Elaine Feinstein on Slyvia Plath reviewed by Patrick McGuckin

The audience in the packed St Margaret’s Hall waiting to see Elaine Feinstein talk about Sylvia Plath was younger than the average age of those attending most Ilkley Literature Festival events. Most of these younger people were women. This alone is testament to what Feinstein ‘described as the enduring myth and legend surrounding’ Sylvia Plath.

Feinstein (who was a contemporary of Plath at Cambridge but never met her) started by saying that she wanted to set the record straight about Plath as the myth about her life had become bigger and more important than the work. It was clear to me that Feinstein admires the work of Plath, and in fact feels it is some of the greatest poetry ever written. However it was also clear that there are many characteristics of Plath that Feinstein disliked.

Unlike many perceptions of Plath which see her as a victim at the hands of the cruel Ted Hughes, Feinstein believes that Plath was calculating in her character and only likely to associate herself with people she believed would come to be important.

Feinstein went on to say Ted Hughes was not brutal but rather he was helpful. She gave the very male perspective that yes, he was a womaniser, “but he wouldn’t be the first”. He loved Plath and was genuinely torn.

Feinstein told us how Plath and Hughes did have a couple of reconciliations, but he would always wander, Plath would then be on the phone to him, shouting at him, telling him he had to leave London. Feinstein sees this as some sort of evidence of Plath’s instability. However I could see the heckles of many in the audience rise as she said this. Most people would think that Plath’s reaction to a philandering partner was evidence of a perfectly normal mind rather than instability.

Feinstein went on to talk about Plath’s anger, which “could be quite ferocious”, and her ego. Plath got a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge and had been rewarded for her precociousness from an early age. Plath had also tried to commit suicide at the age of sixteen.

A question from the audience asked if Feinstein felt Plath had, having survived several suicide attempts, felt she could survive what was to be her last one? Feinstein ventured that, as Plath did not leave a suicide note but rather left a manuscript which would ultimately become the collection of poems Ariel, that the suicide was an attempt for posthumous fame, for immortality, and may not have been a reaction to the behaviour of Ted Hughes at all.

This was certainly a fascinating event, one of those that makes you change your perceptions or see another potential side to something you have believed all your life. It was as though the audience had had a slap in the face, making them jolt from their preconceptions. It was clear from the mutterings I overheard that many did not share Feinstein’s view, but they were too polite or inhibited to share this during questions. This is the type of event which makes this festival so remarkable.

Patrick McGuckin is part of the Ilkley Literature Festival review team.

Patrick has lived in Ilkley for 18 years and attended Ilkley Literature Festival for most of those years. Since attending the Review Writing Workshop a few years ago on a whi his has regularly reviewed events for the Festival. Patrick also reviews performances at Ilkley Playhouse for Ilkley Gazette.