Monday, April 23, 2018

Who is Sylvia?

Sylvia Plath 1932-1963

Sylvia Plath was my first encounter with disappointment, hers and mine. After hearing so much about it, I finally read that 1963 novel, The Bell Jar. I was a young woman in New York, working at a fashion magazine—"Glamour", a competitor of "Mademoiselle", where Sylvia had been a summer intern. Instead of an optimistic, lighthearted look at life in New York City, this was decidedly the other side of paradise. Beautiful writing notwithstanding, Sylvia's sharp observations and inner turmoils color The Bell Jar. Many have responded to it, but then and there I was not having it.

Over time I took The Bell Jar less personally and have come to appreciate her sensitive but tormented soul, stilled early by the demons she wrote about. Her suicide has us asking, "What if?". What if she had written more? What if she had found the answers? What if? What if? In this proto-feminism age her husband Ted Hughes became something of a villain. His own efforts to clarify that did nothing to dispel the notion.

Sylvia's kilt as worn by its lucky bidder

I just read a piece in the New York Times about a sale of Syliva Plath's personal items. They were ordinary—the plaid kilt from her time studying at Smith College, three watches with worn wristbands, an inexpensive costume jewelry pendant, some mundane dresses, and a pale turquoise portable typewriter. These were offered at auction by her daughter, Fiona Hughes, now 58, a painter and poet, who was only a toddler when Sylvia killed herself. She chose to let go of the possessions of a woman she barely remembers so they wouldn't disappear into the flotsam and jetsam of items in her own life, their provenance erased over time. You can copy and paste to read for yourself:

Her dress, her watches
Sylvia Plath's clothes have made their way into other collections. Her Girl Scout uniform and prom dress are part of the Smith College Historic Clothing Collection. The uniform is presently on display at Washington's Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, part of the exhibit, "One Life: Sylvia Plath." It was chosen by curators over the prom dress as its many badges point to her being an early Type A individual.  

Sylvia's Girl Scout uniform on display

I have a fake fur hat that belonged to my mother and that she wore often. I can't part with it. After her own mother died a friend sent me the plaid blazer my mother had made for her. She knew that would mean a lot—a remembrance of them both. So it is with celebrities. I would rather own a scarf that belonged to Audrey Hepburn, one she may have worn,  than a photo personally autographed to me. The clothing and trinkets we wear capture us for others, even those we don't know.

Our clothing says that these are our choices. Aside from a uniform, clothes we choose to wear have gone through our thought process. There was a reason we picked that style or pattern. That's why celebrity watching on the red carpet holds little interest for me. The looks are impersonal, the work of a second or third party.

We may never know Sylvia Plath as she struggled to know herself. What touched her though, touches us.

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