03 September 2014

Sylvia Plath, Bell Jars and Bowen

The following is a special guest post by Dr. Gail Crowther. Thank you, Dr. Crowther.

Recently, I have taken to reading Elizabeth Bowen.

I don't know why I have never read her before now, but anyway, about two years ago I bought an old penguin copy of The Death of the Heart from a second hand book store. It lay on my 'to-read' pile since then, until a couple of months ago during a sleepless night I started to read it. Now I am currently enjoying a Bowen-fest, working my way chronologically through her novels and stories. Needless to say, I am smitten.

I knew, of course, that there was a Plath connection. A young Sylvia Plath while working for Mademoiselle had interviewed Elizabeth Bowen in the home of May Sarton at 14 Wright Street, Cambridge, Mass on 26th May 1953. It was famously captured in a series of photographs by a Mademoiselle photographer. They show a smiling and slightly adoring looking Plath interviewing and engaged in discussion with the older writer. Bowen's advice was that a young writer should "move about the world and keep in contact with people" and keep away from jobs that waste creative energy ("We Hitch Our Wagons" 282). Aspiring writers need, according to Bowen, "both criticism and encouragement" (282). For her own part, Bowen claimed she turned to writing short stories when she failed as a poet, and even then, still preferred the format of a short story to a novel. Her own work sprang out of visual impressions and did not see print without much re-working.

Bowen's library cards from Smith College.
Used by permission of the Mortimer Rare Book Room.
To what extent might Plath have read Bowen to prepare for this interview? Library cards at Smith show that Plath signed out a number of Bowen novels and stories with a return due date of 28th May 1953. She appeared to read the following books: Early Stories, Seven Winters, and Ivy Gripped the Steps. Her calendar indicates that she read The Death of the Heart also on 25 May. Clearly she researched her interview subject well. After the interview, Bowen and Plath exchanged letters. Although there is no known copy of the letter Plath wrote to Bowen, the reply, held at Lilly Library, Indiana University, was sent from Bowen's Court in Ireland on 9th June 1953. It showed warm appreciation in which Bowen stated how lovely it had been to meet Plath and that she hoped to be reading some of Plath's own books in the future.

Might, however, there be a major Bowen influence in Plath's work that has previously been overlooked? While reading Bowen's first novel The Hotel (1927), I encountered some startling imagery that led me directly back to Plath. In this novel, set on the Italian Riviera, the plot follows the guests and their relationships through a hot and lazy summer. Friendships are forged and broken, love affairs take place and characters are beautifully and subtly drawn by Bowen in poetic and evocative language. One scene, however, between two major protagonists, Sydney and Milton, takes place on a sunny hillside and involves a proposal. The imagery used is as follows:

In the expanse of the free air she had laughed and felt that neither of them were realer than the scenery. Now, at some tone in his voice she was surprised by a feeling that some new mood, not of her own, was coming down over them like a bell-glass. The bright reality of the view, the consciousness of the unimportant, safe little figures were shut away from her; they were always there but could no longer help. She felt the bell-glass finally descend as he, after a glance around at the other benches and over the edge of the plateau, said quickly, 'The thing is, Sydney, aren't I ever to know you?' (p.95)
'Very well,' said Milton and the bell-glass lifted, though it hung above them. She felt as though this image must have presented itself to him also, for he drew as though released from constriction another deep breath of air. (p. 96)
Compare this to the imagery Plath chose to use in The Bell Jar (1963):
...because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street cafĂ© in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. (p. 196)
All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. (p. 227)
But I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure at all. How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? (p. 254)
The coincidence and similarity is startling and raises the obvious question: did Plath ever read The Hotel? In one of those mysterious and ambiguous moments that history often throws at us, the answer is, it is impossible to know. Smith College holds a 1928 edition of The Hotel which would have been on the shelves during Plath's time there and certainly during the spring of 1953. However, Karen Kukil informed me that in recent years the book has been rebound and the original check out card is missing.

In her letters and journal the previous year, Plath had already drawn upon the image of suffocating under a bell jar. A journal entry on Friday 11th July 1952 describes her fear of giving up her summer job at The Belmont Hotel on Cape Cod and returning home to long, unstructured 12 hour days for 10 weeks: "It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush (or rather outrush) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere..." (2000: 118). In a letter to Marcia Brown written between 23-24 July 1952 and held at Smith College, Plath describes the "rarified atmosphere" of her life so far as though living under a bell jar.

So there are a number of possibilities. One, that Bowen and Plath independently created this imagery in a startling co-incidence. Two, that Plath having already used the metaphor of the bell jar, read a similar account in The Hotel and then drew on Bowen's notion of the ascending -descending bell-glass. Three, that Plath read The Hotel and unconsciously drew on Bowen's imagery when writing her own novel in London eight years later. Whatever, it is certainly an exciting and playful way to read Plath and Bowen, two of my favourite authors, and makes me look at their photograph together in a whole new light. I like the idea of some sort of creative osmosis between these two amazing women. I also like the maddening mystery of never quite knowing...

Works Cited

Bowen, Elizabeth. The Hotel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Heinemann, 1963.

---. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

---. Letter to Marcia Brown, 23-24 July 1952. Smith College.

"We Hitch Our Wagons." Mademoiselle. August 1953: 282.

Additional Boweniana

Listen to Elizabeth Bowen's 3 October 1956 "Truth and Fiction", on the importance of creating strong characters in fiction, from the BBC archive.

Elizabeth Bowen Collection, University of Texas at Austin

All links accessed 18 August 2014.


Anonymous said...

Oh wow! That's so interesting to read! Such similarity about the bell-glass/jar. Amazing find Peter..to be added yes straight to the other many misteries we find on the way about Sylvia. Yes the charm of mistery..yes I agree..I like mistery as well..but also to be able to solve some as well ;-) That was very interesting Peter to get to know. Always giving pearls of wisdom/knowledge about Sylvia you..thank u again. From Italy, Alessandra.
P.s. Im currently reading Margaret Atwood's book "The edible Woman".. and the more I read it the more it reminds me of Sylvia's writing style and use of metaphores and imagery. If I didnt know that it was written by Atwood and told it was by Plath,I guess I'd probably would have believed it.
I think it's normal and common use among writer (as well among painters or artists in general) to be influenced by one another and/or copy from each other a bit.
Again special thanks+greetings your way Peter. Looking forward next post of yours here. Best Regards, Alessandra.

Anonymous said...

P.S. Hopefull you can bear with me and my awful english and the bad way i express myself but please understand it's difficult for me to write in a foreign language..it is really hard for me..wish I could speak english fluently..i love it but it's hard. But i will learn..i will learn ;-)


Anonymous said...

Utterly off-topic! I hope you won't mind..just discovered this on your site http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_hSblY9mmrLw/TQ50VNUBaiI/AAAAAAAAB20/p3ypW2-U_HA/S220-h/24%2BMay%2B2007%2BFlorence%2B071.jpg it seems to be Florence,my town ;-) you've been here! Hope u liked it. I would have liked to get to have the honour to know/meet you personally and have a loooooong plathian chat. I didnt know u had been here. Last week i was touched by a strong hit of nostalgia of the amazing time we used to spend our days writing and discussing all together on Elaine's Sylvia Plath forum in the far 2001-2002..etc till its sad stop. Miss those times. Annnnyway! Lets wipe tears away.. Have a nice night/day and see u soon again here. Greetings from the above mentioned town ;-) (Alessandra)

Carl Rollyson said...

I was looking for a novel about a young woman's experience in London in the early 20th century. I was then working on a biography of Jill Craigie whose early years in London were very difficult. The novelist Francis King recommended to me The Death of the Heart. I hadn't thought about it in connection with Sylvia, but I can see how that novel might have influenced the author of The Bell Jar.

Peter K Steinberg said...

Thanks for your comments Carl and Alessandra! I've never read Atwood, but it's interesting to know that you are seeing connections or influences there. Your English is probably better than mine, so no worries there! I have the utmost respect for you to be able to express yourself in English so thoughtfully. I did enjoy Italy, yes, both because it was my honeymoon and because of the amazing culture and food and history. I am sorry to be delayed in commenting back; the post was done whilst on holiday and I'm just now resurfacing to real life.


Anonymous said...

Absolutely no need to be sorry if u happen to be delayed in commenting back. First i was not expecting any reply from u,second one has never to be sorry to be and to have been holiday ;-) It's me eventually to be sorry that your holiday is over ..good times always pass by so fast,dont they? :'( hope u had a nice time off..and now..yes..welcome back to real life. Thank u loads for your too kind compliments to my terrible english..really too kind and glad u liked my city..yes place and food here are worth a holiday once in ones life, so im sure u spent a pleasant honeymoon.
Again thank u dear Peter, wish u the best and see u later here on this amazing blog of yours :-)
Kisses and best greetings from the biggest florentine (and also italian,i believe,since she's alas not so known here)Sylvia's fan,
my best regards Alessandra.

P.S. Margaret Atwood's literary genre,since quite kind of surrealistic and fantasy most of the time,doesnt resemble/recall Sylvia's at all -if u think of giving it a try one day to break the curiosity i gave u, but in particular The Edible Woman(which is the only different book in her genre she wrote) utterly recalls Sylvia's style and seems absolutely written by herself, same in style, contents, literary imagery,wordgames, sentences..really everything. Astonishing.

Jessica McCort said...

Wow. Fascinating.

Anonymous said...

Talking about similarities+influences among writers, soaked into fever and a terrible throatache and boredom,i found myself browsing on internet and finding with my surprise that it was not only a feeling or impression of mine the other day to find or to think to find an astonishing resemblance with Sylvia Plath's style and contents in Margaret Atwood's one (The Edible Woman, to be precise. Book picked up by me very randomly into a drawer of used books without even knowing who she was, then later after a quick research discovered she is a quite famous writer who's written a lot and great books) but it is also the feeling of many others. And so,being curious as a monkey,this afternoon i decided to digit on google bar the keywords "sylvia plath margaret atwood" and with big surprise i found not only that also others believe there are far too many similarities among the two authors and not only in The Edible Woman (which im currently reading) but also in another one called Surficing,of which i dont know anything about yet, but also that M.Atwood wrote a review about..   ........  Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams!!!!! Yes. So it's fate that's bringing me guiding me always to my beloved Sylvia at the end of the day ;-) and so to me it means only something that Atwood having an interest in Sylvia Plath as an author and having read her works,she consequently writes maybe under her influence. Maybe a bit too much, according to me. But i understand that it's normal and natural and inevitable among writers to copy from each other sometimes..as well among other artist. Even if i dont find it good because one has fo be original and to work only under his own talent and not using or finding "help" of another. If u ever can feel interested,Peter and the other readers of your blog,im leaving the link to the review here below with some others. 
Also enclosing a lovely greeting from a feverish Alessandra and a florentine sunset  xxx  Have a nice weekend,Peter. And i apologize from the bottom of my heart to always leave such long and logorroic comments which u surely start hating. Bear with me.. will be much more concise next time. I promise. 




Peter K Steinberg said...

Thank you Jess, and Alessandra, for your comments. And, too, Alessandra, for the links.

And, as well, thank you to Gail for writing this guest blog post and highlighting the similarity in Bowen's first novel The Hotel to imagery in Plath's The Bell Jar. As a result of Gail's enthusiasm, I am midway through reading all of Bowen's novels and stories and have been struck by the beauty of Bowen's writing. We do not know if Plath read all of Bowen's works but at the least we can approach what we know Plath did read as a possible influence on her writing: both short stories, her novel(s), and her poetry. Bowen's short story "Daffodils" reminded me in some ways of Plath's poem "Tulips" in the way that Bowen humanizes her flowers. In particular the phrase "you are all watching me". It's subtle, but Bowen writes "you" and not "they". I hope that some of this blogs readers are encouraged to read Elizabeth Bowen.


Anonymous said...

Yes she will be my next author just after finished Atwood's. Im very curious about Bowen's works now ;-)
Happy Sun-day xxx

P.S. too short? ;-)

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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." 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.
  • 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.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • 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.