Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

Book Cover

When things on the outside seem to be going well but they are actually not.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 234
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-571-22616-0
First Published: 14th January 1963
Date Reviewed: 10th September 2018
Rating: N/A (4.5/5 in usual terms of literary enjoyment and study)

Esther has always been an A grade student. Now, working for a ladies’ magazine in New York during a break, she struggles to get things right, and when she leaves the magazine to go back home she finds she hasn’t been accepted onto the summer course she had planned her holiday around. Along with this, she has a perpetual problem with a set of parents who want her to marry their son; she dislikes the boy and his pompous attitude. Somewhat related to this, she is afraid of what sex can mean for a woman, as well as annoyed at the double standards for women and men. Lastly, she misses her father. This all comes to a head and she beings to feel that life isn’t worth living.

The Bell Jar, set in the 1950s when the author was at university, is Plath’s famous novel, a book that is highly autobiographical and succeeds in being both enjoyable on a literary level, and in giving you a lot of information about Plath and her struggles with clinical depression. (The title references the feeling the character has of living in a bell jar.) Published a month before her death, the book has inevitably been viewed not only in the context of itself and Plath’s younger years, but in the context of her death. And it is hard to write about it without referring to her. (It’s also difficult not to talk about the ‘plot’ extensively, though I have tried to leave as much as possible out of this review.)

This is a dark book. There are times when Plath is graphic in her descriptions of what Esther does in terms of self-harm, and the various ways she considers killing herself. There is a lot about the hospitals and treatments she undergoes, things we would now consider barbaric. Yet there is also a distinct lightness to the text, most prominent in the first handful of chapters but also eked out even until the end of the book, where Plath, whether consciously or not, lifts the text from the darkness. It is in these sections that her talent most often shines through, however the times in which you can see another reason for her depression rearing its head are also full of thoughts and the phrasing of those thoughts, that show further literary talent.

Two chief areas in this regard are female agency and sex. Plath writes her thoughts about the double standard that applied to men and women, using the story of her forced sort-of relationship with Buddy Willard (either largely or somewhat true to life) when he tells her he’s slept with women, and she later muses on the fact that society would expect her to be a virgin if/when she married but that that isn’t fair. Following this she looks at the way a woman would have a baby and her life would change forever but a man could be a father and be the same person as before.

I also remembered Buddy Willard saying in a sinister, knowing way that after I had children I would feel differently, I wouldn’t want to write poems any more. So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.

With these and other subjects, namely her potential change in career prospects and her memories of her father, The Bell Jar gives you a fair grounding in why Plath/Esther was depressed, and although it begins and ends at university, it shows the sorts of thoughts and feelings that would have taken Plath further in her writing career and added to the problems she found in her marriage.

It’s worth reading up about Plath’s life in context with what is in the book – for example the shock treatments included are actually taken from the work of Mary Jane Ward, whose semi-autobiographical book The Snake Pit featured them1, as well as the relationships she had with Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon that influenced Buddy and Irwin.

Plath had the book published under a pseudonym as she didn’t want her mother to know she had written in, worrying about her reaction, but whilst there is dislike, there’s empathy there, too:

Hadn’t my own mother told me that as soon as she and my father left Reno on their honeymoon – my father had been married before, so he needed a divorce – my father said to her, ‘Whew, that’s a relief, now we can stop pretending and be ourselves’? – and from that day on my mother never had a minutes’ peace.

In terms of study, whilst most of the book relates directly to Plath, there is enough about society in general to take away from it, and due to Plath’s work and career, a fair amount about literature and poetry, albeit that names have been changed (they’re easy enough to find out). There’s also Plath’s use of terms we would now consider racist that set the book firmly in its time and show how terminology would be used even when there was no aim to be actively discriminatory.

As much as it’s an autobiography The Bell Jar is also a real work of literature, with so much attention to detail having been put into it. It is absolutely worth reading, just be cautious of timing – whilst there is a lot of true enjoyment to be had, and whilst it’s quite short, it can and will take a toll on you whilst you are reading it.

Footnotes

1 From Wikipedia, date unknown (a): ‘Plath later stated that she had seen reviews of The Snake Pit and believed the public wanted to see “mental health stuff,” so she deliberately based details of Esther’s hospitalization on the procedures and methods outlined in Ward’s book.’ (But it seems Plath experienced similar treatments herself – see Wikipedia n.d. b.)

Online References

Wikipedia (n.d. -a) The Bell Jar, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.
Wikipedia (n.d. -b) Sylvia Plath, Wikipedia.org, accessed 10th September 2018.

Related Books

None yet

 
Rosie Travers – The Theatre Of Dreams

Book Cover

Lights, camera, and action… are all badly needed by this group of people.

Publisher: Crooked Cat
Pages: 300
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-721-12292-9
First Published: 1st August 2018
Date Reviewed: 21st August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Actress Tara’s director boyfriend becomes interested in a rising reality star and the resulting fallout shatters Tara’s professional image. When she receives a letter from an elderly woman, inviting her to take over a dance school (the real reason is to help save the old pavilion) she decides to go for it, moving from London to the south coast. But there’s more to Kitty’s request than she included in the letter, more than any meetings and debates with councils.

The Theatre Of Dreams is a contemporary story of historical conservation, with a healthy dose of mystery. Told via two characters, one in the first person, the other in the third, it gives a good view of the past and present and ensures all questions, whether explained openly to other characters or not, are answered for the reader.

Travers has constructed a good tale; seemingly nice but ordinary for a while, there comes a point where the first mystery element makes an appearance, and this then runs parallel to the main story, pushing the interest up several levels. It adds a completely new dimension and genres that move the novel, particularly the final third, into page-turner territory, somewhere between a casual whodunnit and a cosy mystery, whilst never losing the easy-going nature of the narrative.

Characterisation is fair, with most time understandably going to Tara, who gets a complete, realistic, life change. She’s as important as the fight to save the pavilion.

The pavilion itself is what the story revolves around but it would be prudent not to expect to see a result here – the book is about the journey to start the restoration rather than about the restoration itself, with Kitty desperate to find a way out of the bind her family have put her in of selling off the pavilion to developers. The fictional history looks at stories from factual places (the building is based on Lee-On-Solent’s old Lee Tower) and calls to mind similar, factual, stories of campaigns to save history.

There’s but one issue and that’s in the book as a product; there are a lot of proofreading errors – spelling, grammar – that, whilst not on every page, are numerous enough to be noticeable and do on occasion mean you have to stop reading to work out the meaning behind the sentence. The language itself is good and Travers’ style confident – the errors are an editing stage problem.

Besides the errors, the book is great. It’s one you can pick up for a chapter or two but quickly find yourself wanting to carve out time for, and the subtle elements of mystery that Travers includes make you want to race through the end to find out what’s happened.

I’ve met the author a couple of times.

Related Books

None yet

 
Kirsty Ferry – Watch For Me By Candlelight

Book Cover

Not only at the first stroke of midnight.

Publisher: Choc Lit
Pages: 302
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 9B079H1LTJB (ASIN)
First Published: 3rd April 2018
Date Reviewed: 8th August 2018
Rating: 4/5

Kate lives in Suffolk where she runs a local history museum, set up in a row of old cottages. Originally from Cambridge, she fell in love with the village she found there, feeling drawn to it. One day a new visitor to the museum, Theo, arrives; Kate begins to slip back in time, into the shoes of someone who looks very similar to herself and who knows someone who looks similar to Theo.

Watch For Me By Candlelight is a time-slip romance with a well-constructed fantasy thread. At first understandably seeming to be an editing error, Ferry’s seamless integration of Kate into her historical past is excellently done, with Kate effectively becoming her historical counterpart whilst remaining herself, able to apply modern concepts to what she is hearing but knowledgeable of what she actually ought to be saying in context. On occasion she does lose herself completely in Cat, Ferry intentionally bringing the history further into the proceedings so that you get to know Cat as well, albeit not as much as Kate.

Partly as a result of all this, the romance is a good one – well plotted and paced. Ferry doesn’t dwell long on minor conflicts, letting the plot go where it will – for example a problematic, more minor, part of life will be solved in good time to aid the path of the main story.

The author’s decision to use a pretty ordinary backdrop and characters allows the spotlight to be on the fantasy, and allows the story to feature a strong dose of reality (the time-slip itself being not so unrealistic). Kate is friends with the family who own the local historic estate, and counterpart Cat was a relative of their ancestors – neither are particularly privileged. Theo/Will (it’s not a spoiler to say he has a counterpart) is well placed in an equally ordinary situation, and it’s this that creates the main conflict in the historical sections.

The writing is good – any anachronisms are the result of the time-slipping and thus not an issue, and the grammar on most occasions is refreshingly super.

There are little things at odds, but the main element that invites question is the ending – it’s not at all as the plot leads you to believe; the mystery is not predictable but might have been better if it was predictable, more suitable.

Apart from that, as described, Watch For Me By Candlelight is a good book. It’s understandably an easy read, enjoyable both in terms of its genre and for the cleverness of the construction, putting genre first to great effect. It’s the second in a series but can be read as a standalone, the references to the first book intriguing and informative.

Related Books

None yet

 
Patrick Gale – A Place Called Winter

Book Cover

But a book as lovely as summer.

Publisher: Tinder Press (Headline)
Pages: 338
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-20529-2
First Published: 1st January 2015
Date Reviewed: 6th July 2018
Rating: 5/5

In the early 1900s, Harry is in an asylum and given forced bathing treatments until he is brought to a more holistic treatment centre for people whose lives and personalities do not fit the social norm. Now in hypnotherapy he has a chance to find out why he was in the asylum in the first place; the mental journey back will take him from Britain to Canada, from family man to outcast, inherited wealth to pioneering homesteader.

A Place Called Winter is an epic historical with a similar atmosphere (due to both time period and writing) as Anna Hope’s Wake, though the stories are very different. A book with a definite main plot but lots of supporting elements, Gale’s novel offers a sumptuous escape into history alongside a hard story of discrimination.

It would be impossible to talk about this book without revealing the main plot point, as it’s too important; Harry is gay – not always conscious of the fact, or at least not to the reader – living in a time when it was illegal to act on it. When his affair with another man is discovered, Harry’s given two options – leave his family and country or be turned in – and so the book moves on in its location but not its look at Harry’s sexuality. Gale has populated his novel with good characters, both people who are simply likeable – most who would welcome the changes we are making today – as well as those who make hassle; these ‘villains’ at good at presenting the problems and reasoning in the historical context. As much as this is a plot and situational-driven book, the characteration is superb.

Amongst the plot points related to Harry’s sexuality is Gale’s study of other aspects of life that were deemed inappropriate. Time is spent on Harry’s friendship with Ursula, a cross-dresser who in their Native Canadian tribe was living a life revered by their kin. As Canada was taken over by the British, Ursula’s ‘wrong’ way of living meant she was moved to an asylum.

Gale’s writing is wonderful; it adds to the historical atmosphere and is just a joy to read. The information he provides on homesteading and the beginnings of the changed Canada is fascinating, giving more time to a part of the American continent that’s often overlooked in this way.

The novel, told in two narratives, comes to a head as Harry remembers why he was sent to the asylum. It’s not as strong an answer as you might expect, but the threads tied by its revelation are lovely and Gale gives his character a good end, despite everything that has happened previously. And whilst the reason for Harry’s treatment isn’t as strong as the rest of the book, the previous chapters, which constitute an ending themselves, are. Harry finds his people, Gale demonstrating what we know from historical evidence, that social rules didn’t fit everyone. It’s a story that has hints of Kate Chopin, and the better concepts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and it’s great.

A Place Called Winter is brilliant. Go and pick it up; it’s engaging from the first few pages. Any more words included in this review would be superfluous.

Related Books

None yet

 
Charlotte Lennox – The Female Quixote

Book Cover

No tilting at windmills, but plenty of running away from ordinary folk who might be out to get you.

Publisher: N/A (The one shown is Oxford University Press)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: June 1752
Date Reviewed: 6th June 2018
Rating: 4/5

Arabella had a solitary childhood; taking up her deceased mother’s book collection, she read widely – or so she thinks. When her uncle and cousins come to stay, they find a a very well composed woman who, as the days go on, is discovered to have gained all her knowledge of life from romance novels which she believes are factual. And whilst admittedly no one will simply tell her the truth, she will not listen to anyone’s misgivings. Her slow entry into society will be full of mishaps and confusion, and the gulf between her knowledge of history and everyone’s will continue to baffle her.

The Female Quixote is a comedy of errors that looks to the romances of centuries prior in a parody of Cervantes’ epic, Don Quixote (1605-1615). Changing the situation to the life a high-born bookish lady, the book is a satire of the work of medieval writers, displaying just how much fiction about the ancient world is different to the then-present day and how reading without context can be a problem. Mostly, though, it’s just a lot of fun – for however much it may or may not have been written to denigrate romantic novels, its focus is on hilarity.

…She gave herself over for lost, and fell back in her chair in a swoon, or something she took for a swoon, for she was persuaded it could happen no otherwise…

The humour is constant – laugh-out-loud, and often very silly. It’s split into a few areas – the humour that comes from Arabella’s solitary musings on what ‘should’, in her mind, be happening at any given time; the humour created by the confusion of her relatives and friends who don’t understand what’s going on because they’ve no knowledge of these supposedly famous historic figures Arabella talks about; the humour that arises from Arabella running away, or thinking she might faint because that’s what ought to happen. The interactions between Arabella and her servant are particularly good, and there’s much mirth to be had in the way that Arabella expects a medieval, no, ancient, sort of courting, which include things no suitor in reality would do.

After a while, the jokes do become a bit too much. Around the late double digit pages, it starts to feel not forced, exactly – because it isn’t – but just drawn out. As with many older text this is where the difference in literary culture becomes particularly apparent – in a slower-paced, 1700s society, the continuation of jokes were likely well-received. (The book was very popular in its day, though its fall from the public sphere was fairly sudden.)

Unfortunately, some of the length of the book is down to the opinion of Samuel Richardson:

‘Richardson… sent suggested revisions to Lennox in response to her being “apprehensive of Matter falling short for two Vols”. Having expanded the novel along the lines suggested by Richardson, by early 1752 Lennox felt that she would need a third volume to complete the novel.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Richardson wrote on 13th January 1752, telling her,

‘You should finish your Heroine’s cure in the present Vols… the method you propose tho’ it might flatter my Vanity, yet will be thought a contrivance between the Author of Arabella, and the Writer of Clarissa.” He further suggests that by making ‘your present Work as complete as you can, in two Volumes… it will give Consequence to your future writings, and of course to your Name as a Writer.’ Pursuant to completing the novel, Richardson advised Lennox ‘to consult Mr. Johnson before you resolve.’ (Ibid.)

Whilst the first draft was undoubtedly longer than an editor today might suggest, those incorporated suggestions surely made it more so. Indeed there are a couple of occasions where Arabella is on track to be told that everything she has learned is from exaggerated fictional accounts until the author brings in a literary device and quashes the possibility.

So this is where your reason for reading comes into play: the book was written in the 1700s for a 1700s audience (we can assume Richardson was on the ball there). If you’re reading the book to get a sense of literature, and parody, in that period, it’s a lot better than if you’ve picked it up purely for pleasure.

Lennox breaks the fourth wall on a constant basis; the break is as much an element of the book as the parody itself, with Lennox informing the reader of the contents of the chapter ahead, cluing them in as to details her characters are yet to discover, and subtly hinting as to the issues that arise with taking fiction – or rather certain fiction – seriously.

An example of a chapter subtitle: “In which a lover is severely punished for faults which the reader never would have discovered, if he had not been told.” Foreshadowing of the reader’s reality happens constantly and there is irony in the way that Lennox makes sure you know exactly where she is coming from – she wouldn’t want you to become even a little like Arabella! The use of ‘he’ in terms of the reader is perhaps telling – does she think her readers would likely be male? Is she writing directly to Richardson and Samuel Johnson (another person she looked up to)? It’s a cautionary tale – be careful when reading books… but do read this one!

Going back to the denigration of epic romances, one must consider this context as much as they should the parody aspect. By Lennox’s time, romance novels were seen as frivolous and silly:

‘Charlotte Lennox’s Female Quixote… seems to join a persuasive eighteenth-century effort to dispel as “unreal” and dangerous the romance tradition that English readers had valued for two hundred years.’ (Gordon, 1998)

A turning point in the literary culture in Britain, this idea is heavily supported by Lennox’s text:

…in which, unfortunately for her, were great store of romances, and, what was still more unfortunate, not in the original French, but very bad translations.

One of the reasons the novel can become boring as it continues is Arabella’s need to describe scenes and stories from her books; she comes to realise that few know about the ‘history’ of the ancients as well as she does (rather than question whether she’s got it wrong). This is an occasion where you could ask a person from centuries in the past what a common term meant and they would be able to tell you correctly – what Arabella does is best summed up as ‘splaining.

Of course whether or not Lennox herself ascribed to the notion that romance was frivolous is something we may never know. It could be that for all she wrote in Arabella, it could have been a way to write romance without writing romance.

Literary devices abound in the way the other characters suffer an inability to tell Arabella that what she has read is fiction. Glanville, the cousin/suitor, is often ‘confused’, and this raises two questions: why does Glanville allow the woman he supposedly loves to embarrass herself? And why does he remain interested in her? His sister, Miss (Charlotte) Glanville, despite being presented as spiteful, ends up becoming the most sensible and relatable character in the book, interrupting Arabella’s grand info-dumps; if it weren’t for Lennox’s devices, Miss Glanville would have told Arabella the truth towards the start of their acquaintance… but then, alas!, we would have a novella instead of a novel.

Does your Ladyship consider how late it is? Interrupted Miss Glanville, who had hitherto very impatiently listened to her. Don’t let us keep the gentlemen waiting any longer for us. I must inform you how the prince of Persia declared his love for the incomparable Berenice, said Arabella. Another time, dear cousin, said Miss Glanville; methinks we have talked long enough upon this subject.

If you are expecting a grand ending, whether full of fainting and forsooths or just some reasonable changing of character, you may be disappointed. Whilst over a chapter is spent on a conversation better Arabella and a doctor, the relative suddenness of Arabella’s ‘cure’ is hard to believe and any thoughts you had of seeing Arabella progress in society are not realised in the book. Indeed, the ending was written with Lennox’s mentors firmly in mind:

‘The weakest part of the novel, critics have agreed, is the conclusion and her decision to depart from her usual style to show her esteem for Johnson by an exaggerated imitation of his style was not a good one.’ (Brack and Carlile, 2003)

Brack and Carlile, among others, believe that the penultimate chapter, and part of the last chapter, may actually be the work of Johnson himself. I myself don’t know enough to comment: the chapter is more verbose, dare I say more academically written, perhaps, but then the doctor is obviously a learned character. That the Lady who befriended Arabella – prior to the doctor’s entrance in the novel – with a view to getting her out of her thoughts, didn’t get authorial leave to complete her mission, does suggest in our present day the leaning towards a man having to do it, whether simply Lennox’s choice of a doctor or Johnson taking over.

So, with all this said, is the book worth reading? As said previously, it’s better as a study than an escape. If you want to know about the 1700s without so many of the stereotypes – or at least with the stereotypes used as stereotypes – it’s a good choice. You only need a basic knowledge of Cervantes to enjoy it (though you’ll doubtless find more to appreciate if your knowledge is extensive). You’ll also gain knowledge of another popular 1700s novel, one that is slowly becoming more well-known in our present day. And, of course, you’ll gain a whole heap of knowledge about medieval romances without having to read them, which is a tremendous boon when you consider that the one most referred to is the longest novel published by a mainstream publisher and stands at a whopping 13,095 pages.

But there is one more reason for reading that only becomes apparent once you begin (or, of course, if you’ve heard about it, as you are now): The Female Quixote was a major inspiration (I’d put money on it being the inspiration) for Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey; the premise of a reader believing fiction inspires reality, the breaking of the fourth wall in such a similar way, the writing style… even the prefaces of the two books are similar in tone. Lennox’s book isn’t as fun as Austen’s, but if you want to understand the background of Austen’s book, Lennox’s text is one to read. And yes, it’s fascinating that Lennox’s is the one book not mentioned by Austen – perhaps that was taking the intertextuality a little too far. If you want to know the meaning of ‘meta’, ask Austen.

Read this book, just remember one important thing – none of it exists outside the confines of its pages.

References

Brack Jr, O M, and Carlile, Susan, (April 2003) Samuel Johnson’s Contributions to Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote”, The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 77, No. 3-4, pp. 166-173
Gordon, Scott Paul, (1998), The Space of Romance in Lennox’s Female Quixote, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 38, No. 3, pp.499-516.

Related Books

Book cover

 

Older Entries