asked him, she was childish and needed to grow-up, she had a death-ray quality etc. A re-framing of their history together made Plath doubt her own reality. On a trip to Ireland in September 1962, Hughes disappeared leaving her there alone, in a move that he had pre-arranged. He organised a friend in London to send her a telegram to say he would be in the city for two weeks and would be in touch soon, but really he had gone to Spain with Wevill. Lying about secret trips with another woman – the ultimate gaslighting move. Plath was distraught.
But what is fascinating, is how Plath mobilised herself to deal with this, because many of the things she did are the exact advice given by psychologists today to deal with a gaslighter. First of all, you have to decide whether you still want them in your life. If not, walk away. This of course is much easier for some than others. If there’s just you and you’re financially independent you can leave at any time, but if you have children, or are in any way vulnerable or dependent, then it becomes much more difficult.
At first, Plath seems to have decided to try and resolve things. Here’s her (and current day) advice on how to handle the situation:
Trust your gut instinct – don’t let a gaslighter make you agonise with self-doubt. They are accomplished liars. Know this and never doubt it. They will not hesitate to lie to you under any circumstances about big or small things. You have absolutely no obligation to believe them (about anything). Plath’s letters demonstrate a real release of liberation at the point she realises this.
Gather evidence, observe carefully, keep a note of everything, keep a journal, take screenshots. Regain some of the power that has been taken from you by the lying. Do not reveal to the gaslighter everything you know. Having solid evidence they do not know about can help you judge the extent to which they are prepared to lie to you. This puts the power back into your hands (while they are likely thinking they’ve got away with it). Hughes complained that Plath had apparently employed a private detective (unconfirmed) or got friends to report back to her. He did not like this level of scrutiny and was unsure just how much she knew about his behaviour.
Speak up – tell the gaslighter their behaviour is unacceptable, let them know you do not believe them, but refuse to take it further. Refuse to argue, say you don’t want to talk about it (you don’t need to – you know they’re lying and you know how they’ll react if you challenge them, but nevertheless let them know you know). According to psychologists this is your best chance of getting the gaslighter to reflect upon their behaviour and change their ways.
Stay calm. Plath realised this after losing her shit with Hughes. By the time she moved to London in December 1962, they were becoming better friends as she pointed out he had nothing to fear from her now there were no scenes between them. Gaslighters want a reaction, they want you to be angry and upset so they can tell you that you need to calm down and to point out how unreasonable and over-emotional you are being.
Ask friends or family for advice. A gaslighter will make you think you are a terrible person and that you treat them badly. Repeat conversations you have had, show text messages to a trusted friend or family member (someone you know will call you out if it actually is your fault). Plath’s letters to Ruth Beuscher (and to a lesser extent Olive Higgins Prouty) are perfect examples of Plath doing this – deep analysis of what she was being subjected to, her role in it, what she needed to do, and how she needed to handle Hughes and herself.
Self-care and belief in yourself and your version of events. Once Plath realised she was being lied to, she had no further reason to doubt herself and much strength can lie in this position. She confronted Hughes and asked him to always tell the truth, however painful it would be and he promised to always do that. Her second devastation came when she discovered that he had continued lying. Having offered him some sort of truth amnesty as a way to resolve matters, being lied to a second time seemed to be the point where Plath decided to leave.
Leave the relationship. Once you realise gaslighting is part of your relationship, you can as Plath did, try to resolve it. There seems to be a spectrum on how long people give this. In Plath’s case it was months, for some people it is years. The main difficulty is not being able to talk to the gaslighter or reason with them. Ultimately Plath ended her marriage and many psychologists acknowledge that in the end most people do walk away from a gaslighting relationship after years of being lied to, ground down, and disrespected. Although gaslighters are intelligent people, they rarely have the moral courage to confront their own behaviour, listen, and be willing to change. The difficulty is that often a person becomes so assimilated into the gaslighting relationship that they lose a sense of self. Plath’s final letter poignantly describes how she felt she had lost her sense of identity, and that finding it again felt impossible.
Succinctly though, what Sylvia Plath can teach us about gaslighting is: trust your instinct, initially give someone a chance (on the off chance they don’t realise what they’re doing), stay calm, look after yourself, know your own worth, and the point at which it all seems hopeless, if at all possible, walk away.
Women often become lost in history: forgotten, erased, wiped out. Their stories become difficult to uncover and sometimes the traces they leave behind are so very faint that it is almost as if they never existed at all.
Last week I discovered Freiderike (Friedl) Reichler. I read her name through a circuitous route having been gifted a book, The Artificial Silk Girl, by Irmgard Keun. During the 1930s as Europe was heading towards war, Keun was engaged in a messy and unstable affair with the writer Joseph Roth. At the time, Joseph Roth was married to Friederike Reichler, though she seemed completely invisible in his life. Wondering why, I began to dig a little deeper.
Friederike was born in Vienna on May 12, 1900 and married Joseph Roth at the Leopoldstat synagogue in 1922. She was described as ‘beautiful’, ‘delicate’ and ‘unassuming’ (male descriptions).
For the first few years of their life together they lived in a rented apartment in Berlin, but Roth who was working as a reporter made many trips across Europe, taking Friedl with him until the unsteady life of travel and hotel living began to exhaust her. In contrast, Roth continued to live a nomadic life, in 1927 alone travelling to Germany, Alsace, and the Soviet Union. Increasingly left alone, Friedl began to experience anxiety attacks and in 1927 suffered a mental breakdown. She developed what was referred to as ‘progressive schizophrenia’. After a brief rest cure in Saint Raphaël in the South of France in early 1928, Roth decided a series of travels would be good for them. In the spring, he took Friedl to Poland, Switzerland, and Austria. But Friedl became exhausted once again by hotel life and moving around, and they settled in Marseille in 1929 where Roth started drinking heavily and seeing other women.
While all of this was taking place, Friedl’s voice appears to be silent. I wonder, what did she do with her days? How did she fill her time when she was left alone? What were her own wishes and ambitions? Were they thwarted by traveling around Europe with a husband who was constantly in debt, an alcoholic, and cheating on her?
In September 1929, she was admitted to Westend psychiatric hospital in Berlin, and in effect, that was the end of Friedl’s freedom for the rest of her life. Over the coming years she would be moved to a closed psychiatric unit in Vienna, cared for during a short period by her family, but mostly shipped around different clinics depending on the funds available to care for her. She seems to completely disappear from history between the years 1931-1933. Presumably living day by day the institutionalised life of a psychiatric patient. It was during these years that Roth met and started an affair with Irmgard Keun (and many other women) as his debt and drinking deepened. The writer Stefan Zweig and his wife Friederike stepped in to help with care for Friedl, often covering the fees from various clinics and exploring new avenues of treatment. In 1935, Roth started divorce proceedings, but when Friedl was moved to the Mauer-Öhling Institute at Amstettan to be treated free of charge, he decided not to divorce her after all.
There is no readily accessible information through these years about Friedl’s condition. She does not seem to feature in Roth’s day to day life as he became seriously involved with at least two other women. However, his heavy drinking created serious liver disease and by 1939 he was sick himself. In May he collapsed in a Parisian café and died in Necker Hospital on the 27th.
Historically, all of this was happening as Europe was falling to Hitler’s National Socialist Party, so perhaps the turmoil seen in Roth’s life was a micro-reflection of what was going on at large. But after Roth’s death, I wondered what happened to Friedl. The age-old tale of the wife locked away in a psychiatric hospital, forgotten to the outside world.
In July 1940, Friedl was taken to Hartheim Institute near Linz in Austria. Here she was assessed by a panel of Nazi appointed doctors to determine whether her condition was incurable. If a patient received more than three crosses during the examination they were regarded as irredeemably sick and in need of ‘disinfecting’. Hartheim, a foreboding castle like building, had vaulted brick cellars. On July 15th, Friedl was euthanised by gas, in what Hitler deemed a ‘mercy killing’.
It is hard to image the end of a life in this way, the young woman with the sharp-bobbed hair appearing in her photographs smiling, or stroking a pet dog, leaning against a tree looking happily into the sky. So few traces left behind. The lost story of Friederike Reichler (1900 – 1940).
Yesterday during the Sylvia Plath Zoomposium, Dr Maeve O’Brien gave a powerful talk about Sylvia Plath and the White Literary Imagination. For the rest of the evening I was thinking about some of the points she raised – Plath’s entirely white reading history, her entirely white teaching notes, her problematic use of certain racial tropes in her work. And I was thinking about this while watching the horrors unfolding in America at the brutality inflicted on protesters expressing their anger and despair in response to the police murder of George Floyd.
I suspect that Plath’s readership is not exclusively, but predominantly, white; Plath scholarship is certainly so. Since I first read Plath, I felt uncomfortable with some of her language and representations (see the poem ‘Ariel’, see The Bell Jar). And while Plath was not what we might call a conscious racist, her white progressive liberal background left her open to the comforts of whiteness, where racism can seed itself unconsciously, safely cushioned by social privilege. That Plath could use the ‘n’ word in a poem shows that she did not engage with the history or power of language in this instance, or consider the impact of perpetuating it. This is where the argument ‘Oh but it was different back then’ comes in, ‘It was ok to use language like that back then.’ Except of course it wasn’t. It has never been ok to use language like this. Perhaps what this argument really means is that when people did use language like this back then there was less chance of them being called out for it. Social acceptance is not the same as something being morally acceptable.
Am I being too hard on Plath? No, I don’t think so. It is precisely because we love her so that we should call her out on this. And if it makes for uncomfortable conversations, that’s because it should be uncomfortable. White privilege bestows this comfort, but not of course, to everybody. And if Plath, who regarded herself as liberal, who would have been appalled to think she was being racist, used racist language and tropes, then those of us who also inhabit that comfortable space of whiteness need to think about where we are situated in it and what we do about it.
Like Plath, I too would be appalled to think that I displayed any racist tendencies. As a white, working class, northern woman, I am aware of a lack of social mobility, that life is not a level playing field, that oppression takes many subtle and even invisible forms. But there were moments, particularly when I began studying for my degree in Women’s Studies, where this self-mythologising was blasted apart by conversations with some of my black feminist colleagues. I realised that I was using my position as a white feminist to think that I understood all forms of oppression, when clearly I had no idea about the ways in which social characteristics intersect to create a poisonous mix of power, privilege, and subjection. I realised that I did not think of my whiteness as a ‘racial category’, that I ‘othered’ certain groups, that I used language in a way that displayed this ignorance, and that even my thought processes and discourse allowed me to sink back into the comforts of whiteness. It was a horrible moment of realisation. But, I was lucky to be surrounded by amazing women who made it clear that white privilege, once seen, becomes the responsibility of the person taking comfort in it, to dismantle it. I realised very early on that it was my responsibility to address this, to educate myself, and to somehow try to stop using white privilege to make myself feel better at the expense of others. I also knew from my own experience that groups who are oppressed need to preserve and save their energy for getting through the struggle of day-to-day life as well as bigger struggles, so why should they also take on educating their oppressors too? If an oppressor truly wants to change, then they need to deal with it themselves; listen, learn, and educate.
I began reading voraciously – lots of fiction and memoirs, as well as feminist accounts, from black women’s voices and the Indian Women’s Movement.
I explored the idea that equality does not equal sameness, and I tried to unpick where and how I fell back into the comforts of whiteness. This involved reading about whiteness itself, making visible what had been constructed as invisible and ‘normal’. This is an ongoing process. I catch myself out all of the time, appalling though it is. But if white people, truly want to be allies, to politically and emotionally support anti-racist movements then these are the actions that need to be tackled first of all. Encountering racist language in the writer that you love is devastating – is that why so many shy away from it? But why leave all the work to be done by BAME readers and scholars of Plath? It’s an odd parallel to draw, but last year in the UK when Murdoch’s ‘newspapers’ engaged in an onslaught of racist coverage of the Man City footballer Raheem Sterling, he finally spoke out, eloquently and movingly about what this did to him. Some of the responses were well meaning, with white people tweeting “You go Raheem. Lead the way and we will follow.” Except of course, why should he? Raheem Sterling is not the problem. Why should he do the emotional labour to expose the racism at the heart of his media representation?
I keep returning to a passage in Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Selling of My Name. She describes the clinical, bland whiteness of an ice cream parlour and a visit to Washington, D.C.
I think about how whiteness covers things up, things that should never be covered up. As a white woman it is all too easy to think that Plath’s problematic use of language and imagery is not something that I should tackle. On a much bigger scale of life and death, it is all too easy to see protests taking place in major cities around the world, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and think it is not something that I can do anything about. This privilege of silence and absolving of responsibility is the comfort of whiteness. It needs challenging and dismantling, for if not now, when?
For any of us who study her, often we find ourselves moving beyond the poems and prose to explore the historical moment she inhabited and how that helps us situate her work. As a sociologist, I am fascinated how her upbringing and background, as well as her social standing influenced what she read, studied, watched, liked, and bought. Equally as a sociologist, I am fascinated by objects; by things. Things that leave their traces behind, like domestic relics, that have stories to tell.
Plath had a distinctive style. She appeared to love mixing the modern with the more traditional. Reading in her letters and journals how she chose to decorate her rooms, flats, and houses, takes us back to 1950s America, or 1960s London, specifically Camden High Street. Plath moved from student-inspired objects (wine bottles turned into lamps) through to solid, well-made pieces of furniture buying her carpets from Wilton and her table and chairs from Selfridges.
She loved to be surrounded by colour. Her bedroom wallpaper for 3 Chalcot Square, London, had a white background with budding and blooming red roses emerging from a cradle of green leaves. This wallpaper, chosen in 1960, features in her short story ‘Day of Success’ and her poem ‘Morning Song’.
Her kitchen wallpaper epitomised 1960s style, with cartoonish graphics of hot air balloons, penny farthings, a wheelbarrow, and some sort of odd chariot. Plath paired this with opposing walls painted a deep rose colour to give the kitchen a homely, cosy feel.
By the time Plath moved to Devon in 1961 she was mixing more traditional pieces into her ancient thatched house, Court Green – solid wooden desks with wrought-iron drawer handles and a tea tray, that quickly became stained with ink. Her rugs and carpets, which she took months to choose, were what she called a traditional oriental style with medallions of colour in the centre and swirling leaves around the edges.
Yet by the time she moved back to 23 Fitzroy Road, London in 1962, her taste had turned more minimalist and modern again as she favoured Bowmans Furniture store on Camden High Street where she bought her carpets and a bureau. The store advertised itself as offering ‘traditional and modern’ pieces, so it is easy to see why it appealed to Plath. Her cheque book shows the purchases she made there, as well as at the Co-operative store on the same High Street and Selfridges in town. She chose pieces made from glass and bamboo and replaced her traditional rugs with rush matting.
The Co-op and Bowmans no longer exists, though Bowmans has on the front of the red brick building (now a Burger King, Poundland, and Waterstones), ghost signs back from when it was a furniture store advertising curtains, furniture, and drapery. Plath too is long gone from the streets of Camden, carefully choosing pieces for her flat, but the objects remain, preserved from that time years ago; intact, solid, holding onto their histories.
(Wallpaper photographs courtesy of Peter K. Steinberg; Bowmans advertisement, unknown; all other images, my own.)
How does the self write about a self it no longer remembers; may never have remembered? How does the writing self produce the written I?
Imagine from the image two girls. They are on holiday with their parents at the seaside in Blackpool. Perhaps it was a hot summer; the swimming costumes suggest a day on the beach playing in sand. The smaller of the two girls has a mouth covered in sand. She has been eating it all day. It is odd that neither the parents nor the photographer cleaned her mouth. May be they thought it looked cute. For years afterwards and to the present day the photograph is presented as “this is the holiday when you ate sand all the time.” The photograph is proof that it happened. The photograph along with the parent’s memories are all that exist of that day, that time, that holiday. The small girl with sand around her mouth remembers nothing. She has been constructed and narrated by others. Yet this unremembered self is still a story resurrected from the rubble of other peoples’ memories. It is not a tidy or an accurate story, but then memory is neither of these things. In fact the story is unreliable on a number of levels. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the writing self here and now should be narrating an unremembered self. There would have been a time when I remembered. Maybe ten minutes after the photograph was taken I was back on the beach or walking the prom holding my mother’s hand thinking about having had my photograph taken. Maybe when my sister and I were posing I wondered what the finished photograph would look like. Maybe none of these things happened and I was still too young to perceive a world beyond my own control. Perhaps I had yet to realise that I was not the centre of everything. Almost certainly the photograph captures my pre-linguistic days since I refused to speak or grow much hair until after the age of four. How would I be able to distinguish a world abstract from myself without the language to construct it? How would anything have any meaning beyond experiential immediacy?
My sister would interpret grunts and inform my parents what I wanted. Apparently I usually helped by pointing at certain objects to at least give the grunts some context. No doubt there was much grunting and pointing that holiday as the family of four walked along the prom at Blackpool. This was the town when it was still a highly sought after holiday destination for working class Northerners. In the mid-1970s amid instability and unemployment in my ex-mining hometown, families saved all year for a week in Blackpool. In the rows upon rows of guest houses and B&Bs with gongs that sounded for breakfast and plastic flowers in vases on the tables in the dining rooms, families took refuge from the routine of daily life for a week by the sea.
Of course, my writing self is already merging its own later memories of other holidays where my sister and I were allowed to sound the gong for dinner and the week I would eat nothing in front of strangers and had to be taken outside for breakfast facing the sea. This could have happened in Morecambe, another family holiday destination; my memory is too messy to tell the difference. There is no chronology, no strict narrative of what happened and which year we went there. That only came later when I kept a “holiday diary” but even reading that years later parts of myself are still unremembered.
Self-narration then, one’s own store of memories seem no more or less reliable than anyone else’s. If my mother can narrate my unremembered self who ate sand and grunted, why should this depiction be any less reliable than if I remembered it myself? Why would her interpretation of the little girl be any more or less of a construct than if the little girl herself could speak? As soon as we begin to narrate ourselves, as soon as we use language, perhaps we begin to tell a story, one of an infinite number of versions. Sometimes we change the narrative ourselves over the years, sometimes we perfect it to a story that we like or that makes us laugh or feel safe or nostalgic. But the self seems essentially a story, a created, fictional, unified whole that we like to shape and set neatly into a chronology. To be a series of unrelated vignettes and half-remembered anecdotes perhaps diminishes our sense of importance and stability. By creating continuity through self-narrativisation we can comfort ourselves that we really do exist with a past and a certain amount of future. There is assurance and familiarity.
Yet I only know that the little girl in the picture ate sand and grunted because I have been told stories about her. The girl in the picture is ‘me’ and yet could well be some one I have never met before. The unremembered self is the equivalent to the stranger in the street. Even the remembered self seems a fiction, a patchwork of false, unreliable narratives tentatively strung together to form a whole. Although the memories themselves may seem abstract, as if existing in a vacuum with little concept of order (both in the storage and the retrieval), they are nevertheless culturally and historically embedded.
Look closely at the photograph of the two small girls. The style is typical of photographers who set up their seaside booths for professional holiday photographs. The fake background, the style of the swimming costumes unmistakeably 1970s. There is something a little more timeless about the two girls whose faces would not be out of place in a Dickensian street scene. The smaller girl is not looking at the camera, but off to the right, perhaps at her parents. This is a pose she often repeats in family photographs, or sometimes the older sister is the object of the younger child’s gaze, as if the camera was not there at all, or did not matter.
Why was this photograph taken? Certainly as a memento of the holiday, possibly even to capture how the two girls looked after a day on the beach. In the 1970s, the sea front was littered with outdoor photography studios – sometimes with false backgrounds of blue skies, palm trees, and green sea as if mocking the slightly muddy sand and sluggish waves reflected across the road. Photographers would try to entice you to have a photograph taken. Sometimes, as in this picture, they would have a monkey that would sit on your shoulder and groom your hair. Sometimes the studios had cartoons of caricatured men and women with holes cut out where their heads should be. When you placed your own head through a hole you suddenly transformed into a large woman in a polka-dot swimsuit or a man in a string vest and baggy shorts.
My parents must have paid what for us would have been quite a lot of money for the photograph. It must, therefore, have been important for them to record and capture that moment. I am tempted to think they were persuaded into it by a keen photographer, but equally I know my mother would not do anything she did not want to. So it was probably their decision to spend a lot of the money we didn’t have to capture their children at a particular moment on that particular holiday. A picture for the family album or may be for a short time the mantelpiece at home in the ‘front’ room, or the china cabinet where the best glasses were kept.
The two little girls in the photograph would have no idea that their holiday destination was less than two hours drive from their front door. As a child, Blackpool seemed to me as far away and exotic as Africa and Egypt. I romanticise the seaside working class holiday, of course. People who worked hard and saved all year for a week playing slot machines, building sand castles, and hiring stripy deck chairs. Nostalgia grieves for this time when neighbours from your hometown might be staying in the guesthouse next door, and people would say “it’s a small world” and it certainly is when you never travel more than two hours away from home. There is a longing for that sense of community and a ‘proper’ working class – a time before so many individuals became atomised consumers and Thatcher’s Britain gradually eroded away the working class identity. “There is no such thing as society” she said and the two little girls in the picture grew up under Thatcher’s legacy of privatisation, the destruction of the trade unions and grassroots movements, poll tax riots, a war in the Falklands, and increasing unemployment. “Get on a bike and get a job,” said Tebbit who never once saw my father’s face as he arrived home from yet another fruitless visit to the Job Centre. “Something will turn up,” my mother used to say.
Maybe it was those times that made holidays so special. A sunny day by the sea, all troubles temporarily forgotten, with two slightly grubby children and a photographer to capture the moment.
The self is unremembered but I know that it was happy.
How does a book begin? I suppose all writers have different ways of approaching a new project, just like all writers have different ways of working or researching or thinking. In the last month I’ve been embarking on a new book due to be published by Simon and Schuster in Spring 2021. It’s called Kicking at the Door of Fame and is a look at the social rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. It explores their stories and their lives and attempts to revise some of the lazy stereotypes that have become attached to both of them over the years. It looks at their friendship, mutual respect, and rivalry. It places them in their historical and cultural moment – and the legacy that endures.
The first stage for me in any new project involves writing and walking. My dog George is essential for this stage (actually he’s essential for every stage) but he’s enthusiastic for long walks while the initial thinking takes place. I live on the coast so I go to the beach twice a day. There is something about the sea, the sand, and the shingle that helps order my thoughts for the day. George swims while I think.
If it’s rainy and windy I grumble, but it still makes me feel better. Then I get home, make a pot of tea, and head to my writing shed. On cold days I have the heater and fairy pom-pom lights on; warm days I open the door onto a small paved area with a cherry tree and potted plants. My desk is big enough for a laptop, piles of books, and notebooks. My wifi stretches to the shed so I can email and organise archive visits, look at finding aid catalogues, and make lists. I eat a lot of crisps and George often lies with his head on my feet.
In these early days, often it looks as though I have done very little, since most of the work is going on internally. I just think and think. But any project I work on begins and ends with the sea. Plath spoke about the sea always being with her in some way, either physically or as a sea of consciousness, and this resonates. There’s something a little bit suffocating to me about not being by the sea. I love the smell of brine and mudflats. I love the sea-mist that rolls in while the buoys clank. I love the sound of seagulls and skylarks. The sand dunes are full of beach-roses, butterflies, caterpillars, and small purple flowers. Little whorly snails with stripy shells are hidden among the sea-grasses. The gorse is pungent and on hot days, it steams. The ponds jump with natterjack toads and tadpoles.
After a day thinking and note-taking, I go back to the beach. Sometimes I watch the sun go down turning the sand orange. The moon comes out. The sky is always big. George and I sit on the stones. The tide comes and goes.