How Sylvia Plath Was Just Like You and I
If you mention the name Sylvia Plath to someone outside of her readership, you’ll likely be met by one of two responses: ‘she’s depressing’ or ‘only troubled university students read Sylvia Plath’. Elizabeth Winder, the author of ‘Pain, Parties, Work’ wanted to change that:
“Before she became an icon, before she became Lady Lazarus, she was Sylvia […] Pain Parties Work is an attempt to undo the cliché of Plath as the demon-plagued artist” [xiii]
For students reading this who may not be familiar with Plath’s work, it is imbued with autobiographical details of her lifelong battle with mental illness. Plath only wrote one novel, The Bell Jar, and four poetry collections in the short span of her life, but her life and works have inspired her readers since the 1970s. Winder’s book is no exception to this rule.
To summarise the book, Winder sets the scene among the blazing, Manhattan summer of 1953. This was the summer where Sylvia Plath as a twenty-something was working as a guest-editor for Mademoiselle, a New York fashion magazine.
‘Pain, Parties, Work’ is well written: it uses a range of archive materials, such as scholarly texts, photographs, and interviews with Plath’s fellow Mademoiselle colleagues, which clearly sets out what Winder aims to achieve with the book. Using this archival material, Winder picks out unique details of Plath’s experience of that summer such as the days she washed her hair and what her favourite clothes were. Whilst these might appear as insignificant details, it provides us with an overview of her personality and how she is just like you and I; we tend to forget that writers are human too!
Another aspect of praise is the unusual, narrative style that the novel adopts. It is written in third person yet adopts a fictional style. Whilst some might criticise this, arguing that it does not provide a true account of Plath’s experience of that summer, I believe that it is an advantage to the book for two reasons. Not only does it set the book apart from other scholarly texts on Plath, but the fictional style is arguably reflective of that tumultuous summer of 1953. This style, too, might provide useful for those who are not familiar with Plath’s work but are interested in doing some background reading.
One feature of the book, which for me personally was a criticism, was Winder’s use of textboxes. While they aim to give us short, bullet point facts about the chapter, I found them extremely off-putting and felt that they averted my attention away from the main text. Although this is a purely stylistic criticism, the information in these text boxes are useful towards understanding Plath as a person.
Until I read this book, I thought there was everything to know about Sylvia Plath. I knew that she liked to bake tomato soup cake; that she drank neat vodka and daquiris; and appreciated the early films of Ingmar Bergman. But this book gave me another side to Lady Lazarus; she was also a regular woman. This is a tasteful and ambitious book which interestingly sets Plath apart from her experience with mental illness and it should be the staple to any English Literature students’ bookshelf.