09 December 2019

Amy C. Rea Reviews Sylvia Plath in Context, edited by Tracy Brain

The following guest blog post book review of Sylvia Plath in Context is by Amy C. Rea. Thank you, Amy.


Sylvia Plath in Context, edited by Tracy Brain, is a set of wide-ranging explorations of influences that have played a role in Plath's development as a writer. The book is grouped into sections covering literary, literary technique and influence, cultural contexts, sexual and gender contexts, political and religious contexts, biographical contexts, and Plath and place. While there are topics that have been covered in depth in the various biographies (the role of women in the 1940s and 50s, for example), this collection goes further by looking at topics like food, teaching preparation, scrapbooks, and the book packaging of various editions of Ariel and The Bell Jar. It's a valuable continuation of the process of extracting Plath's form of genius out of the strict biographical contexts she's been all too often forced into. To keep this post from falling into TL;DR territory, I'll look at a handful that I found most insightful.

First, however, a caveat and a scolding to Cambridge University Press: There are numerous factual errors throughout. Perhaps the most egregious is Plath reported to be on the Smith faculty in 1953. Another spot noted her turning 21 in 1952, and elsewhere her birth year was reported as 1933 (and these are just a few that I noted). Hopefully if there's a second edition, the publisher will take the time to correct these errors.

Now on to the good news:

Andrew Walker's "Plath and the Radio Drama" looks at Plath's views and history with the form and how it influenced her writing of Three Women, from eagerly listening to The Shadow as a child to using Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood as inspiration for her own radio play. Walker points out that Three Women has been underrated critically and says: "Three Women presents Plath's voice at its most simple but also most dramatic, revealing her shift towards a more direct treatment of psychological processes. In her decision not to give the characters conventional first names but instead designate them as voices, as well as her avoidance of direct dialogue and causal plotting, Plath's experimental turn towards the dramatic is influenced by a host of early police procedurals like The Shadow."

Will May's "Plath's Whimsy" explores Plath's earlier work (as well as her work for children) through the lens of whimsy, and why that shouldn't necessarily be given the critical cold shoulder. This piece is followed by Tracy Brain's excellent "Sylvia Plath and You," a look at Plath's use of the second person, especially in iconic pieces like "Daddy" and in spots in The Bell Jar. Brain finds surprising sources in Plath's archives for this work, including the somewhat imperious second person point of view used by none other than Irma Rombauer in The Joy of Cooking.

The back-to-back pieces on Plath and Food (Gerard Woodward) and Plath and Fashion (Rebecca C. Tuite) are both worthy of even deeper exploration. Anyone who's read Plath's journals and collected letters knows of her passion for both, right through to the end of her life. Studying the food and fashion trends of the time really rounds out how we view Plath's writings about both.

Several cultural explorations either start or expand greatly on culture around Plath's work. Beatrice Hitchman does a deeper dive into lesbian culture during the Bell Jar period and provides some much-needed nuances to those themes in Plath's novel. Laura Perry's piece on the culture of hygiene in the 1940s and 50s shows a direct correlation between themes of purity and cleanliness in Plath's poems to advertising and culture mores of the times. Robin Peel's piece on the Rosenbergs persuasively argues that Plath was not just using their execution as an attention-grabbing opening to her novel, but as one of its underlying themes (and in her poetry as well), something echoed in Anita Helle's examination of electroshock therapy in Plath's poetics. Peter K. Steinberg takes a much-needed look at Plath's scrapbooks and successfully posits that they deserve the same close scholarly attention as Plath's writings. After all, Plath was not the kind of person to just randomly paste things in a scrapbook without thinking about deeper meaning.

The final section of the book is themed on the creative afterlife of Plath's work, and it's worth the price of the book. Gareth Farmer pushes to look beyond Plath's biography and see the quality of the writing itself (and introduced me to Veronica Forrest-Thomson), while Elena Rebollo-Cortes delivers a thoughtful analysis of the various British and American editions of Plath's books, which have a great deal to say about the culture of the times they were published. Fiona Sampson takes a different approach to influence and context, illustrating how Plath's work may have influenced various writers who came after her. And finally, Heather Clark takes on the thorny issue of Plath's biographers, assessing what's out there from the good to the bad to the downright ugly. Her final statement ends the book on a note calling for even more research and discussion:

"She was no Medea, no Eurydice, no Electra. Rather, she was a highly disciplined writer whose singular voice helped transform American and British literature, and whose innovative work gave new energy to the burgeoning literary and cultural revolutions of her time. This Sylvia Plath waits to be recovered, and brought forth." Amen.


Sylvia Plath in Context, edited by Tracy Brain. (Cambridge University Press, 2019. ISBN: 9781108470131.

All links accessed 9 December 2019.

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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.

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