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Pain, Parties, Work

May 2, 2013


Sixty years ago in May, Sylvia Plath was finishing her junior year at Smith College and preparing to travel to New York City to join the Mademoiselle magazine “College Board,” a group of college girls who would spend the month of June living in the Barbizon hotel and appearing as guest editors for the August issue. Elizabeth Winder, the author of Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953, paints a picture of this era in order to understand more about how it affected Sylvia’s hopes and dreams. They “wore girdles, conical bras, kitten and Cuban heels. Whether playing badminton or clacking away at a typewriter, they worked at cultivating a veneer of knowing sophistication—they wanted to ‘own’ the ladylike details of their dresses and clutches. The goal was to feel and look as turned out and spotless as a white kid glove.”

Sylvia and the 19 other guest editors conducted interviews with literary celebrities of the day, attended parties, appeared in fashion shows, and went to lunches and on dates to events around the city sponsored by the magazine. Later in the summer Sylvia attempted suicide for the first time, and ten years later she would publish The Bell Jar, her version of that month in New York and the mental breakdown that followed.

Winder has interviewed many of the other guest editors about the month they spent with Sylvia, and the result is the jarring juxtaposition promised by her title; one has to wonder how it was possible for an intelligent and sensitive young woman to contend with so many rigid expectations without letting go of so many of her own ambitions that she would become like everyone else. Before Sylvia even got to New York, for example, she did her guest interview with the novelist Elizabeth Bowen wearing a “tight blue and white sheath dress with matching jacket and a curvy little white hat. As usual, she adorned herself simply—with her signature cherry red lipstick, a pearl cuff around her right wrist and a delicate watch around her left. That day both women wore three layers of pearls looped around their throats.” A photograph is included.

The photographs in this book show Sylvia’s attempts to conform to the requirements for young women of her day. Winder asserts that her preparations for New York consisted of organizing her wardrobe: “she wasn’t preoccupied with organizing notes, brushing up on her typing, or reading short stories. She obsessed over clothes—thinking about them, budgeting for them, writing about them, and shopping for them.” After the first third of the book, the tone of Winder’s assertions began to wear on me; rather than commenting on what seems to me to be ample evidence that, like pearls around her throat, the stringent rules about appearance strangled some of what Sylvia could have become, Winder claims that “new clothes left Sylvia reeling with happiness. For Sylvia, a shopping list was a poem.” Since I read an advance copy of the book, provided by HarperCollins courtesy of TLC Blog Tours, I couldn’t trace the path of the unfinished notes well enough to see which young guest editor might have said something that allowed Winder to draw this conclusion.

Winder’s deliberate cheeriness does echo the cheeriness forced on the young guest editors, however–girls who were once required to pose for hours in a star formation in rubber girdles and wool kilts on a 94-degree day (while the Mademoiselle staff members wore “chic black suits”) and then write about their day “as dressy and fun.” The book’s cheery tone is amplified by magazine-like boxes interspersed throughout the text. One called “Vitals” reveals details about Sylvia, like that “she smelled like soap and water, lipstick, and Prell and Lustre-Creme shampoo” and that “she wanted her children to be conceived in the ocean.”

Sylvia’s longing for the ocean towards the end of June is one of Winder’s most convincingly established facts about her month in New York. “Away from her beloved beaches, she began to wither. Summers were for reading and sunbathing marathons—the sun gave her ‘a great glowing peace.’” Readers can see that her expectations were high when she got to the beach later in the summer, only to discover that her chosen book—Joyce’s Ulysses—was difficult to read, and her difficulty with it made her feel that she was a failure at something important she had set out to do.

Finally, towards the end of her book, Winder comments perceptively on “the instability of identity—how we are seen only one dimension at a time. Cyrilly saw a kindred bluestocking. Laurie Glazer saw a cultivated beauty. Ann Burnside saw a caviar-stuffing barbarian.” If this purposely-limited book has a place beside Plath’s own journals in providing another view of the complicated person she was, it is because of the way we see her through the eyes of the girls who saw mostly what she wanted them to see, reflections of themselves. Her quest to spot Dylan Thomas in person becomes trivial: “the whole mad frolic became known as ‘the Dylan Thomas episode’ and remains a testament to Sylvia’s infectious enthusiasm for whatever, whomever, she loved.”

The cover photo is eerily similar to photos of Jennifer Lawrence’s fall at this year’s Oscars, don’t you think? The big skirt, the up-do, the fragile-looking shoulder blades—these have not yet been banished from our picture of how a beautifully dressed young girl looks.   tlc logo

26 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2013 7:54 am

    Interesting. I was just reading about this because the author’s speaking at the bookstore around the corner from my apartment in a week or two. My senior year in college, I won an award for my poetry that Plath had previously won and I realized I didn’t really know much about her work. In those weeks feeling bereft and adrift after graduation, I read The Bell Jar and I also read another book about our mutual alma mater, Ivy Days by Susan Allen Toth. The two books don’t begin to compare on a literary level, but Plath and Toth must have been at Smith around the same time. The contrast is enormous, but Toth describes a landscape that contextualizes Plath in interesting ways — and in some ways that sound like they overlap with this book — and also a landscape very different from the one I saw when I arrived many years later. Whether the landscape changed or it was me who was different, I’m not sure. I suspect both. Both Plath’s and Toth’s points of view are hard to put on (luckily). But the walls you see and the walls you build are as confining as anything.

    • May 6, 2013 7:32 am

      I like the way Winder uses accumulation of detail to evoke the era; it reminds me of stories my mother tells about how what she wore mattered to what she was doing. You might get more of the east coast society references.

  2. lemming permalink
    May 2, 2013 8:49 am

    I saw this book at the library and was curious. Do you think someone who knows nothing of Plath could read this and take anything away?

    • May 6, 2013 7:33 am

      It depends on what you mean by take anything away; someone who has never read Plath would get a picture of what she was like outside of most of what she became famous for.

  3. May 2, 2013 10:36 am

    Hmmm. I will have to find this. And re-read The Bell Jar.

    • May 6, 2013 7:35 am

      Sending it to you. I read The Bell Jar one morning between 5-8 am when I was 16, and will probably not read it again.

  4. May 2, 2013 10:54 am

    Hm. Haven’t read this, but despite the somewhat weird chipper tone you note, I have mixed feelings about the conclusions to be drawn about the links between Plath’s clinical depression and the rigid social roles of her time. I don’t doubt that Plath’s situation contributed to her depression, but I also think that Plath was always going to suffer from depression – it was her biological imperative, her fatal disease, without a single effective treatment in her day. I always feel frustrated when the mental illness of an historical figure is ascribed so heavily to social conditions; I’m pretty sure an unmedicated Sylvia born in 1993 would still attempt suicide during her first stint away from home. And I’m pretty sure she’d previously have gotten some pleasure from retail therapy, too.

    • May 6, 2013 7:38 am

      Good point. Interesting that you define the month in NY as her first stint away from home, when she’d been at Smith for three years. In terms of the “retail therapy,” I wondered why she bought clothes to bring to NY, rather than buying a few once she got there.

      • May 6, 2013 11:38 am

        Hm, you’re right. I guess I was thinking, “first time out in the real world”? Because college is sheltered? But this was pretty sheltered too, I suppose.

        • May 6, 2013 1:29 pm

          Depends on the college…the joke around here is that students are so sheltered they have called the place Kamp Kenyon.

  5. May 2, 2013 6:58 pm

    Interesting review. I wish I could comment on it more, but I have a sore lack of knowledge about Plath, other than the basic outline of her life. That photo of Jennifer Lawrence is shockingly similar to Plath on the cover. Interesting how some things haven’t changed at all.

    Thanks for being on this tour!

    • May 6, 2013 7:40 am

      The photos both have an element of dress and despair. Jennifer had fallen, and the woman on the cover is bowing her head over the back of the chair in what looks like defeat.

  6. May 2, 2013 7:18 pm

    I wrote a comment that ended up sounding too mean-spirited about Sylvia Plath. So I have deleted it and will just say instead: Hahahaha, I love the juxtaposition of the cover with Jennifer Lawrence. And I’m not just saying that because Jennifer Lawrence is delightful.

    • May 6, 2013 7:43 am

      Jennifer Lawrence plays a crazy woman well, but usually exhibits a healthy attitude when interviewed.

  7. Gwen Bailey permalink
    May 3, 2013 7:55 am

    Having raised daughters (and only knowing a tiny bit about Sylvia Plath), I have seen what seems to be the female contradiction first hand. The desire to fit in, to belong and to be liked exists side by side with the need to stand out. I suppose I went through that, too, even though I mostly remember wondering why I should care if I am/am not accepted by people I do not respect. My daughters were different. They genuinely wanted to fit, even while knowing how miserable some of the other girls were making them feel. At the same time, they saw themselves as constantly competing for grades, accolades, attention, boys, respect…a whole jumble of things that sometimes crept in one at a time and sometimes hit like a blast of pellets so overwhelming that it became difficult for them to prioritize. I suspect that, underneath the surface, we are all like Sylvia Plath–needing to blend in, needing to stand out. Most of us learn to cope with our own contradictions. Sylvia wasn’t so fortunate.

    • May 6, 2013 7:49 am

      There was some competition between the girls who were in NY for that month, according to Winder, and your summary of what your girls competed for is similar: rather than grades, good job assignments, and also accolades, attention, boys, and respect (from the senior editors). Sylvia had only a brother, and I do and as my daughter does. It might be that this kind of feminine competition is a harsh world to be thrown into suddenly, when you haven’t had to deal with it at close range before.

  8. May 3, 2013 9:45 am

    The chipper tone would get to me. Oddly enough, I’m currently writing about authors who had big crises and then got their best books out of them. So often what precedes the crisis is a sort of best-of-times-worst-of-times era in their lives. I think to understand what happens in anyone’s life, you have to recognise how mixed and paradoxical so many of our feelings are.

    • May 6, 2013 7:50 am

      And it does seem to me that especially when a sensitive person’s feelings are already mixed, consciousness that the tone of something is off makes all the dissonances worse.

  9. May 3, 2013 10:28 pm

    I’ve read The Bell Jar and thought this book would be a good way to get to know more about her. I like how you compared the photo with the cover, I wouldn’t have thought of that.

    • May 6, 2013 7:54 am

      This book is a good way to get to know more about how her contemporaries saw her, and of course my pairing of the pictures is a way of saying how little the way others see us can have to do with how we really are.

  10. May 6, 2013 2:42 pm

    I was curious about this one. I love learning more about authors, especially ones whose lives were so tragically short.

    • May 6, 2013 2:47 pm

      It did occur to me that during May of 1953 Sylvia was only a year older than my daughter is.

  11. May 7, 2013 9:22 am

    I love the juxtaposition of those to photos!

  12. May 21, 2013 12:07 am

    The “chipper tone” caught me off guard at first…and I rolled my eyes a little, but then I became so caught up in it, along with the 1950’s ideals, so-called opportunities for women…just until they decided to settle down, get married and have babies…as if it was just something they needed to get out of their system. The ridiculousness of it all…I did wonder if Winder used that tone at times on purpose. I thoroughly enjoyed your review and the comments after 🙂

    • May 21, 2013 7:52 am

      Oh, I think she used that tone on purpose, as part of the effect of making modern readers feel a little of what it must have been like to be in the shoes of those young women.

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