By Aoife O’Leary-McNeice
2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death by suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath. Plath’s suicide is arguably more famous than any of the poet’s works, and one could argue that in many ways it defines the way in which she is remembered. A quick image search of her name on flickr.com rewards the searcher with a vast selection of images of the poet’s grave, indeed, there are more of her tombstone than of the woman herself. Plath is perhaps the most extreme example of a female artist’s life encompassing her work, a fate which seems to befall female artists far more often than males. Indeed, if one briefly examines a survey of how female creativity is popularized in society it becomes clear that often women artists are viewed as oddities.
The most obvious example of this is psychologist James C. Kauffman’s coining of the phrase “the Sylvia Plath Effect.” He uses this term to describe his theory that female poets are more likely to suffer from psychiatric illnesses over writers of fiction or non-fiction. Kauffman argues that due to the narrative qualities of fiction writing over poetry one has more of an opportunity to analyze and deposit one’s anxieties on paper. However, the irony of the phrase is that one of Plath’s most celebrated works is her novel The Bell Jar, which is essentially a reflection on the depression from which the poet suffered. Furthermore, in his work Creativity 101 Kaufmann addresses some concerns critics and poets raised over his conjecture that female poets were more susceptible to mental illness. Kaufman either ignores or is astonishingly oblivious to the gender issues he raises by using such a term.
Virginia Woolf’s extended essay A Room of One’s Own is the edited text of a series of talks the writer and literary critic gave in 1929. It has since become so canonical in feminist literary theory that Susan Gubar has given it the title “the great mother of all feminist critical texts.” In the essay, Woolf addresses the contrast between the way women were depicted in early modern literature compared to the reality of their lives; she writes ”[a female character] dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger.” Woolf concludes that in order to successfully write, it is essential for her to “have five hundred a year and a room with a lock on the door.”
Furthermore, in the introduction to their similarly canonical work on nineteenth century female literature Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar describe the relatively recent development of the idea of a distinctly female nineteenth century literary tradition. They describe this tradition as one defined by “images of enclosure and escape, fantasies in which maddened doubles functioned as social surrogates for docile selves, metaphors of physical discomfort manifested in frozen landscapes and fiery interiors . . . obsessive depictions of diseases like anorexia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia.” Female literary criticism is a relatively new area of academic research. Indeed, when Woolf Wrote A Room of One’s Own, the works of Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets in the English language, had not yet been brought to public attention.
Perhaps if Kauffman were aware of the complicated and complex history of female writers he might examine in more detail why he believes female poets are more susceptible to mental illness. Furthermore, a phrase like “The Sylvia Plath Effect” is a symptom of a condition to which many female artists have been subject: the myth of their lives overtaking the impact of their work. Critics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry often fixate upon her unusual life. Indeed, if one visits the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst Massachusetts they will be met by an exhibition of one of the white dresses Dickinson always wore as she moved waif like through her self-imposed seclusion.
In the case of Dickinson, there appears to be a perfect balance between too much and too little information, as critics are able to fill in the gaps in relation to Dickinson’s sexuality and mental health. Indeed, many critics use passages from her work to back up claims about her private life. Furthermore, she fell victim to gross misreading from critics, which led to her poetry being underappreciated for several years. As Gubar and Gilbert write
“we understand now that she was nothing like “the prim little home keeping person” described … by John Crowe Ransom and taught on such terms to most high school and college students . . . hers was a ’soul at the white Heat’ her ’Tomes of Solid Witchcraft’ produced by an imagination that had, as she herself admitted, the Vesuvian ferocity of a loaded gun.”
Dickinson wrote about existential terror, the internal workings of the mind, death and gender identity and, furthermore, she took on several different poetic voices – writing as a male, a female, animals and children. Her work seems to anticipate Woolf when she wrote, ”It is fatal to be man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly…the whole of the mind must lie open.” By focusing too much on Dickinson’s life, one does her work an injustice; we know very little of Shakespeare’s life, however, this does not affect the quality of criticism of his work.
Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein has suffered from similar fixations on her personal life. When Shelley wrote the novel she was nineteen, pregnant and had run away with Percy Shelley, a married man. She famously wrote the novel during the “Geneva Summer”. She outlines the inception of the novel in its introduction; she, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley held a ghost story competition, from which came her idea for the novel. The environment in which Frankenstein was written is truly fascinating and obviously should not be ignored. However, Mary Shelley’s youth and lack of formal education has prompted some commentators to assert that it was not Mary but actually Percy who wrote Frankenstein. In his book The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, John Lauritsen presents the thesis that a 19-year-old, uneducated girl could not have written such a masterpiece and, therefore, it must have been written by Percy. Germaine Greer countered this argument in an article entitled “Yes, Frankenstein really was written by Mary Shelley. It is obvious because the book is so bad.” In his article Greer criticizes the language style, the hefty paragraphs used and points to plot anomalies.
However, this article is almost as detrimental to Mary Shelley as Lauritsen’s book. Frankenstein was written by Shelley and afterward edited by Percy; this is historical fact. Furthermore, if one reads Caleb Williams, a novel written by Mary Shelley’s father, William Godwin, there are several similarities between the narratives which suggest Frankenstein was among other things, a tribute to the author’s father. The quality or otherwise of the novel is obviously a subjective issue, however, the complexly framed narrative, the philosophical and political issues raised and finally the longevity of the story seem to suggest that the quality of the work is higher then Greer believes. Frankenstein is a powerful modern cultural myth, to which each successive generation has been able to apply its own fears. The monster is a masterful literary creation. However, because the writer was a 19-year-old woman, a meaningless debate over authority and the quality of the novel has sprung up. The only thing this argument has revealed is the continuous incredulity some critics seem to harbor towards female creativity.
Nor is this issue purely related to literature or works past. Indeed, in the past week Canadian pop sensation Grimes discussed the difficulties faced by female creativity in the music industry today. In a blog post entitled “I don’t want to compromise my morals in order to make a living” Claire Boucher, a.k.a Grimes addresses the attitude people have toward her own success “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if [I] did this by accident and [I’m] gonna flounder without them. Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.” It is not too much of a stretch to compare this incredulity to that of the critics who argue that Mary Shelley could not have written Frankenstein.
Boucher also expresses her wish not to be objectified and described in terms of her physical appearance. This appears essentially to be the fate of many female artists. Among other things, Boucher appears frustrated at people’s fixation upon her own personal life rather than her art. This is the fate to which many female artists have succumbed — be it the reclusive, genius Emily Dickinson, the brilliant Mary Shelley or the talented Sylvia Plath, who fifty years ago, killed herself in a fit of depression and has been immortalized by this action ever since.
Slider Image by Mavis
Title Photo by Jennifer Boyer
Photo of Frankenstein by cdrummbks
Photo of Grimes by Jack O’Leary-McNeice