I didn’t read Plath until I was thirty three, three years older than Plath could ever be. And I came to Plath through the man who despite being a successful poet and Poet Laureate will forever be known as ‘her husband’ thanks to their six and a half year marriage, Ted Hughes. To many Plath fans, especially those who read her first as teenagers, when the world is black and white, Ted Hughes is the enemy.
Reading at thirty three, when hopefully the naivety of youth has given way to a more sophisticated world view it is possible to see how important Hughes was to Plath and vice versa. For much of their married life Plath and Hughes not only wrote in the same home, but at times in the same room or at the same table. Any writer will tell you that the presence of another writer offers great opportunities for critical engagement and collaboration. This is something we see in Plath and Hughes. Poems written to and about one another, poems written in response to the other’s poems, to read them together is a much richer experience than to read them singularly.
The other thing that reading Plath at thirty three allows for is the perspective on her life and the struggles that she documents throughout her writing. Many of the emotions and struggles that Plath deals with are no longer your struggles by your thirties, you have gained the stability that a decade of living as an adult in the world offers, compared with the turbulence of your twenties. For many young fans, Plath’s appeal lies in their direct identification with her as Lady Lazarus, the goddess of suffering. But such is the skill and talent of Plath; she is not limited to this role. Within her work is a highly sexual woman, a woman within whom convention and radicalism created a destructive tension. The aggressive sexuality is possibly the most surprising aspect of Plath’s poetry, not the self destructive icon that is idolised by her young fans, and it is possibly the aspect which their inexperience and insecurity does not allow them to see. As an older woman, with a more secure relationship with her sexuality, this attracted me to Plath’s work; just as the naked sensual writing and depictions of female desire attracted me to the writing of Anais Nin as a young woman.
So having read Plath for the first time at thirty three, what advice could I give to a reader who has never read her before?
Firstly, she is a writer with more to offer than a female masochistic icon. Secondly, she cannot be read without also reading the work of her husband, and that when doing so remembering that we as readers were not living in their marriage, so it is not our place to make judgement calls on the rights and wrongs, merely to read the words that they left. Thirdly, if I were considering reading Plath as a young adult, I say wait. Read Anais Nin first, learn to embrace the positives of female sensuality and sexuality, before delving into Plath’s intriguing but undeniably dark world.