Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, was published 50 years ago. In celebration, the novel is Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime this week (listen here), and Andrew Wilson’s recently published Plath biography – Mad Girl’s Love Song – is being read each morning at 9.45, before Woman’s Hour (see here).
(There’s been criticism about Faber’s re-branding of the novel as ‘chick lit’, read Guardian article here. I get the wrath – but think the ‘chick lit’ genre as a whole needs readdressing, not the individual titles being added to it.)
I re-read The Bell Jar on Sunday, in homage, and found my understanding of it had changed since reading it during my English BA.
Until my final year of university I had never felt hugely worried about what I wanted to do with my life (I knew that I loved literature and wanted to write), women’s opportunities in the workplace or mental health issues. Finishing university and moving back to London with dreams of becoming a journalist, I realised that not only is it difficult to make money from writing but that sexism remains rife in journalism.
I left Sussex University an English graduate and began writing freelance for a local newspaper and an overseas property magazine. I also did work placements with The Times, The Independent and ITN.
During these placements, I felt like I was edging into the world I thought I wanted to be immersed in – working with well-known journalists, having articles published in national papers, my research being used for live news shows. But I also felt like an outsider – wondering if I’d ever be offered full time *paid* work, feeling anxious about whether I fitted in, and trying to ascertain whether I actually liked this working environment (particularly ITN, where I was in the windowless, airless basement – working 9am – 10pm each day).
I’m not comparing my writing to Plath’s (obviously) but I can relate to her insecurities about being a young woman, a writer and trying to crack a male-dominated writing world.
Her novel, which is largely autobiographical – based on her real life placement for a magazine in New York – documents the anxieties that she felt as a young woman, deciding what to do with her life – and choosing writing as a career but not knowing how to make this happen.
After a difficult month working at a fashion magazine, feeling lonely and desperate for – but unworthy of – male attention, and still unsure about her career path, the protagonist, Esther, returns home to find she hasn’t been accepted onto the writing course she’d planned to occupy her summer with. She is devastated; in despair, and quickly descends into anxiety and depression.
I have, for periods, felt a similar anxiety: questioning my ability, receiving job/ submission rejections, not getting onto the courses I applied for. As I’m sure all writers have. I began having panic attacks (I am going to write another post about this) and losing confidence.
I later applied for an MA, had an amazing year doing lots of writing and then moved to Somerset, where I did a placement at the Western Gazette. My articles were published daily throughout my time at the paper but after two months, when a job came up and they offered it to a young man from London (who had to move for the job, less qualified than me), I left.
That was my first real taste of overt sexism in the workplace.
I moved to Frome, continued to write, and ran an art gallery full time, before returning to London, beginning to freelance again – copywriting, journalism – and concluding that working from home, choosing my own hours, is preferable – right now – to working full time for a national/ regional paper.
It has been nearly five years since I finished my BA and I am only just settling into my decision to be a freelance writer.
I’ve read lots of women’s reviews of The Bell Jar and many of them recognise themselves in the character of Esther. We all contemplate our life paths, the impact of relationships on our work, whether we will be able to achieve our goals – but I’m hoping that, with the various waves of feminism that have arisen, and continue to rise, over the past half-century – I, and other young women writers out there, won’t wind up in an asylum, like Esther did, and will instead continue to work towards easing oppression and seeking the same opportunities that our male counterparts seek – without buckling at the barriers.