My book group (all men) discussed Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar last week. I can’t remember how we chose this – we alternate fiction and non-fiction, with a strict system for proposing options for our next session, and I think I must have missed the relevant session when BJ was chosen – but it turned out to be one of our best discussions, partly because of our very varying attitudes to the book. Some of us appreciated its style but didn’t like the content (notably, as they saw it, her dislike of almost very character), some found it extraordinary in itself and doubly so given the author’s own suicide, and others couldn’t respond to it at all.
Plath enjoyed major posthumous success in her profession, of course. Evidence of her enduring standing came last Sunday – coincidentally just before my book group met – when her 40 Ariel poems were read by 40 different people (actors and poets) to a sell-out audience of over 2000 at the Royal Festival Hall. With tickets at £20 a pop that’s quite a hefty endorsement of her continuing appeal.
I have to admit that for me the book made more of an impact than the poems. Just possibly it’s because I thought Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters was a wonderful collection, and maybe there’s some inevitable leaning to one or the other. In any case, it was pure coincidence that the two events – the book group and the Ariel reading – happened in the same week. And here’s a further coincidence: as I was reading Bell Jar, I was also reading Hernando de Soto’s remarkable book The Mystery of Capital, in which he as a left-wing defender of the rights of the Third World poor makes an eloquent argument in favour of the rights of private property.
Lo and behold, de Soto’s central image is – a bell jar; it’s what we wealthy Westerners live in, enjoying our property rights, with most of the world looking on enviously from outside. It’s a repeated theme for him, and he includes visual illustration to drive his point home. I don’t think I have ever read one book which even mentions a bell jar, and here I was reading two with it as the main theme. It gains added power when you remember that Plath is inside the jar hoping to get out, while de Soto speaks for those outside looking in.
As Virginia Woolf observed, to write you need only a pen and paper, so more women can join the profession because entry costs are low (tho she didn’t quite put it like that). Hence Plath could continue to write, even as a single parent living in miserable conditions. But the returns to her work came too late for her to enjoy.