Sylvia Plath, Smiling at the Beach

Photo of Sylvia Plath from Gordon Ames Lameyer Papers probably from the Summer of 1953.
Sylvia Plath on a beach holiday in 1953, three years before she met Ted Hughes and 10 years before her death.
(Photo from the Gordon Ames Lameyer Papers)

If you know Sylvia Plath, it’s for her poems, her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, or her suicide. Sadly, the suicide part is probably better known than the poems or novel.

I have been reading about her earlier life lately and there is a pretty happy party girl in that story.

Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Massachusetts. The part of her life that is best known are her married years to poet Ted Hughes and the dissolution of that marriage. But before she met Hughes, she had quite a different life.

I don’t know that I would ever want my own journals ever published, even after my death, but her unabridged journals were published and she writes about many of the “hundreds of men” she dated. She said she knew she would never be able to confine her love to just one person. Sex, whether it was the repressions of the 1940s and 50s, or her breaking away from them.

It was 14-year-old Sylvia who started to write in detail about her thoughts, many of which were about boys. We can follow her in that journal/diary as she takes a bus from Wellesley to Boston, goes to the dentist, buys the new issue of Seventeen magazine and an evening dress for $5.

You can read the earlier years of Sylvia in books like Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 and Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted.

movie posterI found it strange, having read her poems years ago in college, to now read her thoughts about the perfect boyfriend and going to the movies to see Cynthia, starring Elizabeth Taylor.

I imagine that girl watching Liz as a sheltered young girl who rebels against her overprotective parents, finally finds a boyfriend and has her first kiss at the school prom.

If you read a few of her poems, I don’t think you will see the Sylvia who writes about winter walks under the stars with Perry. When she confesses to her diary that she is afraid she won’t be asked to a big dance, but Perry does call her, she is teenager-ecstatic.

She worries that boys will think she is “priggish” but as the journals progress you realize she went from boy to man crazy.

But somewhere Sylvia Plath became a rather angry young woman. She wants a greater version of life and a family of greater means.

Maybe both of those came together as a scholarship student at the elite  women’s school, Smith College. Her classmates did come from many great families – and she worked in the kitchen and waited on tables to reduce her course fees.

She was also writing poems and stories and sold some of them. In her journal that freshman year, she writes about sexual desire that made her “sick with longing.”

She meets Richard, a senior at Yale. Not her physical ideal, but a British citizen and a distant relative of poet Siegfried Sassoon. It sounds sexist, but he cracked her conventional morality, liberated her sexually, and helped expand her intellectual horizons.

She goes overseas to study at Oxford. She tells Richard not to write her any more. She gets  engaged to Ted Hughes. They marry in the summer of 1956 after a four-month relationship.

Jump cut to February 11, 1963.  Sylvia, now separated from Ted Hughes after she discovered he was having an affair, was at her flat on Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, London.  She took some milk and a plate of bread and butter upstairs to her daughter, Frieda, and son, Nicholas. She opened their window, sealed the door frame with tape and pushed towels into the gaps.

Then she went down to the kitchen, sealed that door, put a folded cloth in the oven, placed her head on the cloth, and turned on the gas. She fell into unconsciousness and died. She was 30 years old.

That same year, her semi-autobiographic novel, The Bell Jar, was published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas,” but it was reissued in 1966 under her own name.

A new edition of her original selection and arrangement of poems for Ariel was published in 2004 . Sylvia is often credited with being a pioneer of the style “confessional poetry” and her poem “Daddy” is a well-known example of the genre.

I haven’t seen any of the film portrayals of Plath’s life. There is Sylvia which focuses on those Hughes years. It didn’t get great reviews, but it was more that Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, wrote a poem in protest of the film, which she called “Sylvia Suicide Doll,” that stopped me from watching.

I never saw the film version of The Bell Jar either. Much of that story is concerned with the protagonist’s 1950s experiences in New York as a guest editor at a women’s magazine. Plath’s real-life magazine scholarship was at Mademoiselle magazine beginning in 1953.

I guess Sylvia’s earlier life – the part I like to imagine with that girl reading Seventeen magazine, going to dances and posing on the beach – isn’t the material for movies. Or poems.

At the Beach with Sylvia Plath

Even some who never read your poetry,
know about your suicide, troubled marriage, depression,
and life in the bell jar vacuum.
This cold day, I see you young,
a happy, blonde dream on a beach.

Published by

Ken Ronkowitz

Random by design. Predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente. A lifelong educator.

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