28 August 2010

Review of Luke Ferretter's Sylvia Plath's Fiction: A Critical Study

Luke Ferretter’s Sylvia Plath’s Fiction: A Critical Study (University of Edinburgh Press) is a visionary, meticulous, and necessary work. It is a book both long overdue and ahead of its time. It is such a good book that there is no possible way I can see to write a review that could attempt to do it justice.

In Sylvia Plath’s Fiction, Ferretter provides “close readings of Plath’s texts...in their historical and cultural contexts, of the significant place that Plath’s fiction plays in the vast, diverse and powerful body of work she has left us” (15).

In each of the five chapters, plus the introduction, Ferretter gives a very careful and clear reading; a realized look at this under-studied genre of Plath’s. In the introduction, he gives a breakdown of Plath’s stories by time period, as a way to identify the works he will discuss and to provide an authoritative chronology of their composition. This chronology is an immensely useful tool. For the uncollected or unpublished stories found in the various Plath archives, Ferretter gives conscientious summaries in lieu, unfortunately, of quoting directly.

The most fascinating chapter of the book for me is Chapter 2, which turns the inspection of Plath and Hughes’s recto-verso conversations inwards and asks, “what light is shed on Plath’s fiction by an examination of the poetry she was writing at the same time, and vice versa” (58). The chapter is divided by major time period such as Smith College, Cambridge, Boston and Yaddo, and The Bell Jar. In doing this, Ferretter can explore the ways in which gender relations or imagination and reality, for example, are treated simultaneously and in quite contrary manners. The benefit to this approach is that it highlights in some cases lesser examined poetry as well as obviously the stories, which have sadly been less considered. Although Plath wrote comparatively little poetry at the time she was writing The Bell Jar, as a big fan of the novel I was particularly interested to read this section. The immediate poems that come to mind are “In Plaster” and “Tulips”, the latter being a commissioned poem Plath wrote for the Poetry at the Mermaid festival. Ferretter blissfully includes; however, poems that spane her entire 1961 output such as “The Hanging Man,” “Wuthering Heights,” and “The Babysitters.”

The chapters on the Politics of Plath’s Fiction (3), Gender and Society in The Bell Jar (4), and Gender and Society Plath’s Short Stories (5) each achieve their arguments. Inspecting Plath’s work through the multifaceted discourses of historical or cultural or political frameworks brings the reader closer to Plath and closer to the spark of the stories (or of the poems) creative inspiration. At least, the way in which this book is written it certainly does. It is as indispensable as reading the creative writing alongside of Plath’s journals or letters or even through a consideration of the books she was reading concurrently.

The only criticism I can come up with is that many of the works discussed, though accurately summarized, will be unknown to some of its readers. This is certainly something Luke considered as he approached this text, in fact his awareness of the obscurity - for lack of a better word - of some of these works is evident throughout the text. However, this relative obscurity is not an insurmountable set-back. I wholeheartedly encourage - no demand - that Plath’s readers with an interest in this Ferretter’s book write to the archives in which these stories are housed and request photocopies. It will broaden your appreciation of Plath’s talent and of dedication to her craft as well as your enjoyment of the book. You can find links to archival repositories holding Plath materials on my website.

Ferretter gives an expert and much needed inspection and evaluation of a highly under-evaluated area of Sylvia Plath’s oeuvre. Read everything. Please. Read the footnotes, which are an inspiration, and read the back-of-the-jacket copy for astute comments by Langdon Hammer and Karen V. Kukil. This book is an achievement and a success and I feel sorry for anyone who skips it.

4 comments :

Melanie Smith said...

Sounds fabulous - I am so behind in my reading - my copy is glaring at me from the night stand. I look forward to it and to the newness of all Ferretter has to say.

I will definitely seeking out copies of the stories - thanks for reminding me of that service Peter.

Julia said...

Looks like I've got another one to add to the pile. I'm looking forward to it.

Peter, can you tell me more about "Tulips" being commissioned for the Mermaid Festival? What was that? Where? What information do you have on it? I am wondering if there is anything there that might feed into my own work.

Plathologically yours, jgb

Peter K Steinberg said...

Plath writes about this in Letters Home on 6 February 1961 (probably her journals too but we don't have those for this time period, do we?). I believe other references dot the letters between 6 February and the event in July.

It's not that Plath was commissioned to write a poem about tulips specifically. However, John Wain, the poet, or some other organizer asked Plath to write a poem for the Poetry at the Mermaid Festival in London in July 1961.

Plath as we know wrote "In Plaster" and "Tulips" in mid-March before launching into The Bell Jar, probably in early April.

Anyway, to make a long story short, Plath submitted or decided (or what have you) that "Tulips" was to be the poem she wanted to read at the event. I imagine Wain approved it but can't say for certain if that is the case and I believe it is he who is introducing Plath on the British Library CD. I also mention its being commissioned in the CD liner notes I wrote for the recent British Library publication.

Julia said...

Thank you!

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