“A person who dies at 30 in the middle of a messy separation remains forever fixed in the mess,” Janet Malcolm wrote in “The Silent Woman,” her study of the feud over Plath’s legacy. “To the readers of her poetry and her biography, Sylvia Plath will always be young and in a rage” over the unfaithfulness of her husband Ted Hughes.
This prophecy has proven wrong for the most elemental reasons. Our notion of Plath has grown, and will continue to, as more of her writing appears in print — as “the silent woman” speaks in the restored version of “Ariel,” her final poems first edited by Hughes, in her unexpurgated journals and two volumes of collected letters. It is not the wronged wife but Plath, the artist, who is ascendant — the young writer with her hungry mind who once wrote home, joking: “I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”
“Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” arrives at a moment of passionate rediscovery of neglected women writers (Lucia Berlin, Kathleen Collins) as well as richer appreciations of those we thought we knew (Clarice Lispector, Shirley Jackson, Pauli Murray, Lorraine Hansberry). The young Flannery O’Connor’s journals were rediscovered earlier this decade, and those of Susan Sontag continue to be published. “How to Suppress Women’s Writing,” the classic 1983 feminist manifesto by Joanna Russ, was republished last year. It made the case that the erasure of women writers, and their communities, creates a world in which talented women will always be regarded as anomalous and forced to invent themselves without any knowledge of the tactics, battles and victories of their predecessors.
No more. “A woman writing thinks back through her mothers,” Virginia Woolf wrote — and there have never been so many mothers to consider. Listen to the overlap in these recently published letters and journals, how the voices of these writers join in chorus and splinter apart: “Can’t seem to write unless things are swinging or terrible” (Lucia Berlin); “It Will Come. If I Work.” (Sylvia Plath); “I must love my name. The writer is in love with himself.” (Susan Sontag); “Don’t ever let me think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story” (Flannery O’Connor); “Tired from rowing and reaching across big old beds to make them” (Berlin); “I’m a shivering housefrau waging a day to day battle against cold and dirt” (Plath); “Can I love someone … and still think/fly?” (Sontag); “I believe in liberation, but I don’t believe it is at all the thing we think it is.” (Kathleen Collins)
These letters and journals are laboratories of the self. We see the women becoming legible to themselves, stoking their ambition, making lists — of books to read, words to learn, languages to master. They confess their addictions and fatigue. They share so many of the same struggles; they show us so many different paths.