Recently, I have taken to reading Elizabeth Bowen.
I don't know why I have never read her before now, but anyway, about two years ago I bought an old penguin copy of The Death of the Heart from a second hand book store. It lay on my 'to-read' pile since then, until a couple of months ago during a sleepless night I started to read it. Now I am currently enjoying a Bowen-fest, working my way chronologically through her novels and stories. Needless to say, I am smitten.
14 Wright Street, Cambridge, Mass on 26th May 1953. It was famously captured in a series of photographs by a Mademoiselle photographer. They show a smiling and slightly adoring looking Plath interviewing and engaged in discussion with the older writer. Bowen's advice was that a young writer should "move about the world and keep in contact with people" and keep away from jobs that waste creative energy ("We Hitch Our Wagons" 282). Aspiring writers need, according to Bowen, "both criticism and encouragement" (282). For her own part, Bowen claimed she turned to writing short stories when she failed as a poet, and even then, still preferred the format of a short story to a novel. Her own work sprang out of visual impressions and did not see print without much re-working.
|Bowen's library cards from Smith College.|
Used by permission of the Mortimer Rare Book Room.
Might, however, there be a major Bowen influence in Plath's work that has previously been overlooked? While reading Bowen's first novel The Hotel (1927), I encountered some startling imagery that led me directly back to Plath. In this novel, set on the Italian Riviera, the plot follows the guests and their relationships through a hot and lazy summer. Friendships are forged and broken, love affairs take place and characters are beautifully and subtly drawn by Bowen in poetic and evocative language. One scene, however, between two major protagonists, Sydney and Milton, takes place on a sunny hillside and involves a proposal. The imagery used is as follows:
In the expanse of the free air she had laughed and felt that neither of them were realer than the scenery. Now, at some tone in his voice she was surprised by a feeling that some new mood, not of her own, was coming down over them like a bell-glass. The bright reality of the view, the consciousness of the unimportant, safe little figures were shut away from her; they were always there but could no longer help. She felt the bell-glass finally descend as he, after a glance around at the other benches and over the edge of the plateau, said quickly, 'The thing is, Sydney, aren't I ever to know you?' (p.95)
'Very well,' said Milton and the bell-glass lifted, though it hung above them. She felt as though this image must have presented itself to him also, for he drew as though released from constriction another deep breath of air. (p. 96)Compare this to the imagery Plath chose to use in The Bell Jar (1963):
...because wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air. (p. 196)
All the heat and fear had purged itself. I felt surprisingly at peace. The bell jar hung, suspended, a few feet above my head. I was open to the circulating air. (p. 227)
But I wasn't sure. I wasn't sure at all. How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar with its stifling distortions, wouldn't descend again? (p. 254)The coincidence and similarity is startling and raises the obvious question: did Plath ever read The Hotel? In one of those mysterious and ambiguous moments that history often throws at us, the answer is, it is impossible to know. Smith College holds a 1928 edition of The Hotel which would have been on the shelves during Plath's time there and certainly during the spring of 1953. However, Karen Kukil informed me that in recent years the book has been rebound and the original check out card is missing.
In her letters and journal the previous year, Plath had already drawn upon the image of suffocating under a bell jar. A journal entry on Friday 11th July 1952 describes her fear of giving up her summer job at The Belmont Hotel on Cape Cod and returning home to long, unstructured 12 hour days for 10 weeks: "It is like lifting a bell jar off a securely clockwork-like functioning community and seeing all the little busy people stop, gasp, blow up and float in the inrush (or rather outrush) of the rarified scheduled atmosphere..." (2000: 118). In a letter to Marcia Brown written between 23-24 July 1952 and held at Smith College, Plath describes the "rarified atmosphere" of her life so far as though living under a bell jar.
Bowen, Elizabeth. The Hotel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012.
Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar. London: Heinemann, 1963.
---. The Journals of Sylvia Plath. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.
---. Letter to Marcia Brown, 23-24 July 1952. Smith College.
"We Hitch Our Wagons." Mademoiselle. August 1953: 282.
Listen to Elizabeth Bowen's 3 October 1956 "Truth and Fiction", on the importance of creating strong characters in fiction, from the BBC archive.
Elizabeth Bowen Collection, University of Texas at Austin
All links accessed 18 August 2014.