With the celebration of Orwell Day – remembering the enduring influence of writer and essayist George Orwell- taking place this week, I began taking a moment or two to consider the influence other
With the celebration of Orwell Day – remembering the enduring influence of writer and essayist George Orwell- taking place this week, I began taking a moment or two to consider the influence other great writers have had in our culture and what, if anything, makes the worth remembering. But, illuminated with the rather bleak and candid torch of modern celebrity, it soon became clear to me that in the 21st century we are perhaps more interested in the lives of the writers themselves, rather than the brilliant artistry that makes them worthy of remembrance.
It’s 9am on 11 February 1963. A nurse has just arrived outside a handsome Victorian terraced house in Primrose Hill, London. She is paying a house call, helping with childcare. She will ring the bell several times. There will be no answer. After a few minutes, a workman will help her into the house and together they will gain access to the flat in question. Inside, they will find Sylvia Plath. She has put her head in the oven and gassed herself to death. Her two children sleep in the next room, unharmed.
Sylvia Plath’s suicide is one of the most famous deaths in literary celebrity. Married to the talented and subsequently infamous poet Ted Hughes, Plath’s own talent as a poet and novelist is often overlooked in favour of the drama her stormy relationship with Hughes and her own personal struggle with mental illness.
Over 20 years earlier, Virginia Woolf the modernist novelist and essayist filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the River Ouse. Her body was found a month later. Like Sylvia Plath, Woolf had struggled with mental illness for the majority of her life.
But it is not just suicide that links these two women. It is another deeper and arguably more unsettling bond. Both Plath and Woolf are known primarily for their deaths. Yet their contribution to 20th century literature shaped the development of writing both in terms of the Modernist movement and also in terms of women’s writing, something that is tragically undervalued and often ignored.
In 2001, the psychologist James C. Kaufman published a theory that he called The Sylvia Plath Effect. He suggests that poets, particularly female poets are more likely to suffer from mental illness, and therefore be at higher risk of suicide than other creative categories of people. Kaufman’s theory has been internationally discussed and, having been considered in terms of relative and supporting research, has been credited as a plausible idea.
The globally morbid interest in these women and their choices to die, as well as the manners in which they chose to die has been perpetuated by Kaufman. By portraying their creativity as hysterical and intrinsically linked to mental illness, he has belittled their literary output and the artistic influence it has had. Other women writers also said to suffer from The Sylvia Plath Effect include Sara Teasdale, Anne Sexton and Sarah Kane, who all committed suicide, leaving behind them great volumes of writing brushed idly aside by the fame their dramatic deaths. Kaufman is peddling tabloid drama that surely fails to override the great output of these women and the intellectual contributions they have made.
So next time you reach for your copy of The Bell Jar, or The Voyage Out please allow the weight of writing and the wealth of ideas and the depth of imagination to dispel the hype and re-write The Sylvia Plath Effect. As Woolf had it: “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.”
To reduce these women’s lives to mere spectacle is surely to belittle their art.