Slick Chick

Elaine Showalter

  • The Haunting of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose
    Virago, 288 pp, £14.99, June 1991, ISBN 1 85381 307 9
  • Passions of the Mind by A.S. Byatt
    Chatto, 340 pp, £17.00, August 1991, ISBN 0 7011 3260 4

We all know the story. A brilliant, neurotic young American woman poet, studying on a fellowship at Cambridge, meets and marries the ‘black marauder’ who is the male poet-muse of her fantasies. Doubled and twinned – ‘one skin between us’, as she says; ‘two feet of one body’, as he says – they launch on the hard labour of poetic careers, supporting themselves on writing prizes and intermittent teaching jobs. She dreams that they will divide the kingdom of poetic fame; she will be ‘The Poetess of America’, as he will be ‘The Poet of England and her dominions’. But the marriage frays. Tied down to their two babies, frustrated at the slowness of success, she discovers that he is having an affair, and they separate. In the following months, she writes the greatest and angriest poems of her life, perhaps the greatest of her generation: but they are rejected by literary editors as ‘too extreme’. In the coldest winter of the century, at the age of 30, she commits suicide by gassing herself.

Within weeks of her death she has become famous. Her pseudonymous novel, her posthumous book of poems, become international best-sellers; she is acclaimed as a poetic genius. Readers, especially women readers for whom she becomes a heroine and martyr, are avid for every word from her pen. And the estranged husband? Because she has died intestate, he inherits all the literary rights, and becomes the executor of her estate. In one effort to escape from the past, he destroys the journal she kept during the last blazing months: ‘in those days,’ he wrote later, ‘I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival.’ But the journal lives on in literary mythology as a lost masterpiece. Despite his efforts to block, censor or ‘correct’ the stories that spring up about them, as fast as ‘one is disproved, another appears’. Although his own poetic career brings him all the fame and honour she had predicted, it is overshadowed by his role as her betrayer, her survivor. She has become his phantom limb.

The story of Sylvia Plath, according to Jacqueline Rose, seems ‘effortlessly to transmute itself into soap opera’. As Rose demonstrates in her ambitious and original book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, Plath has become one who ‘haunts our culture’, the ‘Marilyn Monroe of the literati’. But the double story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes is material for an Emily Brontë or a Henry James, a great ghost story with the roles of haunter and haunted, villain and victim, hopelessly entwined. This Gothic tale, Rose demonstrates, ‘seems to have the power to draw everybody who approaches it into its orbit, to make you feel that somehow you belong’. The story ‘at once involves you and asks for judgment’.

Although she gives a stunning account of the way those who have controlled the Plath archive – her mother Aurelia Plath, Hughes, his sister Olwyn, now the literary agent for the Estate – have cut, censored and shaped the writing, Rose herself impressively resists the powerful pull to judgment. Instead, in a passionate defence of critical freedom and ‘the diversity of literary interpretation’, she insists on the impossibility of any one truth in relation to the Plath story, and on the right of ‘every reader of Sylvia Plath to form her or his own view of the meanings and significance of her work’. Even within such interpretative autonomy, she argues, it would be futile to ‘try to construct a single, consistent image of Plath herself, not just because of the vested interests that so often appear to be at stake ... but far more’ because of the ‘multiplicity of representations that Plath offers of herself’.

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