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’.

Rose both reads Plath’s writing for its multiplicity, its ghostly subtexts of ambiguity and fantasy, and discusses the ways in which she has become the object of critical fantasies and debates about femininity, violence and contemporary culture. At one extreme is the misogynistic criticism – not always by men – which reads Plath’s poetry as the symptom of her madness and hysteria, and sees Plath as ‘responsible for everything that happens to her’. Exemplified by Bitter Fame, the ambiguously titled (bitter to whom?) and extraordinarily hostile biography written by Anne Stevenson with the assistance of Olwyn Hughes, this criticism suggests that something terrible about Plath herself, a kind of plathology, is the source of lies, distortions, perversions and obsessions. At the other extreme has been a polemical feminist criticism which makes Plath a blameless and paradigmatic victim of patriarchal oppression in general, and Ted Hughes in particular, and evades the conflicting traces of the unconscious in her work.

Rose patiently unravels the contradictions and projections in both positions. Her goal is to repair both the blatant and the subtle editorial cuts made in the body of Plath’s writing, to restore the poet’s sexuality, anger and left-wing politics to the historical and aesthetic record. In particular, she defends Plath’s merger of personal mythology and historical reference, especially her uses of the Holocaust and Fascism. The quarrel between Plath’s biographers and critics, and the Plath estate, has been over ‘facts’ and ‘truth’. From the perpective of Hughes and the Estate, critics should stick to facts and eschew ‘fantasias’, opinions and interpretations. The Estate claims to have made and demanded cuts to protect the privacy of individuals, and to correct errors of ‘fact’. As a Post-Structuralist, however, Rose sees the debate over the Plath archive as an illustration of the problematic slipperiness of ‘facts’, and the impossibility of distinguishing between interpretation and truth within the realm of language. There can only be uncertainty and ambiguity, the ambiguity of poetic language itself. Thus the Holocaust imagery in poems like ‘Lady Lazarus’ and ‘Daddy’, which Rose analyses in brilliant detail, has to be seen both in the contexts of Plath’s longtime political concerns and in relation to the traces in language and writing of her unconscious fantasies and her personal mythology.

Yet the undeniably factual experience of battling with the Estate seems to have altered Rose’s work, much as the discovery of Paul de Man’s wartime journalism forced Deconstructionists to deal with history. As she writes, ‘it can be argued (it has recently been argued in relation to the critic Paul de Man) that faced with the reality of the Holocaust, the idea that there is an irreducibly figurative dimension to all language is an evasion, or denial, of the reality of history itself.’ Indeed, the very academic opening chapters, in which she reads Plath’s inscriptions of the body and sexuality in the writing process in terms of psychoanalytic and Post-Structuralist theory, will be hard-going even for those who really understand what Julia Kristeva means by ‘abjection’. It’s in her third chapter, ‘The Archive’, when Rose reviews the editing of Plath’s poems, letters and journals, the sanctioned biography by Stevenson, and the astonishingly apposite court case over the film version of The Bell Jar, that the book takes off. Suddenly the familiar abstractions of Post-Structuralism about the endless play of signification come alive.

A good deal of the material in this chapter is familiar; there has been unusual unanimity in the scholarly community with regard to the handling of the Plath legacy: the destruction of the final journal, the mysterious ‘disappearance’ of another journal and the draft of her unfinished novel, Double Exposure; the rearrangement of the poems in Ariel to suggest a suicidal trajectory; the omission of 12 of the most bitter and accusing; the 19-year wait for the Collected Poems; the refusal of permission to quote to critics with whose interpretations the Estate disagrees. But Rose goes well beyond a summary of these arguments. Having made extensive studies of the unpublished manuscripts of the letters and journals, she is often able to point out exactly how cuts and omissions simplified Plath’s meanings, took her utterances out of context, and reduced the ambivalence of her language. The editors of the Journals cut the ‘nasty bits’ that revealed Plath’s sharp tongue, and the ‘intimacies’ that displayed her strong ‘eroticism’. With bracketed emendations, they attempted to restrict the ambiguities of the writing, as when ‘I am experiencing a grief reaction for Mother’s love’ becomes ‘I am experiencing a grief reaction for [the loss of] Mother’s love.’ The discussion of the court case provides a fascinating example of the way a ‘legal conception of evidence finds itself up against a literary conception of truth’. Rose is also compellingly readable on the Stevenson biography, and its bizarre trio of self-exculpating and condemnatory appendixes by three Plath ‘friends’.

There was obviously something about Plath that stung people who knew her into frantic self-justification. Rose asks: ‘What it is on Plath’s part that makes all these protagonists engage in such retaliatory actions?’ Her answer, suggestive but tantalisingly brief, is that it may have been the effect of suicide – an act of violence, Freud suggested, ‘always aimed at more than one person’. But there’s more – the surfeit, excess and plethora that seem to be so much a part of the story. Art simplifies but life really piles it on. Why, for instance, did Jane Anderson sue the film company for libel over the portrayal of her as Joan Gilling in The Bell Jar, thereby broadcasting to the world information about her sexuality and mental health that she was ostensibly fighting to conceal? Why does Anne Stevenson, who never even met Plath, feel that she has to exorcise the poet’s hold on her? Why the fury against feminism, which Olwyn Hughes links with ‘hacks’ and ‘self-publicists’, and Dido Merwin calls ‘feminist apartheid’ or ‘the Lib Lobby’, as if feminism had no bearing on Plath’s experience?

Indeed, the most provocative aspect of the book is its documentation and analysis of the way that Plath, writing, femininity and popular culture became part of the same package. Both Plath’s detractors and her promoters saw her as a pawn in the battle between high and low culture, either destroying high art or redeeming it through poetic extremity, and this culture was also sexualised, high art being virile, and popular art feminised, ‘onanistic and impotent’. Plath, however, refused to be limited to either ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. As Rose notes, she was ‘a hybrid, crossing over the boundaries of cultural difference with an extraordinary and almost transgressive ease’, though she herself had internalised the gendered divisions of masculine art and feminine trash. Plath’s persistent interest in women’s popular fiction is usually taken as a sign of her literary immaturity, of a certain ‘childlike’ quality which some critics link to her nationality. Rose never succumbs to these binary temptations, but she does make more of Plath’s anti-American political sentiments than of the passages where she speaks of herself as ‘an exile’, or the places where national differences inflect interpretation.

‘Slick’, for example, is a key word in Plath’s vocabulary, with a peculiarly American resonance. Like Scott Fitzgerald’s belle in This Side of Paradise who only wanted her legs to get slick and brown in the summer, Plath often posed as a ‘slick chick’ of the Fifties. She wrote often about her ambition to ‘break into the slicks’, and to conquer ‘the slick market’. In a startling unpublished passage from the journals quoted by Rose, she defended the craft of True Confessions writing: ‘It takes a good tight plot and a slick ease that are not picked up overnight like a cheap whore.’ To American ears, the word has at least some echoes of urbanity and sophistication, as in ‘the city slicker’. But to her British friends and critics it seemed to sum up every tawdry thing they suspected and despised about post-war America: vulgarity, self-promotion and hustle; the giant-finned American cars in Robert Lowell’s ‘For the Union Dead’, that slide by on grease with ‘a savage servility’; the slippery, oily and false. Americanism, slickness and writing come together in impressions that render Plath as all shiny surface, like the bright red lipstick she wore at Cambridge which virtually all the women who met her later recalled: female sexuality itself, a kind of amalgam of vampire lips, ‘sleek’ blond hair, cheapness and commercial ladies’ magazines. To accept the idea that such a woman could become a major poet – an artist – also meant abandoning cherished stereotypes about culture itself; and confusion of the inside and the outside, the woman and the slicks, are constant themes in the discourse around Plath.

How lasting and how damaging these impressions were we see, for example, in A.S. Byatt who, in her review of Letters Home, included in her wide-ranging book of essays, Passions of the Mind, remembers Plath at Cambridge as ‘hard to talk to ... almost aggressively an image of the healthy American girl, blonded hair, red mouth, full of bouncy wonder’. In a recent profile in the New York Times Magazine (26 May), Byatt declares herself on Ted Hughes’s ‘side’ about Plath: ‘When I knew her it was during her most writing-for-Mademoiselle-ish days, and she had bobby socks and totally artificial bright red lips and totally artificial bright blond hair, and I remember her as a made-up creature with no central reality to her at all, always uttering advice like a women’s magazine advice column. She wrote beautiful words, but there wasn’t anybody inside there.’

Plath’s obsession with selling stories to the fashion and fiction magazines like Mademoiselle and McCall’s also led people to denigrate her, and to underestimate the remarkable achievement of The Bell Jar. When Simone de Beauvoir published one of her most uncompromising stories, ‘The Woman Destroyed’, in Elle she got the same contemptuous reception from French male intellectuals, who called her ‘a true woman of letters (for the agony column)’. But Rose deconstructs the simplistic images of the popular magazines which have entered the criticism. In the pages of the slicks, women, too, slide into their allotted place with savage servility, as Betty Friedan first argued in The Feminine Mystique: but they also carried more subversive alternative messages, and they published (then and now) important and serious fiction.

After the publication of the Collected Poems, many of the critics who had patronised and trivialised Plath as an ‘interesting’ but ‘minor’ woman writer admitted that they had been wrong. But even now, Plath is not immune from the smirking putdowns of critics like Harold Bloom, who (in the latest Paris Review) calls her ‘our era’s Felicia Hemans’, a ‘bad verse writer’. Bloom makes a cameo appearance in Bitter Fame as ‘Hal Bloom the critic’, playing Friar Tuck to the merry men who drank with Ted Hughes and Lucas Myers at the Anchor in Cambridge, holding a ‘genial mug over his round stomach’ and reciting ‘any poem we could name’. Well, almost any. What seems to annoy critics like Bloom is that no one has to be forced to read Plath’s poetry. In a time when only other would-be poets and a handful of academic critics form the audience for contemporary poetry, Plath is one of the few who does not lack for readers.

How hard she worked, how much she endured for this success the journals testify. There she records the dry heaves of creativity, the self-blame and self-hatred, the endless rejections: ‘Yesterday the rejection of my poetry book ... after a year of hoping, and yes, even counting on the damn thing.’ Like Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse she taunts herself with female inadequacy: ‘The groaning inner voice: oh, you can’t teach, can’t do anything. Can’t write, can’t think.’ From adolescence on, she struggled against the fate of sex and gender, of having ‘my whole circle of action, thought and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity’. Yet, poignantly, tellingly, even at her most confident moments, she never dares to think of herself as anything more than a woman writer, never dares to compete outside of her class. Keats writes: ‘I shall be among the English poets after my death’; Plath at her height writes: ‘Yes, I shall, in the fullness of time, be among them – the poetesses, the authoresses.’

Rose’s book is surely one of the most illuminating to date about the contradictions and the haunting power of the Plath legacy, a contribution to a story, as she concludes, ‘that has clearly not come to an end’; Hughes, however, calls her book ‘evil’, and implies that ‘mental breakdown, neurotic collapse, domestic catastrophe’ are the usual fates of Plath’s feminist critics. How great Plath’s achievement was we still do not know; the vanished novel and journal may still appear; the correspondence is far from complete. Many of the unpublished documents are closed until the year 2013. As for the Plath myth, there’s no stopping it. It’s not that one believes her to be blameless, but rather that, having heard her voice, one cannot shake her free. Even if I’m not around to read it, I hope, as everyone must, that Ted Hughes has written his own account of that story. But Plath has been dead for nearly thirty years. Her children are grown up. Isn’t it time for Hughes to let her go?