Perhaps the best-known literary feminist cri de coeur is Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929), which lamented women’s dependent state and projected that female writers, granted education, personal space, and independent income, would give the men a run for their money. In thousands of fem-lit and women’s-studies classes, Woolf’s hindsight dramatization of what would have happened to Shakespeare’s equally talented sister has overshadowed the essay’s utter failure as prophecy.
Jane Austen, who died in 1817, would likely poll as the greatest woman writer. In A Room, Woolf cites Austen’s self-effacing secretiveness while writing, though in the parlor amid callers and servants coming and going. In another extended essay, Three Guineas (1938), Woolf lists the desiderata for the nurture of women’s minds as “travel, society, solitude, a lodging apart from the family house.”
But the spread of traditional (and, by the way, elite) masculine prerogatives to millions of women, though it has produced many social goods, has not yet resulted in feminine literary achievement of Austen’s quality. This is a hugely interesting fact to look at as it tosses among the various waves of feminism, a movement that barely existed in the England of Austen’s lifetime; the French Revolution had hyped but in practice discredited feminism, and the drive for women’s legal and political rights that grew up as a little sister to Abolitionism (in religious rather than artsy circles, and primarily in America) wasn’t dreamed of in the Steventon rectory.
But there Austen’s expressiveness flourished, hardly choked off by ignorance and frustration, but rather a model of balance and humanity. Call me an outrageous partisan, but I don’t think that any man, whatever his practical advantages, ever wrote more perfectly.
I wonder whether Austen sprang up in a historical sweet spot, after a female literary calling stopped being an absurdity but before social and financial support from male relatives stopped being a moral obligation. If so, what does that say of the tornado of changing women’s roles that hit Sylvia Plath, perhaps the most talented 20th-century woman poet?
Most of Plath’s work played frantically to literary fashions, and she exhausted herself with efforts at elaborate private and public women’s roles: submissive good-girl student, Seven Sisters candidate for Ivy League chatelaine, glamour-mag fiction impresario, glamour puss and seductress — but most strenuously, nurturing wife and mother, and supportive daughter of an ailing, overstressed widow. Her truest voice was one of despair, in the months before her suicide at only 30. To me, what seems to have been most tragically lacking for her was not freedom or opportunity, but patriarchal “oppression” and “condescension.”
With her schedule under fatherly supervision, she would have felt more in control of her energy’s uses, in the usual way of the well brought up. Restricted in dating, she would not have marketed herself through sex, a ludicrous strategy (but apparently the best she could come up with) for a woman on her own seeking a marriage that would, effectively, sponsor her writing. Doing the dishes and being polite to family friends, she would not have run back and forth between self-mythologizing and self-hatred.
Her contemporary Flannery O’Connor, a shockingly good fiction writer, got the better of isolation and confinement (illness kept her living at home with her widowed mother for her last 14 years) because she was a devout Catholic. Her life’s social and emotional possibilities being well defined from the start, she didn’t have to invent them, but could concentrate on exploring new kinds of writing.
In my experience, women are tough cookies. I have no basis for suspecting that they’re more feeble at life-invention than men would be; but certainly during the last century most women were left with an outrageous amount of life-invention to do, which could well have reduced psychic resources for literary invention. Sylvia Plath’s life and work seem to exemplify this rather pathetically.
Plath was born in 1932 and lost her professor father — who had been immensely proud of her precocity — in 1940. Her mother’s entry into the work force was part of a nationwide movement: Vast numbers of women with children, in the absence of their men, took industrial jobs in support of the war.
That work didn’t entail all the exhilaration today’s media like to depict shows in their reaction when the war ended: Hardly any fought to keep “men’s” jobs. Most bought into the religion of domesticity and the female image: a smiling, slim, beautifully coiffed, brightly clad woman, mopping or baking daintily, was the surety for the world being under control, the good life being possible.
This was the attitude that greeted Plath post-war, during her teens. A few professional women, however, would-be mentors, were there, too, reacting against this attitude and demanding a brilliant girl’s deference; Plath was irritated at them and nervous about the suburbs by turns. She struggled with questions of vocation and romance to the degree that her first suicide attempt came after her prize guest-editorship at Mademoiselle magazine and her emergence from scholarship-girl awkwardness into beauty and charisma that made dozens of conventionally eligible men available to her.
It’s fascinating to speculate about what Virginia Woolf would have thought of The Bell Jar (1963), Plath’s lightly fictionalized account of her breakdown in the fast lane. The book suggests the kind of “novel of silence” Woolf herself wrote, drawing on the typical inwardness of female experience. Plath’s first-person protagonist is poor, provincial, and naïve, and must struggle within a narrow space — mostly an internal one.
But far from the polite hush of the drawing room, The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood is out there, her future constantly and indifferently at play, like a lottery ball ricocheting among countless others in a glass box in a TV studio. The surface of the novel is bright and shallow, like the Technicolor football romance Esther watches among the other guest editors, while an attack of ptomaine poisoning starts (the germs having been hidden in the ravishing-looking crab salad of a gala lunch). But every image is memorable, attached as it is to the relentless grief of the intuitive speaker. She has no father to guide her through the treasures and the trash, and no religion to turn to; her mother pooh-poohs her draw toward Catholicism.
Toward the end of Plath’s life, in her loneliness and fear as her marriage and professional contacts deteriorated, her words centered on the exalted meaninglessness of the world into which she had been thrown — or, rather, the world that could be given meaning only through her own words. She was like a lynx hunting, her achievement a sort of apotheosis of nature writing. These lines are from her poem “Elm,” in the posthumously published collection Ariel:
Love is a shadow.
How you lie and cry after it.
Listen: these are its hooves: it has gone
off, like a horse.
All night I shall gallop thus, impetuously,
Till your head is a stone, your pillow a
Ariel exists because Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, his rights over Plath’s literary estate still intact (because they were not yet divorced at the time of her death), and his appreciation of Plath’s genius (and its earning potential) undiminished by an excruciating breakup, published intelligently from her hoard of manuscripts. He also selectively destroyed and edited to save himself and the children embarrassment.
The Second Wave, equal-opportunity feminism of the Sixties and Seventies was both a magical chance and a curse for Plath’s reputation. Hordes of us young women were feeling stifled and unappreciated despite our supposed giftedness, and so identified manically with her. I once found that a previous reader — female, I’m certain — had, in a transgressively Plathian manner, annotated a library copy of The Bell Jar. For example, in the margin beside the place where Esther meets a marriage proposal worded “How would you like to be Mrs. Buddy Willard?” with “an awful impulse to laugh,” my predecessor had written, “Me too.”
Plath’s poems, however, were relatively unpopular. We could sort of imagine writing something like The Bell Jar. (Lots of us tried.) But the poetry was another matter. I think it didn’t appeal to us because it was too good, beyond any conceivable aspirations of our own. The Bell Jar itself testifies to the bell curve. There are very few women geniuses, which is one reason society doesn’t easily accommodate them.
The Third Wave of feminism was perhaps less about male backlash than about female backtracking, out of embarrassment at the Second Wave’s unrealizable projections. Women weren’t, as a class, achieving on a professional level with men, and the excuses of disadvantage wore away as opportunities grew. So why not just glorify the ordinariness of women, as lovers, mothers, quilters, gardeners, authors in search of their mothers’ gardens, etc.?
For a striking female achiever like Plath, the cost to status was pitiful. From the late Seventies, the thrust of her treatment turned from excoriation of Ted Hughes as an envious “killer” of his intimate literary rival to, on the one hand, the celebration of Plath as earth mother or girl next door (virtually ourselves!), and on the other, the scarifying of her as an evil, unnatural woman (so that it was better for us to be ordinary).
Trapped in the most reductive terms of her gender, used like any fantasy-laden image for easy ego-gratification, she made Jane Austen look like a free spirit. The radical politics of envy, forcible leveling, and arbitrary redistribution had effected a terrible irony: Plath’s work, evincing unique insight and eloquence, was neglected, but her ordinary virtues were smarmily commended and her ordinary failings haughtily sniffed at, like those of an absent neighbor by a merciless coffee klatch.
I encountered the Plath memory wars in literary magazines in the mid Nineties, and I documented several major skirmishes at the end of the decade for a Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars biography course. Plath was the ideal daughter; she was spoiled from the get-go. Plath was a saintly wife; she was an impossible, self-immolating wife. Plath was a lunatic; she was as normal as they come. Plath was a delightful guest/host/roommate/
friend; she was infuriating.
Jane Austen’s memory has enjoyed one of the sublime gifts of patriarchy: her family’s insistence on guarding her personal reputation. Her sister destroyed all the letters Austen would have minded posterity’s seeing. Other relatives wrote warmhearted memoirs. Now, the data age brings extremes of prying into and trivializing writers. It’s worse for a significant woman writer, her less familiar public presence being confused and mashed up with her private life. That shows contempt, of course, for her intricate toil in creating a special persona for the public. Once considered her legitimate job, or even her decorous duty, now this is supposed to be a withholding, a sham, like prissy chastity.
Over time, what are essentially attempts to compete with Plath in telling her story have become rather surreal. Chroniclers must think their own sheer insistent presence — as if on personal blogs — has to win out. Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (2013) re-depicts the single month Plath spent at Mademoiselle, as if The Bell Jar’s opening chapters were inadequate. Elizabeth Sigmund’s Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning (2015) reminisces about a period — deemed vital because Sigmund was present? — of work on The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems. Shut up and read those books, Plath shouts from the grave.
Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life before Ted (2013) rebels against Hughes’s influence on her reputation, only to hand her over to (among countless others) a simultaneous interpreter complaining that she failed to admire his costly vicuña bedspread on her single, uneventful visit to his apartment, and a female acquaintance professing to have lost interest in Plath when first meeting her owing to a breach of table manners.
Is one lesson of Plath’s reception that we lack the detachment, the contemplative capacity even to read significant literary work on its own? And are we, under a thin political gloss of sympathy with the struggles of talented women, too mean-spirited and narcissistic to either support and commend them or let them alone?
– Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar at Brown University.