I gather it’s not terribly fashionable when a nosy neighbour on a bus, train or plane enquires as to why you chose the certain memoir or novel sitting open in your lap, to turn and answer ‘because it was cheap’. And yet, around a certain time of year, that’s so often the only conclusion I come to. It’s become something of a tradition to spend the first half of my year working through a stack of paperbacks I pick up for a pittance from the great Lifeline Bookfest. I am neither skint nor stingy, I don’t cut my own hair or hang tea bags on the clothesline for reuse, but I am drawn to the Bookfest for all its many wonders. Imagine it from above—the Times Square of lavender rinses and tricked-out trolleys. People bump and scrape like loose dodgems against long wooden tables, all taking part in this ritual of frantic literary fossicking—sorting the panned gold from, well, the shit nuggets. It’s always fun to try and guess which blockbuster series will be the most recycled in any given year. This year it belonged to Stieg Larsson—Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Long French Braid, Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Accidently Dropped Her Groceries In The Rain—you know, all the hits.
In previous years my finds have been everything from the savoured, the devoured and the re-read (Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, Shalom Auslander’s Beware of God) to the sadly unopened, highly efficient doorstops (Carlos Fuentes’ Happy Families, David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon). This year I was excited to discover, poking out between Delusions of Grandma by Carrie Fischer and Hollywood Husbands by Jackie Collins, was the book Letters Home—a collection of correspondence from 1950-1963, mostly addressed to her mother, written by Sylvia Plath. First published 13 years after the poet and novelist took her own life in London’s bitter winter of 1963, the letters are selected and edited by Plath’s mother Aurelia, who also provides occasional commentary.
Perhaps it was rather foolish of me to be struck by the hopefulness of many of the letters. The initial, post-high school letters are blisteringly, obscenely happy. Captured is the thrill of her early, professional successes, publishing stories in the likes of Seventeen and Mademoiselle. She describes ‘dreamlike’ weekends at Smith College, drinking and waltzing with handsome Dartmouth men, watching with glee the choral-styling of the Yale Whiffenpoofs. Yet even in her brief encounters with potential suitors, she longs to converse with the opposite sex on a deeper, philosophical level.
It’s on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge where Sylvia meets and marries fellow poet Ted Hughes. Her love for Hughes is suffocating and she devotes much of the letters from her married life convincing her mother of Ted’s ‘genius’. Her mother writes ‘From the time Sylvia was a very little girl, she catered to the male of any age so as to bolster his sense of superiority.’ That’s not to say she put her ambitions aside for her husband. It’s during her marriage that she receives her first, long-awaited acceptance from The New Yorker and she writes of the courage she receives from reading Virginia Woolf’s Writer’s Diary (‘Her moods and neuroses are amazing’).
There’s awareness that this is not always Plath at her most emotionally honest. Particularly toward the end, in the months leading up to her death, the letters are more fractured and scant of detail, perhaps to protect her mother, who had been facing health problems of her own. In early 1963 Sylvia is separated from Ted, struggling to pay the rent, nursing her two young children back to health in a grim London flat while clinging to her own identity outside of the roles of mother and caretaker.
In the film Annie Hall, Alvy Singer picks up his girlfriend’s copy of Ariel, describing Plath as the ‘interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.’ It’s a cutting, dismissive line and yet I too once could have been accused, and rightly so, of misconstruing Sylvia’s life, instead of her art, to suit my own cruel need to identify or sympathise. It’s my hope that Letters Home allows ardent fans, admirers and the merely curious to go a little way to better appreciate something of the young Sylvia—a girl rarely portrayed and remembered in print or on screen—vibrant, hopeful and studious and so desperate to be seen, to be understood.
Next up for me is yet another Bookfest find—the monstrously heavy Laurence Olivier biography Olivier by Terry Coleman, which I will be reading aloud in the style of Kenneth Branagh’s Olivier impression from the motion picture My Week With Marilyn. And after that, I’ll spend more than $6 on a book. I promise.