The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath ends with a funeral. Not Plath’s, obviously, and while hers is one of the most famous of suicides, her husband Ted Hughes’s burning of her last journal means that no one will ever read Plath’s first-hand account of her descent into madness. While, in these journals, there are flickers of depression and angst here and there, and battles with demons and insecurities, and anger at her mother, the main impression that we, as readers, get, is of Plath as an intelligent, strong-willed, and talented woman, who just happened to be one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets.
As the title of this entry suggests, this book is indeed long, and utilizes small type (excluding the appendices, the paperback runs to 530 pages. With appendices–which include fragments, sketches, and story and poem ideas–the book runs to almost 700 pages. And then there are notes and an index.). This is not something that can be dusted off in a week, or even a month. So, is it worth the effort?
In one word: yes.
It is split into eight sections (each section corresponding to one of Plath’s journals, and includes a photocopy of one of the pages from the corresponding journal) and 15 appendices. Each journal includes the dates of composition, and a brief description of its contents (by location, topic, or both). At the beginning of each journal is a biographical description of what events happened before that journal was written (or between journals) and what is included in the contents of that journal. A notes section in the back of the book tries valiantly to identify the people mentioned in Plath’s journals, though some of the minor characters will still slip under the reader’s radar.
We start with her years at Smith College. The first few entries include descriptions of her summer before her freshman year, when she was kissed in a barn by a boy she worked with. The entries stop a month before her first suicide attempt, and mostly includes her thoughts on boys, dating, and being a woman.
We then move on to her year abroad at Cambridge as a Fulbright fellow. This is where she meets Ted Hughes for the first time, and it includes the first photos of Plath, from childhood through the summer before her fellowship. It also includes her account of the disastrous Sasoon affair (she dated Richard Lawrence Sasoon before she met Ted).
The following sections include Ted and Sylvia’s honeymoon in Spain (their marriage is mentioned before the corresponding journal entry), their move to Massachusetts and subsequent teaching careers, and notes from some of Plath’s therapy sessions. Pictures in the final section include ones taken of her and Ted, and of her and their children. Appendix 15 covers most of 1962, after Ted and she moved back to England, with a biographical note at the end of the notes section mentioning her separation from Ted, the publication of The Bell Jar, and her suicide.
The problem with publishing diaries and journals is that the person who wrote them often didn’t take the time to carefully edit the material while alive, and so either someone else has to do the job for him or her, or (more likely) all the horrendous writing is left in. Another problem is that there often isn’t a clear narrative arc in these works, since life tends to be a string of events, rather than an overarching storyline. A final problem concerns identifying everyone who is mentioned in these journals or diaries, especially if the diaries or journals in question cover a large span of time, as these do.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath doesn’t suffer so much from the first problem because Plath made corrections in her entries, and while there are errors here and there, the quality of the writing is often at a very high level. Also, each journal roughly represents a different chapter in Sylvia’s life. Finally, as I mentioned before, there is a notes section in back that lists all of the names mentioned in these pages.
What can become a hassle is jumping from the main narrative to the appendices, especially the ones that seem highly important to her life story (and then jumping to the notes section from the appendices). Luckily, the book mentions exactly when you need to go to an appendix in order to read everything in chronological order, and which sections should be read. Flipping between appendices and the main entries is another reason why this book feels so long.
And then there are repeated themes. Plath was insecure about her looks, obsessed over boys, and harbored doubts as a writer. These are all recurring themes, especially the last one. And then, after she married Hughes, she obsessed over how great he was. At one point, she writes, “He is a genius. I his wife.” (p. 420)
Other repeated themes include her reactions to rejection letters, her procrastination over writing, and her anger at herself for procrastinating, especially when Ted’s writing is doing so well. In addition, when she gets an idea for a story while writing her journal, she’ll jot it down, and while most of those ideas (and her drawings and descriptions of objects and places) are in the appendices, some of them make their way into the latter part of her entries, and there’s nothing worse than reading someone describing how they will construct a story (including what symbolism they will use).
And yet, if you stick with the book, you are rewarded to gems such as this:
I have this demon who wants me to run away screaming if I am going to be flawed, fallible. It wants me to think I’m so good I must be perfect. Or nothing. I am, on the contrary, something: a being who gets tired, has shyness to fight, has more trouble than most facing people easily. If I get through this year, kicking my demon down when it comes up, realising I’ll be tired after a days work, and tired after correcting papers, and it’s natural tiredness, not something to be ranted about in horror, I’ll be able, piece by piece, to face the field of life, instead of running from it the minute it hurts.
(p. 619, Appendix 12)
Not that all of the best parts in the book deal with Plath’s demons. In fact, most of them deal with other topics. My favorite sections, and the parts that will interest struggling writers the most, are the ones in which she details her own struggles with writing, levels her opinion at the quality of poetry being published in magazines (over hers), or gives her input on writers she is reading [she read and liked Lord of the Rings-“I don’t know when I have been so moved” (p. 475)-and Faulkner’s “The Bear”-“except for the infuriating, confused (deliberately and unneedfully) fourth section, a bumbling apocalyptic rant about landownership and God and Ikkemotubbe and such rot” (p. 472)]. One of the most humorous and biting episodes concerns George Abbe, a minor American poet with a good reputation at the time:
Abbe sickened Ted & me the minute he walked into Paul’s livingroom, with his slick nervous smile, his jittery huckster-hand jingling money in his pants’ pocket. Clarissa, apparently recently recovered from a sulk of tears, slouched about in a baggy white sweatshirt and a blue & white full skirt, and baby-buttoned black ballet shoes, like Miss Muffet in a private tantrum.
George Abbe garbled his bible of crudities to the literary Mademoiselle Defarges of Smith knitting his slick and commercial words into cable-stitched sweaters and multi-colored argyles.
And yet passages like that stand side-by-side with moments of clarity, of profundity, and of insight, such as when she writes:
A paradox: life stimulates one, refreshes a sense of people, places, events – yet must be shut off during the actual writing time.
Or when, in a truly memorable rant during one of her therapy sessions as to why she hates her mother (possibly the best sustained passage in the book), she writes the following:
This must baffle mother. How can I be happy when I did something so dangerous as follow my own heart and mind regardless of her experienced advice and Mary-Ellen Chase’s disapproval and the pragmatic American world’s cold eye: but what does he [Hughes] do for a living? He lives, people. That’s what he does.
Very few people do this anymore. It’s too risky. First of all, it’s a hell of a responsibility to be yourself. It’s much easier to be somebody else or nobody at all.
Certainly, in these journals, we see Sylvia Plath live. Live with her insecurities, demons, and setbacks. Live with her husband, her talent, her children. Live as a teacher trying to write. Live as a writer trying to get published.
In these words she lives. In these words she will never die.
Note: Though these journals are “unabridged,” they are not quite complete. Twelve lines have been omitted by the editor, Karen V. Kukil (six lines in two places, for reasons not given in the Preface, but probably having to do with privacy issues concerning still living individuals). There’s also the matter of another journal of Plath’s (not the one destroyed by Hughes) that “disappeared,” according to Hughes.