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Review: Tracy Brain: The Other Sylvia Plath.

Cover: Tracy Brain: The Other Sylvia Plath Tracy Brain
The Other Sylvia Plath
.

Longman, 2001,
248 pages, incl. 4 b/w plates
ISBN: 0-582-32730

 

Tracy Brain takes a refreshing look at the work of Sylvia Plath, treating it a poetry and prose, not as biography. She invites the reader to »step outside the shadow cast by Plath's death« [3], and sets freshly to the task of dismantling common preconceptions of Plath and her writing:

»Plath's writing is sane in its argument and subject matter. Insistently, the writing concerns itself with real political and material issues, with ›definite situations‹ [...]. Second, the writing is sane in so far as it is controlled, methodical, and carefully wrought — a circumstance to which Plath's manuscripts in the archives testify. Both of these senses of sanity are the very opposite of the myth of Sylvia Plath as mad, depressed and pouring out her distress in an ink of blood.« [37]

Throughout, she tries to set the record straight by re-introducing Plath as an author who's concerns lay beyond the autobiographical, and whose writing must not be simplified as »express[ing] her anger at men, and in particular her resentment of her father and husband.« [3]

Brain begins her study with an examination of early (non-biographical) and later critical approaches, giving clear evidence for a growing biographical bias to the work. And she analyses cover texts and images, which, as she convincingly shows, over the years began to promote this bias until getting in the way of an uninhibited reading. As a result, many, if not most, of the publications are »perpetuating the message that Plath's life is the subject matter of her art« [8]. For her analyses, Brain draws on material from various archives, pointing out transcription errors along the way (by comparing published versions with drafts), and reconstructing the genesis of several poems. She also examines the relationship between poetic drafts on either side of the same piece of paper when it was used for different drafts or when Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath used the same piece of paper for their manuscripts or typescripts (see also below).

In a second chapter, she examines critics' various claims for Plath's identity (usually American or British), which, as she demonstrates, tend to colour the criticsm. Brain herself settles for something fluctuating between the two, a sense of displacement, for which she uses terms like Plath's »transatlanticism« or »midatlanticism« or »straddling the atlantic«. And though the imagery of these terms may be slightly problematic, her argument is clear and well supported.

Her third chapter examines the political and environmental background to Plath's (and Hughes's) writing in the 1950s & 60s, and, following a chapter on the origins of The Bell Jar, in her fifth chapter she launches into an analysis of the reciprocal influence between Plath and Hughes. Here she initially concentrates on Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers, always alert to common traps like an easy identification of speaker and addressee in Birthday Letters as Plath and Hughes: »the ›you‹, the ›Plath‹ so incessantly addressed by Hughes's speaker, is a poetic character who is no more stable or real as ›Plath‹ than the object of an intensely felt love poem — or love letter.« [181] Going on, Brain extends her criticism on works before Birthday Letters: »It is less important to see Hughes's work as ›his side of the story‹ than as part of a continuing conversation between his poems and Plath's.« [200] As an example, she takes »Bride and Groom« from Cave Birds and shows its links with Plath's »The Applicant«, which in turn she links to Hughes's »The Wound«. It is unfortunate here that Brain seems much more at home with Plath's work than with Hughes's and as a result removes Hughes's »Bride and Groom« and »The Wound« a little far from their context.

In the last-but-one section, Tracy Brain looks at the relationship between several Plath poems drafted on the reverse of drafts by Hughes, which again produces some interesting readings. The closing pages are dedicated to a possible future of Plath/Hughes studies, which she sees in the careful study of manuscripts and archived material, including the sections at Emory which are sealed until 25 years after Hughes's death. Much of these last few pages of Brain's book, however, come as a real disappointment as she seems to give up her well-grounded approach and launches into useless speculation as to the existence of Plath's the »lost journal«.

Nevertheless, Tracy Brain's is a remarkable book with much that may be of interest for anyone attempting a closer study of Plath's or Hughes's work. It presents a decisive step of departure from biographically-centered Plath's studies.

Claas Kazzer

 

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