Before anyone gets all cranky with me, I am so not calling my beloved dearly departed Sylvia Plath a “slut” because I don’t slut-shame girls for being sexually active (or for what they wear blah blah) but reading this long article in the Daily Mail all about the new Sylvia Plath book it totally feels like there might be a little slut shaming in the book. But more on that in a moment.
Were you guys were you into Sylvia Plath as a teenager? Raise your hand if you were a black-turtleneck-wearin’, coffee-drinkin’, angst-wallowin’ , Sylvia Plath-readin’ teen? Because that is exactly what I was. Sylvia and Nick Cave were my entire reality at that age. I’m not sure who gave me my copy of Ariel, probably my own mother, but then it was on to The Bell Jar and her other poetry collections and there was a witchy type of magic there, in these words of whimsical cynicism and harrowing depression. I wanted to be Esther Greenwood, minus the rapes and shock therapy and suicide attempts. On occasion I will read a Plath poem, but I need to re-read The Bell Jar because it has been at least twenty-five years and I want to revisit it before letting my own children read it.
The Daily Mail has a huge article all about the new Plath book that will be released in February entitled Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted and is about Sylvia’s various love interests before she met the philandering and abusive Ted Hughes:
When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same ‘hunky boy’, the one she had seen earlier ‘hunching’ around over women. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes and Plath recorded this encounter – now one of the most famous in all literary history – in her journal the next day. The attraction was instant.
He told her he had ‘obligations’ in the next room, another Cambridge student named Shirley, and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week reading scripts for J. Arthur Rank. Then, suddenly, he leant towards her and kissed her ‘bang smash on the mouth’. As he did so he ripped the red hairband from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him ‘long and hard’ on the cheek. When the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face.
And that was just meeting Ted! The book claims that Sylvia had “hundreds” of other suitors and lovers, and she was troubled by her sexual desires:
One night, as Sylvia prepared to enter Smith College, she wrote in her journal that unexpressed sexual desire was driving her to the point of distraction. She was, she said, ‘sick with longing’.
She didn’t want boyfriends to think she was ‘fast’. But what was so bad about showing love and affection?
The double standard particularly angered her: if a girl said she was going steady with a boy, he could still do almost anything; whereas if a girl dated lots of guys she was considered loose and cheap. Perhaps one day she would create the perfect boyfriend from the depths of her imagination.
And one more quote for you all, because I know you are all dirty minxes who want to hear the good stuff:
Born in Paris, Richard was a British citizen and a distant relative of poet Siegfried Sassoon.
At the beginning of May, Richard invited her to New York City. While ruminating on the delights of the forthcoming liaison, he wrote to her: ‘I am talking myself into thinking it will be rather fun to play daddy to a naughty girl if you are naughty.’
I’m sure in re-reading Plath, especially The Bell Jar, I may find myself getting a bit eye-rolly at some of the more self-indulgent chapters, and I can’t help but feel like there may be a bit of good-old fashioned slut shaming in this new book chronicling her suitors before she married Ted. I will still read it, because even 25 year later I’m terribly fascinated by Plath, but I’ll probably be a bit annoyed by the whole thing. For those of you who have revisited The Bell Jar recently I’m dying to know if you think it still holds up in this day and age, and especially if you have gifted this book to your own teenage daughters. I have given copies of Hesse and Salinger books to my eldest son, but I have yet to suggest The Bell Jar to him.
One of the most fun aspects of parenting is sharing the books we loved growing up with our own children, and discussing the book with them after they have read them, like our own person parent-child book club. Growing up I found Plath to be a brave, brilliant, tragic writer. I hope this new book about her basically says the same.