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The Journals of Sylvia Plath - Frances McCullough

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Genre: Biography / Author: Frances McCullough / Edition: 1st Ballantine Books Ed / Mass Market Paperback / 384 Pages / Book is published 1991-10 by Ballantine Books Inc.

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      13.06.2010 14:54
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      Sylvia Plath journals

      The Journals of Sylvia Plath was edited by Ted Hughes and Frances McCullough and first published in 1983 according to my copy. The book has Plath's diaries, personal thoughts, various attempts at stories and poems and general musings from 1950 to the early sixties, taking in her time at Smith College, Cambridge, spells in hospitals, meeting Ted Hughes, marrying Ted Hughes, trying to write for a living and so on. Obviously these journals have been carefully edited with McCullough explaining in a note at the start that some 'sketches', 'devastating comments' about people, and 'intimacies' were removed. I don't think it matters a great deal and Ted Hughes was always going to be careful about what saw the light of day because he was said to have been a git to Plath in the end. In the foreward, Hughes explains that he destroyed the last several months worth of her journals because he didn't want their children to ever read them. 'This is her autobiography,' says Hughes. 'Far from complete but complex and accurate. The Sylvia Plath we can divine here is the closest we can now get to the real person in her daily life.'

      The journals begin with Plath working on a farm as a summer job before she enters Smith College. 'The warm hazy weariness from a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream. At times like this I'd consider myself a fool to ask for more...' Plath is exceptionally neurotic and uses her journal as a litany of dreams, directives and imperatives, confessing her fears and hopes. She throws around a lot of ideas for stories and poems and these are generally interesting here because Plath is experimenting and trying to find her own voice. Although we tend to think of Sylvia Plath as quite a gloomy and serious figure she is often self-deprecating about her efforts. Plath's love of language and descriptive passages make the journals very enjoyable to read at times.

      'I am sitting at my desk looking out at a bright antiseptic January day,' she writes at Smith College. 'With an icy wind whipping the sky into white-and-blue froth. I can see Hopkins House, and the hairy black trees; I can see a girl bicycling along the gray road. I can see the sunlight slanting diagonally across the desk, catching on the iridescent filaments of nylon in the stockings I hung over the curtain rod to dry.' The journals become darker and more abstract as Plath struggles with life at Smith and heads towards the 1953 breakdown which she drew on for The Bell Jar. We are told that her journals for the next two years disappeared (if they ever existed at all) and for the next section of the book the gawky outsider of Smith College becomes an American student at Cambridge in 1955.

      The journals don't form a clear narrative but always contain something interesting or striking enough to keep you engrossed and the author naturally has an elegant style. I liked in particular Plath's account of visiting a bronze statue of a boy under moonlight in the snow and talking to trees! It is in this section of course that she meets her future husband - lantern jawed Northern poet Ted Hughes. The pair first meet at a noisy party and are soon sloshing brandy over one another. Plath is clearly thrilled to meet this charismatic 'hunky' character with a 'colossal voice'. She loves his poems too and says he's the only person she's ever met who 'blasts' her former love Richard Sassoon. 'And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room, blood was running down his face.'

      There's an extended section after Cambridge that is quite interesting where Plath describes a holiday she takes in Cape Cod with Hughes before she returns to Smith College to teach for a year. Plath is a returning golden girl but is met with a surprisingly cold reception which shocks her. 'A green seethe of malice through the veins. To faculty meeting, rushing through a gray mizzle, past the Alumni House, no place to park. Alone, going alone, among strangers. Month by month, cold shoulders. No eyes met mine. I picked up a cup of coffee in the crowded room among faces more strange than in September. Loneliness burned.' Plath is also plagued by doubts about her writing - this possibly exacerbated by the success of Hughes. I was interested to read here by the way that Plath and Hughes used a Ouija board now and again when the mood took them. 'The overturned brandy glasses responded admirably..' In the later sections of the book there is more about writing and some of Plath's attempts at short prose stories.

      I found Plath's many ruminations on writing and the hell of being an artist were possibly the the only things I could have done with a little less of sometimes. Plath sits at a desk each morning and is sometimes phobic and paralysed trying to write something, ending up with twelve lines to show for several hours. You don't learn an awful lot about Ted Hughes in the journals I found - apart from the fact he writes poetry, reads a lot and likes nature. Sometimes he's a vague presence reduced to 'Ted went fishing' or 'Ted brought me some coffee'. There are also some entries about them having arguments but they don't go into much detail and you'd imagine these were edited quite a bit. Unavoidably, the journals become bleaker towards the end with Plath battling depression and giving another account of a spell in hospital - this time in England where they had returned to live. Plath wanted to live in London because she liked the parks. She disliked American suburbs and found the American countryside too remote and alienating.

      The Journals of Sylvia Plath is a fascinating book that is often captivating and often sad. My paperback copy is well over 300 pages and there are several black and white photographs of Plath to go with the text.


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