I’m aware the consensus it that all girls should have read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, before they reach 25 in order to be a true member of the sisterhood. By not doing so I was missing out on some essential part of my feminist education. My finger has always skipped past it on the bookshelf, thinking that I will read it when I have time to appreciate and consider it fully. I put it off and off, and my sense of guilt increased. I thought it was going to be intellectual and worthy and (heaven forbid) make me a better reader.
It is intellectual, but it wears it lightly. Sylvia Plath was probably the cleverest person in most of the rooms she entered, but would never have believed it. That’s not to say it’s not confident. When she writes, I can hear her talking. I like her, although she can be unlikeable. I can see her sitting at her kitchen table, with the kids playing in the next room, a cigarette dripping from her fingers and a martini glass in front of us (because when I am in imaginary conversations with women from the last century I am always, always, drinking martini), describing to me what it feels like to have ECT and how she got to wanting someone to pour electrical currents through her brain.
‘Suffered’ always struck me as a trite word with which to prefix mental health issues. It’s so commonly used it does nothing to describe what it feels like. Sylvia Plath dispassionately explains what acute depression and anxiety does to the mind. Her character isn’t any more likeable or dislikeable than the reality would be, and she doesn’t shy away from describing completely illogical and, for family and friends, frustrating, actions.
The really famous quote from the book is:
“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” That is depression. You don’t want to be happier. Happy? Sometimes. Maybe. In the world and not existing apart from it? Definitely.
She was trying to get better. Writing The Bell Jar as a woman looking back showed that she was hopeful that she would, and that her breakdown would be an episode, rather than the defining characteristic of her life. That’s the tragedy. Even if you’re an author with the clarity and flair for prose she had, you don’t get to choose how people weigh up your life.
Don’t make my mistake avoid this book because it’s worthy. Or because it’s been eulogised by scary feminists. Read it to meet Sylvia and to understand her life, all of it, and not just the parts she spent in hospital. Read it to be put off avocados for life. Or to remember that ragged breath you take between university and adulthood, when you stand on the verge of either endless possibilities, or a cliff. Read it not because of the sisterhood, but because of a sister. She’s sitting at the kitchen table, waiting to meet you and explain.