Book Review: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1

The details:

Title: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956
Author: Sylvia Plath (Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil)
Genre: Nonfiction
Pages: 1,424
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

I read this very slowly, beginning when it was first released in October. It took me over four months to finish. At over 1,000 pages, this is just the first volume of Plath’s letters, with the second slated for release later this year.

The letters begin during Plath’s adolescence, primarily letters written to her mother during summer camps, moving on to her Smith College years, and finally during her Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge. If I am being completely honest, the earlier letters were sometimes tedious, interesting only from a biographical standpoint, but they helped to trace Plath’s growth as a writer. When she is finally at Cambridge and describing her new surroundings to her mother, her writing starts to gain the gripping nature of a novel.

The editorial contribution to this volume is bare and understated. In a footnote, the editors note that the person Plath is referring to, in one of her letters, is one Edward James Hughes, better known as Ted, Plath’s future husband. But, at the time of their meeting, Plath was still obsessed with her ex-boyfriend, Richard Sassoon. Although her letters to Sassoon are currently lost, Plath saved excerpts, which are included in this collection, of wonderfully experimental and poetic letters to him in her journals.

As I read, I tried to compare the letters to what I knew from biographies. For instance, in early 1956, a few biographies I looked at said that Plath was very depressed. But in her letters to her mother, she tried to stay upbeat, covering up most of what she was feeling. She was very honest with her mother about her experiences, but not so much about her emotions. After their marriage, when she writes to her dearest Teddy-ponk while she was in student housing away from him, I was fascinated by the criticism and suggestions for his poems in her letters to him. Plath was eager for his opinion of her writings, respecting his opinion, and continuing to grow through revisions, while offering criticism of his poems and prose in return. There were some points where the writing process clearly came through, and one could note how hard Plath worked to promote his work along with her own, typing pages upon pages of manuscripts and sending them off hopefully for publication.

With a writer as confessional as Plath, her letters feel like a necessary part of her literary canon. I was surprised by just how much of The Bell Jar plot could be found in her letters. There’s even a note about a boy she dated, his name, the exact story, duplicated from letter to book. These letters provide a further window into the life of a brilliant writer who continues to captivate readers to this day. The work the editors did to transcribe and organize each letter must have been tremendous. I am extremely grateful for the time they spent to make more Plath writings available to the public and looking forward to volume 2 later this year.


Book Review: The Ha-Ha

The details:

Title: The Ha-Ha
Author: Jennifer Dawson
Pages: 154
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1961)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble

What is a brilliant young woman who lacks the knack of existing to do with her life? That is the question this powerful, short book by Jennifer Dawson poses to the reader. The title, The Ha-Ha, refers to a wall and the surrounding small patch of grass that acts as a point of separation between a mental hospital and the world outside. Josephine, our heroine, spends much of her time there, avoiding the issues of her life. Lacking an identity, she feels no more affinity to her name than to the clothes she wears. She was a student at Oxford before she had a mental breakdown.

In the course of Josephine’s recovery, a nun in charge of her ward takes a special interest in her, stopping in for chats and leaving small gifts of sweets when she leaves. The nun gets Josephine a job in the nearby town cataloging books for an elderly couple. The reader feels the irony of the situation: Josephine neatly organizing books when she can’t find her own place in society. The story is interspersed with Josephine’s reminisces about her difficult mother who died in a tragic fire.

After running into an old schoolmate, she attends an engagement party and has a difficult time assimilating herself to those around her. The schoolmate knows how to navigate society, telling everyone that she was leaving her so-called management course (in reality, a job putting candy bars into boxes) to get married. But Josephine doesn’t know how to tell little social lies to fit in. She can’t hide who she is, and so she seems to fail.

She meets Alasdair, a resident of the neighboring men’s ward of the mental hospital, in the ha-ha. Alasdair appreciates her inability to fit into a neat place in society. They lounge together after hours in the board room (where the board meets to re-grade individuals, determining whether they are fit for reentry to society) and sneak out some evenings. Josephine is obsessed with the idea of what lies beyond the hill she can see from the window in her room. Alasdair brings her for a trip to the other side of the hill, one that seems to alter her view of the world and things around her. She thinks that she loves Alasdair, but will she spend the rest of her life with him? Or will Josephine succumb to the coddling kindness of the nun who is trying to fit her back in a comfortable box in society?

This book was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1961, and yet it seems that no other book by Jennifer Dawson is currently in print. This is such a shame since I enjoyed this book so much. It reminded me in some ways of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, another story of a brilliant student who had a breakdown. I’m eager to find other books by Dawson if possible to get better acquainted with her writing. My edition of this book had a brilliant afterword by Dawson, explaining some of her reasoning behind the book, its autobiographical features, and the ways that the treatment of the mentally ill has changed over time.