Having pre-ordered Winder’s book (the latest biographical insight into the life of Sylvia Plath, deemed an absolute necessity for a fan such as myself), I was a little over-excited when Pain, Parties and Work finally arrived on my doorstep. Bringing a welcome break from revision, I finished the 250 odd pages over two short evenings. But, this was not because I was excited to read more or because the text was in any way a ‘page-turner.’ Honestly, I just wanted to have it over and done with. I wanted to finish it as quickly as possible so that I could say that I have read it, so that I could be certain that I was not going to focus my final year dissertation on Sylvia Plath’s life during the summer of ’53 in New York City whilst she was at her Mademoiselle internship.
Winder’s descriptions of make-up brands and popular attire totally threw me: I wanted an insight into Sylvia alone, and hints to suggest that her time at Mademoiselle definitely sparked the catalyst that caused her impending breakdown. I didn’t want to know Maria Callas’ diet tips (swallowing pills that contained tapeworm eggs, for those who are interested). I don’t care which shades of Max Factor lipstick and powder were en vogue. Lists of shampoo brands of the era similarly disarmed me: are any of these trivial, if not totally useless, facts helping me to understand Sylvia? Apparently not.
Despite being extremely well researched, and with wonderful comments from the other girls with whom Sylvia interned at Mlle, I feel that Winder cast Sylvia in a light with which I was not comfortable with. Sylvia is made out to be a shopaholic. Obsessed with tanning. Craving the life of luxury; oysters, champagne, the works. We know these things already from The Bell Jar and her journals. Of course Sylvia reacted like any average 20 year old girl on an adventure in New York, caught up in the whirlwind of all the lunches, plays, ballets, dates with European men, cocktail dresses and shopping sprees. But she was made out by Winder and her fellow internees to be just that: average. Which fans of hers will massively dispute; she was not typical, she was extraordinary. Being depicted as a blonde bimbo, who cared more for a pair of shoes than her studies, seems an unrepresentative portrayal. Perhaps I am just a little heartbroken that my image of Sylvia as an excellent and troubled genius has been distorted into an image of simply a “normal girl.”
Some of the facts given by Winder are priceless. For newcomers to the world of Plath, this book is certainly a good start for uncovering her basic attitudes towards work, relationships and her family. We learn of her love for oysters, her fear of bobby pins, which gifts she received for Christmas, the fact that she drank Fanta. The nightmare in which she is being chased by a marshmallow and a hot dog. Her belief in mermaids, not God. The purchase of a zebra-print bra that delighted her. These are invaluable facts, regardless of whether the reader knew of these facts from reading her journals or guessing the autobiographical aspects of The Bell Jar.
But despite these charming facts, overall I was somewhat disappointed. I thought that this book would be extremely useful for my final year dissertation, but I doubt that I will reference it even once. The focus on fashion, beauty, hedonism, promiscuity and vanity rings untrue of the Sylvia with which I have become acquainted. Perhaps I am disappointed in the distorted image of my Sylvia, rather than the book itself, which is well written, well structured and well researched. The comments from her fellow internees also show Plath in a different light: they don’t remember certain events which were key in The Bell Jar, and have different memories of Sylvia’s personality which are not in-keeping with Plath’s own representation of herself. While providing interesting reading about how young women presented themselves in New York that summer (with strong attention to their social expectations and necessary conformity with fashion trends) the book does little justice to Sylvia the poet.
Elizabeth Winder, Pain, Parties and Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (HarperCollins: New York, 2013)
Available for $25.99 in store, but I paid £13 on Amazon UK.