Representing Sylvia Plath (249 pages, ISBN: 978-1-107-00675-1, Cambridge University Press, 2011, also available in two digital editions via the publisher: Mobipocket eBook and Adobe eBook Reader) draw from papers given at the Sylvia Plath 75th Year Symposium held at Oxford in 2007. The book is divided into three sections: Contexts, Poetics and Composition, and Representation. The focus of the essays is on the poetry, with somewhat token attention given to Plath's letters and short fiction. Though referenced nine times, The Bell Jar is largely not discussed.
With some exceptions, Representing Sylvia Plath seems to consciously avoid an explicit consideration of Plath's biographical representations - of how Plath directly represents her self/life in her creative works- and this omission is a disservice to a writer who was, according to a close contemporary -Ted Hughes- her own best subject. In his "Introduction" to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Hughes writes, "It was only when she gave up that effort to 'get outside' herself, and finally accepted the fact that her painful subjectivity was her real theme, and that the plunge into herself was her only real direction…that she suddenly found herself in full possession of her genius" (5). Hughes also comments in that introduction that even the "arbitrary surreal symbols" of Plath's Ariel poems "are really impassioned reorganizations of relevant fact" (2). In their introduction to the book, Brain and Bayley go to lengths to point out what they perceive as the general unreliability of Plath's speakers through the guises of their veils, specifically seeming to target or caution those that read Plath's works as biographical or factual (note: this is different from a confessional consideration). Bayley and Brain claim the essays add "to a growing movement in Plath studies that is suspicious of an older but still lingering school of Plath criticism that sees her as a 'confessional' writer" (1). But it seems to me that considering Plath as a "confessional" writer has for a long time been out of fashion. So, where and why they bring this up is a mystery.
The thesis by which Brain and Bayley base their book and their theme of the unreliability of Plath's texts (her speakers & personas) is from an excised line from a draft of The Bell Jar, "I never told anybody my life story, though, or if I did, I made up a whopper" (1). To base such a thesis upon a "fictional" character while simultaneously issuing a caution against reading any literality into the fictional character (or speakers, in the case of the poems) - and then telling us not to trust how the real person presents herself in her writing - strikes me as odd. (Lest we forget, in the case of The Bell Jar Plath went through a very thorough consideration of potentially libelous content in the novel with her British editor James Michie ... see letter to Michie, 14 November 1961, held at Smith College.) Plath's novel has autobiographical elements; it is based on her biography. So, too, does much of her poetry and her short fiction. To deny this is simply stubborn. But then it is important to remember that certain academics need to try to make things complicated... The creative genius of Plath is how she wrote about herself in the selected mediums she did, and how she mythologized that self and connected it up "to the larger things, the bigger things such as Hiroshima and Dachau and so on" (Orr). How she took those real life physical and emotional experiences, such as attending a bee meeting which she captured in her Journals, and turned them into art is fascinating. The gestation period between event and composition in this case June to October 1962 (excluding the false start of "Stings" in August which goes to show that the transformation was not yet complete) is a topic that would add richly to how Plath represented herself. To further belabor my the point, to disdain of ye olde confessional (or biographical) reading of Plath and then turn around and edit a book which explores "Plath's own self-presentations" (how she presents herself) is strongly hypocritical.
Two highlights in Representing Sylvia Plath are Kathleen Connor's "Madonna (of the Refrigerator): Mapping Sylvia Plath's Double in 'The Babysitters' Drafts" and Luke Ferretter's "'Procrustean Identity': Sylvia Plath's Women's Magazine Fiction." Connors essay uses Plath’s journals, journalism, and biography to effectively illustrate an instance where Plath represents herself creative in the form a poem. It is the crowning achievement in the book and as it accepts Plath's biography as a focal point of inspiration of the poem discussed, it should not come as a surprise as to why I liked it so much. The information contained in Ferretter's paper was so fresh when first given in October 2007 at the Plath Symposium, before his full length critical study on the subject of Plath's fiction was published in 2010 (read my review). People who have read that book and then read this essay might feel that they have somehow gone backwards. Nevertheless, it is a brilliant essay. It is worthwhile, too, to point out that Ferretter's paper might have worked better in the Contexts section given the richness of background material at the start of the essay. These two essays make wonderful use of Plath's archives, showing important perspectives in the creative process. Essays by Jonathan Ellis (Plath's letters), Sally Bayley (tree imagery), and especially Anita Helle (use of photographs), have moments of revelation and excellence.
The rest of this review will focus on the last part of the book, Representation. This section will interest primarily those interested in what happens to Plath in the minds of others (writers, artists, etc. - even certain biographers) and is a by-product of how Plath inspires and how one interprets her; and thus "represents" Sylvia Plath in a very literal, surrogate format. Lynda K. Bundtzen's essay the exception - and her essay is certainly the best essay of the three in this section - it is not particularly an area of Plath studies in which I am interested. In fact, the last two chapters of Representing Sylvia Plath step away from a direct study of Plath's works and the discussion leads away from something which Plath produced to something produced in reaction to something Plath produced. I largely fail to see how this improves either our (or my) understanding of Sylvia Plath or how it contributes to the scholarship, and this lets the book down. Which is a shame, as I typically read eagerly anything by both Brain and Bayley. Conversely, I do find that I have similar opinions to much of what Brain discusses in her piece.
As anyone who either attended the Plath Symposium in Oxford or read about it in one of my daily reviews of event knows, the title of the book comes from Tracy Brain's own paper delivered on 28 October 2007 (and given again on at least one occasion, 20 November 2007 in London). This presents a crucial, critical conflict to my reading of this book because what Brain does in her essay (renamed to "Fictionalising Sylvia Plath") is wholly different to what the other contributors do. The same goes for the regrettable Chapter 11... So my expectation in a book by this current name automatically refers back to the circumstances in which the topic was first introduced: a discussion of the fictional representations of Sylvia Plath. (It should be noted that another paper given at Oxford, and published in early 2009, also discusses biofictive representations of Plath. See Annika J. Hagstrom's "Stasis in Darkness: Sylvia Plath as a Fictive Character" in English Studies 90, 2009.) This is my own hurdle to get over but it is not coming easily.
I agree with P.H. Davies that Brain's essay could be the subject of its own volume. This would enable a couple of things: she could attempt to answer the myriad moralistic, rhetorical questions she poses as well as discuss what I see as a large gap in her essay, which is a failure to consider as fully as she does the fiction, the poetry inspired by Plath. Most of the poetry inspired by Plath is lamentable, but there are a couple of people that do it well: namely, David Trinidad and Christine Walde. Likewise, in the last chapter, a failure to recognize a wider pool of artists who respond to and "represent" Sylvia Plath is a narrow shortcoming, particularly as it ignores the complicated brilliance and originality of the artwork of Kristina Zimbakova, whose artwork was prominently displayed and widely admired at the Oxford Symposium. Simply put, the last chapter feels like a Mean Girls-esque insider’s club, six-degrees of separation clique. Say what you will, but an essay on interpretive dance with image stills of that dance does not translate well in to print. Perhaps a DVD should have been included that contained visual access to all the work discussed in Chapter 11?
Throughout the book there are a number of instances where a full familiarity of artwork discussed by Plath's and others will require the reader to also have with them either Eye Rhymes or a time machine. Nervaux-Gavoty's essay makes little sense without Eye Rhymes, especially when she refers to works still not published and that would require a visit to the Lilly Library to see. This is simply unfair to most readers; and to boot the art discussed is not detailed in a sufficient way to help the reader "see" the work considered. Bayley refers to Vine's "sylvia robin" which was destroyed by the artist after it was displayed in London. The description of this piece, with a red bird perched near the Plath figure as "as visual equivalent of a Hallmark card taken to its most grotesque conclusion," confirms that we are indeed not missing anything (229). Credit to Vine then for sparing us. A DVD -or more illustrations at the least- would have given the reader something to refer to; as it stands for this and a host of other reasons the last chapter should be disregarded.
For editors who have been critical over how Plath's own works have been edited, I expected more from a work that they edited. Some oversights that are more annoying than the rest are: the recording Plath made on 30 October was not done for the BBC, but for the British Council and the Woodberry Poetry Room. Plath did record "Berck-Plage" for the BBC on 29 October; however, the session and interview with Peter Orr the following day was unrelated to the BBC. These poems may have aired on the BBC, but that is not the same thing. It is Wober, not Weber (pages 37 & 52). Also, there are several nearly shameful instances of sloppy editing in the dating of poems in Chapter 11. There are many more but I am trying to be less picky. If the editors/authors would like a list of things to be corrected in future printings of the book I would be happy to supply one.
At $85 (cheaper in digital edition formats) one would expect full color illustrations throughout, not just the cheap boldness of a shocking and colorful cover to try to draw you in. The illustrations in the final chapter could have made a much greater impact in color. For example, full color would have enabled the inclusion of Figure 8 "Color script" (page 210) from The Girl Who Would Be God to be less pointless and more affecting. They are not, but the essays in this book feel disparate: though nearly all of them individually shine, these are not essays written intentionally for a book on the theme of "Representing Sylvia Plath" and as such they fail to be purposeful and cohesive in the way that essays in Eye Rhymes or The Unraveling Archive are. As many of the essays were originally conceived and/or presented in 2007 or earlier, they may not be therefore considered as "new developments" in scholarship on Sylvia Plath (1). To quote from Ferretter's essay (who in turn was quoting a rejection letter Plath received), the book is missing an "indefinable something" (156). Thus, this is a good though uneven book; and not worth the heavy price which will alienate the majority of Plath's readers.
To close, the cover art for the book is atrocious. Honestly: blue eyes? If one were to judge a book by its cover one would not pick this book up. Though unacknowledged in the text dealing with Vine in Chapter 11, the cover image is of course a (heinous) "representation" of Plath's 1956 photograph with Ted Hughes. Stella Vine's representations of Sylvia Plath are unoriginal, misguided, dreary, and quite damaging to Plath's still somewhat fragile image in popular culture, and in this regard I am referring to the disgusting casual ease with which people tend either to mock Plath's suicide or feel that the suicide in some way defines everything about her. It is hardly the view of Plath which many of us are fighting to adjust and has been more prevalent in recent years when one considers Plath's own writing, what Karen Kukil calls Plath's "zest for life." The image looks like the exaggerated teenage offspring which was the result of a confounding three-way between Dorian Gray's haggard portrait, the Joker and Amy Winehouse. It is crass and represents not Sylvia Plath, but bad art and poor taste.
At the request of some of the comments from my review of Janet Badia's book and from personal emails received ... Represent THIS!
Publications & Acknowledgements
- BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
- Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
- Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
- Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
- Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
- Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
- Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
- Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
- Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
- Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
- Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
- Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. 2000. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books. (Acknowledged in)
- Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
- Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
- Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
- Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
- Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
- "Banking on his passion for Plath" by Melissa Davis Haller. UMW Today. Spring 2005.
- "Sylvia Plath's Three Women to be staged in London" by Alison Flood. The Guardian. 3 December 2008.
- "FBI files on Sylvia Plath's father shed new light on poet" by Dalya Alberge. The Guardian. 17 August 2012.
- "There Are Almost No Obituaries for Sylvia Plath" by Ashley Fetters. The Atlantic. 11 February 2013.