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“It was a queer, sultry summer….”

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Revisiting The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

It’s getting on for 40 years since I first read the work of Sylvia Plath (which is a fairly alarming acknowledgement!); back in the world of 1970s feminism, she was the go-to author for discussion of the female condition and the changes taking place in women’s lives in the relatively recent past. But it’s a long time since I read any of her fiction; I seem to be reading more books about her than by her recently, and it’s been on my mind that it was time to pick up “The Bell Jar” again, to find out what I made of it at such a distance from my first experience of the book. And so the time was right for a re-read of Plath in my trusty old Faber paperback.

bell jar

“The Bell Jar” is Plath’s only published novel, and it’s widely regarded as autobiographical, telling the story of Esther Greenwood, a young American girl spending a summer in New York on a placement with a magazine. Coming from a New England town, Esther is struggling to cope with the city; she’s naive in many ways, and doesn’t really fit in with the ‘fast’ girls, though she’s too worldly for the small-town girls. Isolated from both groups, she finds herself slipping behind, failing to meet deadlines and beginning to lose the impetus to make a success of the opportunity she’s been given.

Back in her home town for the summer, Esther starts to spiral into depression when she isn’t accepted onto a writing course. Having sailed through her schooling up to this point, failure is not something she’s used to dealing with. As the hot summer plods on, Esther does to, trying to find some kind of direction and focus. Her mental state deteriorates to the point where she can’t sleep and stops washing, and so begins the record of her treatment at the hands of a series of medics of differing talents and sympathies.

The first doctor is a disaster, administering shock treatment incorrectly which leads to a suicide attempt. Eventually, through the help of a benefactress, she is placed in a more sympathetic environment, with a doctor who is more understanding and Esther begins to work through her illness. In the clinic she meets a school friend, Joan, who’s also made a suicide attempt; the meeting will be pivotal as one girl will make her way back to the world and one girl will not.

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

A young Sylvia Plath in New York

In many ways, I find it hard to talk about “The Bell Jar”; it’s such a remarkable novel, powerfully written and very affecting. Plath builds a convincing picture of Esther Greenwood, the small-town overachiever who finds herself out of her depth and sinking in the Big Apple. She charts the ups and downs of her emotions, her development as a young woman and her struggle to find a role for herself. Running through all this is the dilemma in which many women found themselves during the 1950s – their road through life was no longer obvious, and they were struggling to choose between the traditional role of wife and mother, or the longing for a wider path.

This is particularly exemplified by Esther’s relationship with her high-school boyfriend Buddy Willard, who reappears throughout the book. Initially Esther is bowled over by the fact he should want to go out with her; but as she develops, she becomes more clear-eyed about his faults, about the restrictions there would be if she married him, and she comes back to the same old issue for women – career or family. She articulates it in quite brilliant imagery, which Middle Child mentioned to me when I said I was re-reading “The Bell Jar”:

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

It’s an issue that’s relevant to women today, despite all the so-called advances; we still often have to make the choice between children and career in a way men never do, and we’re still encountering everyday sexism in the workplace. And it may well be that it’s the strain of being drawn in so many different directions with so many conflicts that exacerbates Esther’s mental decline.

The book also stands, rightly or wrongly, as a strong piece of autobiography from Plath. Despite the fact it’s fiction, Esther Greenwood’s life is seen as shorthand for Plath’s, as it’s based on many events in her own life. It’s powerful and moving watching EG/SP go through these experiences, fighting against her emotional and mental hardships and coming out at the end – well, cured is not the right word, as I still had a sense that she was coping, maybe even playing the game, but remaining at odds with the world.

I’m happy to say I loved revisiting “The Bell Jar” – I was transported back to my first read of it all those years ago, and my reactions were just the same (which means either I haven’t grown up much or it’s a book that really shouldn’t be classed as for Young Adults as I’ve bizarrely enough seen it done). This is a brilliant book which speaks of women’s struggles whatever their age – and I just wish that Plath’s other rumoured novel had survived the destruction process…

The weeding continues…

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although the phrase “one step forward, two steps back” comes to mind, because although I donated another seven books today, I did come home with three new ones…

larkin proust dawson

However, I’m not going to beat myself up about this *too* much; because for a start the Jennifer Dawson is an upgrade of a Virago I already have. Mind is a bit more battered, so this one will be a shinier replacement. The Proust matches my set of “Remembrance….” very nicely and the Philip Larkin is essential as I think I own everything else of his that’s been published. Having said that, I’m not 100% sure I *want* to read the Larkin, as I’ve heard scurrilous things about it – we shall see….

A DNF and a DNRL (did not really like!)

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It’s rare nowadays for me not to finish a book, as I tend to try to read ones I think I’ll enjoy or an author I know I love or something that will at least intrigue me. And the DNF – “The Bronski House” should have been right up my street, but for some reason it really didn’t gel with me.

bronski

The book was one I stumbled upon in a charity shop, and the subject matter – the tale of an exiled Polish poet returning to her homeland in post-Soviet times, coupled with the history of her family – is the kind of thing which appeals to me. But somehow, despite trying more than once to read the book, I just couldn’t engage with it. Which is very frustrating, as all the reviews seem to rave about it. For whatever reason, I couldn’t care about the protagonists, so off it will go back to the charity shop.

The “did-not-like” was a puzzlement:

heads and straights

“Heads and Straights” by Lucy Wadham is part of the Penguin volumes produced to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the London Underground, and is labelled as the one celebrating the Circle line. However, I had a couple of issues with it. The first is the book itself – it’s basically about  Wadham’s upbringing, coming of age in the 1970s/1980s and dropping out of a Sloaney type existence to become a punk, with little portraits of all her family members. The story itself is fascinating, and the problem is that it’s just too short – Wadham and her family and in particular her grandmother have led such lively and unusual lives that this book doesn’t do the history justice. It really needed a much longer book to tell the story fully.

The second issue is that the book has absolutely nothing to do with the Circle line (and it’s not just me that’s picked up on the fact as when I checked out online reviews they said much the same thing). I was a bit disappointed about this, as the other ones I’ve read have dealt with the Tube even if tangentially, but this one didn’t at all.

Oh well – back to the drawing board and Mount TBR…. 🙂

A Female Utopia

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Millenium Hall by Sarah Scott

I must confess that I’ve been a little lax lately in reading my Viragos – and it’s not as if I haven’t got a huge lovely TBR shelf of them! However, sometimes I need a little motivation to get me to focus on something specific, and the LibraryThing Virago group have been doing group reads of the VMC titles in chronological date order – that is, of original publication, so starting with some very early fiction by women.

The second book they tackled was this, and I managed to eventually track down a copy (an American Virago/Penguin release) so I could catch up with the group. Published in 1762, and known as a work of didactic fiction, it wasn’t necessarily the obvious type of work I would pick up – but I’m very glad I did!

mill hall

Sarah Scott was a fascinating woman; she lived from 1720-1795 and was a novelist, translator, and social reformer, spending much of her life dedicated to writing, domestic female friendship and Christian philanthropy (it’s worth checking out her Wikipedia entry for more information). Scott had an unhappy marriage and when it failed spent much of the rest of her life with her close friend Lady Barbara Montagu; together the ladies did much in the way of helping other women, establishing cottage industries and helping to educate the poor. It was these ideas of good works that form the basis of her novel “Millenium Hall”.

The novel initially appears to take an epistolary form, but this is just a framing device to allow the narrator, a gentleman of property who has just returned from the tropics, to relate the tale of the ladies of Millenium Hall. This gentleman is travelling with a young coxcomb of a friend, Lamont, and they are forced to take refuge at the Hall when their carriage breaks down. It turns out that the narrator is related to one of the founders of the Hall, Mrs. Maynard. The narrator is delighted to rediscover his cousin; the visit is extended in the tranquil setting of the Hall; and Mrs. Maynard is prevailed upon to tell the history of the ladies involved.

There are Miss Mancel and Mrs. Morgan, friends since childhood but separated by circumstances and an unfortunate marriage (and apparently a portrait of Scott and Lady Barbara); Lady Mary Jones, uneducated in the correct way to behave in society and almost prey to a number of men; Miss Selvyn, who lost a lover and found a mother; and Miss Trentham, who loses the love of her life to a coquette

Although much of the narrative is couched in didactic language (and one of my fellow LT group members tells me this is how women were expected to write at the time), nevertheless it’s a fascinating read. Each woman has in effect been a victim of a man’s bad behaviour and has come through these vicissitudes by a mixture of luck or judgement or both; they’ve ended up with money which has enabled them to do what they want, and what that is, is to help other women.

There *is* a slight element of repetition in the women’s stories, with the convenient passing away of husbands or ageing relatives, providing a convenient fortune; but this was a necessary plot element to show what women had to contend with on a daily basis and how vulnerable they were to parental pressures and male wiles (and also the tricks of less morally sound females).

And it interested me very much that the women felt the need to withdraw from the world to live a rational and intellectually, artistically stimulating life; because that is what is portrayed here at the Hall. The women read, write, paint, sew and undertake all sort of creative activities which give them a fulfilment they’ve not had before. It seemed to me that it was much of the current modern life which was being criticised here, with its coquetry, cards and shallow behaviour (which I kind of imagine as a Vanity Fair world, even though I haven’t read that book)

I was also struck by the fact that women have often withdrawn from the world – in convents, in utopian settings and more recently in communes (though the latter tend to be mixed) as if the world as created by men will never treat them fairly.

There’s also much emphasis on education which I tend to concur with – not just in a knowledge sense but in a moral kind of sense, and I do feel nowadays that with the rotten examples set by the media, young people (and particularly women) get no real guidance about what is a good way to behave. We’re all independent women who can theoretically make our own lives the way we want them – but we’re still judged by the behaviour of all women and until that changes those of us who behave in a Miley Cyrus kind of way affect how we’re all viewed!

mill

One element which I have to pick up on is, of course, class; society was rigidly ordered at the time Scott was writing, and it was women of the middle and upper classes who could take control of their lives in such a situation as this, and make a new existence in Millenium Hall. Those women from lower classes were helped and instructed, but had little autonomy and were expected to behave in the way the moral, upper-class women expected – and to be grateful for the help they were receiving!

However, sifting through the moral platitudes I was left with a vision of how Scott thought women might live: in a harmonious community, creatively productive, artistically stimulated and helping others. It’s a Utopian vision, but a strong one – very much ahead of its time and besides the fascination of the women’s stories, the book is worth reading to open a door into the past to see how their existence used to be; some things have changed, but unfortunately some problems are still recognisable today…

(For further discussion, it’s worth having a look at the LT thread here)

A Story of the Luminous City

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All Hallow’s Eve by Charles Williams

If you’re anything like me as a reader, you go through phases when you’re obsessed by particular authors or genres or types of book; and for a while in the 1980s I was heavily into reading works by the Inklings – C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. I made my way through huge chunks of their works, and was most intrigued by Williams’ occulty, theological-type thrillers. I still have them all lurking on my shelves (many of them very nice old Faber books) and reading a number of reviews recently of his “All Hallows Eve”, I was drawn to take it down for a re-read. I say for a re-read, as I couldn’t tell you for sure if I *did* read it back in the day – but I think I did!

My fragile old hardback probably looked like this when it had a dustjacket...

My fragile old hardback probably looked like this when it had a dustjacket…

Williams and his works are difficult to classify, and this one opens unconventionally enough. The Second World War has just ended, and a young woman, Lester Furnival, is standing on Westminster Bridge, a little confused. The City of London seems unlike she remembers it; things are quiet and uncertain, and there is a crashed plane at the side of the Thames. It turns out that Lester is dead, she and her friend Evelyn having been killed by the plane landing on them; the City she is in is a dead London which seems to exist alongside the real one, and once Evelyn finds her the two women wander along amongst the ghostly City, unsure of what to do next.

Lester is not unseen, however; her husband Richard catches a glimpse of her ghostly figure on the bridge and will see her again. Richard, while trying to cope with his grief at the loss of his wife, visits his friend, the artist Jonathan Drayton, who has painted two striking figures: one of the City of London, transfigured by light into a celestial city; and one of the preacher Simon the Clerk, current trendy figure, with his followers shown as a crush of humans who are more like black beetles. Simon’s followers include the nasty Lady Wallingford and her bullied daughter Betty (with whom Jonathan is in love); and Simon’s powers extend to forcing Betty into the ghostly City against her will. The stage is set for a battle between Good and Evil, and a scary one it is too.

Another strong motif here is the use of art, and in particular Jonathan’s paintings. These seem almost independently alive, changing in front of the eyes of the viewers, and cause quite strongly different reactions from different people. As with much in the book, the paintings are symbolic and come to assume an increased importance as the story progresses.

I was surprised at how much this book drew me in and absorbed me in the story straight away. An occult or theological thriller is not the kind of thing I would necessarily automatically think of picking up, but the book was gripping and very readable. It’s a powerful tale of morality and humanity, and the characters are vivid and believable – we’ve all known an Evelyn with her meanness, Betty with her nice-but-weak character, and Lester with a good but careless disposition.

charles-williams-writing

Williams is obviously drawing on centuries of occult lore and literature, some of which I have to confess is a little lost on me. However there’s no denying the power of his writing and storytelling; the opening chapter alone, with its memorable depiction of the dead’s deserted city of London, is one of the most striking and atmospheric pieces of writing I’ve ever read. The battle between Good and Evil is powerfully portrayed and the fate of some of the characters quite chilling.

“All Hallows Eve” is not a book I would have necessarily thought of returning to at this point in my reading life, but I found the experience of revisiting it stunning. I’ve seen Williams’ writing criticised but I thought his prose excellent, if perhaps a little wordy at time, and ideal for conveying the atmosphere he wanted. I’m very glad I was drawn back to this book and I shall be haunted by the vision of the ghostly City for some time…

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For more thoughts on this book there is an excellent piece on Reading 1900-1950, which is what set me off thinking about Williams again.

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