12 September 2013

Sylvia Plath in Recent Fiction

In the last year, two fictional books about Sylvia Plath have appeared. In 2012, Alice Walsh's Analyzing Sylvia Plath (Thomas & Mercer) was published and this year saw Scott Evans' Sylvia's Secret (Port Yonder Press). In January of this year, also, Plath was the subject of "The Speech Therapist" a short story by Cyril Dabydeen published in the January-February 2013 issue of World Literature Today (Vol 87, Issue 1, pages 20-26).

You can read a fairly good synopsis of Alice Walsh's book on Amazon.com (linked above), but my take away from it was that Canada is a nice-safe-friendly place and that New York is really dangerous and a lot of people are untrustworthy and have guns and it is scary. #Fail.

The Evans book is described as "a fast-paced psychological thriller... based on several years of research..." that explores, in part, "the actual circumstances of [Sylvia Plath's] death." The blurb on Port Yonder Press' webpage is intriguing, "When American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, many people blamed her unfaithful husband, but no one believed Ted Hughes actually murdered Sylvia. Until now." Also from Amazon, "The research has unearthed a little-known fact about Plath that, when revealed, may provide answers not just for those interested in the tragic author of The Bell Jar, but also for anyone who suffers with depression and mental illness."

Some of this does not sound like the book I suffered through. The characters are weak: almost despicable Janet Badia should have a field day with this...
and certainly unlikable; the Plath "scholar" in particular is so badly drawn and represents the worst of the offensively caricatured and stereotypical Plath readers imaginable...

The narrative is fast-paced in that the book is a simply-written and quickly read. However, it is littered with inconsistencies (not just Plath related) that are annoying, and some terminology issues. For example, in England, in London in particular, people do not ride the "subway". They ride the Tube, or take the Underground. The subway is a pedestrian passageway the goes beneath busy intersections and often can be found at Underground stations. Secondly, the attentive service in restaurants and pubs that Cassandra "Cass" Johnson and Joe Conrad receive is laughably not British. I'm sure there is a study on this, but my guess would be the average waiting period from when one sits down at a table to when the waiter or waitress takes your order and to when the requested beverage and food arrives is something along the lines of three weeks.

There was some shoddy writing and/or editing in Sylvia's Secret (thank goodness her name was not Victoria Plath, of that it was not about the Victoria Lucas edition of The Bell Jar: for then would we have Victoria's Secret?). Two examples of this regard the locality of Cass's London flat on Fitzroy Road. We are told in Chapter 1 that she lives "just a few houses down from the building where Sylvia gassed herself" (10). Suddenly, however, on page 69, Cass's flat is "next door" to Plath's. Then on page 77, Cass and Joe "started down the street to the front door of 23 Fitzroy Road". Well, which is it? "Down the street" or "next door"? They are two different things. The other contradiction is that upon return from Devon, Cass and Joe go to the terribly named "Queen's Pub & Dining Room" (213). Later, when referring to the pub the they "went to last night"; it is suddenly "The Princess of Wales" (240). Maybe Evans has done "in the field" work and visited London and Devon before, but his descriptions are so cliché and plain that it is almost as if he Google Street Viewed the respective areas and wrote from what he could see from the comfort of his writing desk (or couch).

A couple of more things which make this book definitely a work of fiction (though might expose Evans' research as wanting...):

a) can you really take out £800 from a cashpoint in England?
b) the people that now own these residences where Plath lived do not welcome visitors.
c) Carol Hughes still lives at Court Green.
d) "The Detective" was not in Ted Hughes' 1965 version of Ariel (p. 63).
e) The last poem in Hughes' version of Ariel was not "Edge". It was "Words" (p. 83).
f) Plath's mother's name was Aurelia, not Ariel (p. 280).

The handling of the "missing journal" that Cass found (i.e. forged - oh, shoot: Spoiler Alert) is ridiculous. To remove the book from a bank safe deposit box, in the snow, and to carry such a document down the street to the pub is obscene. Unless the fact that it was a forgery explains Cass's carelessness? The location in which it was "found" in the yew tree of the churchyard of St. Peter's in North Tawton was a little far-fetched, but does remind me of Plath's earthenware head, which she placed in the crook of a tree in Grantchester Meadows.

There is no doubt that Scott Evans has done some research into Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Sometimes it feels expert, sometimes it feels cursory. To a seasoned Plath scholar, this book will likely be frustrating and tiresome; to a novice, it might be misleading, which is irresponsible even though it is labeled a fiction. Woe... Lo... These young, impressionable minds... I feel that when I read a work of fiction in which real people and real events are depicted, that the author has the obligation of ensuring that when said real people/events are used that they are used accurately. And the feather on the cover has nothing to do with the book. #Fail.

The short story "The Speech Therapist" by Cyril Dabydeen was just bad. #Fail.

Plath as fictional subject is not a genre for everybody and it takes a certain amount of patience to trudge through the majority of them. Kate Moses' 2003 novel Wintering was by far the most successful endeavor to date, the research that went into the book was so thorough that I think most academics would have and should have been impressed.

Links and quotes accessed 23 July 2013.


Anonymous said...

Your description of Sylvia's Secret makes it clear to me that I must read the book. There is too little humor in my life at the moment and this books seems like it will fill the gaping humor-hole that threatens to annihilate my existence. Also, the feather clearly is meant to represent a quill pen, poised in mid air. And as we all know, quill pen = writing. And Sylvia Plath was a writer. You're welcome


Anonymous said...

Reader, I bought the book.

Also I forgot to mention that the silhouette of the Houses of Parliament & 'Big Ben' symbolize 'London', a very famous city in literature & the city where Sylvia Plath was apparently murdered.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Wintering is a favorite of mine. As a fiction writer myself, I would not attempt to revisit the ground Kate Moses perfectly covered the first time.

Having just been there, I had a hearty laugh over the "three weeks" it takes to get served in London. Too true.

The Plath Diaries said...

Unsurprised at this review of 'Sylvia's Secret'. I'm just disappointed there were no illegitimate children of JFK in the plotline after all! :-(

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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 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.
  • 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." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • 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)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (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. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • 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. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • 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. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.