For Hers is the Power and the Fury: Sylvia Plath’s Ariel

Earlier this year I listened to the audio version of The Bell Jar and it unleashed a whole can of worms that I posted publicly. If you don’t want to revisit it, the bottom line is that after years of being a little ashamed of my admiration for Sylvia Plath, I say fuck the haters and Sylvia Plath is awesome.

In high school, we read “Daddy” in one of our poetry units and it knocked the wind right out of me. I wrote a paper on “Lady Lazarus.” In a college class, we read “Tulips.” I loved all of these poems, and all of these poems come from Plath’s posthumous collection Ariel. Most of the poems written in Ariel came from a creative burst in the last six months of Plath’s life. In fact, the anniversary of her death—February 11—just passed.

For my staff reading challenge, I was supposed to read a book of poetry. I chose Ariel: The Restored Edition. This edition re-orders the poems to Plath’s original notes. Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes, posthumously edited and published Ariel after her death in two versions: one for the UK and one for the US.

I think perhaps one of the greatest assets of the restored version of Ariel is the introduction, written by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes. Frieda wasn’t yet three when her mother died, so she’s mostly had to live with her mother’s legacy. She argues that her parents were human beings, instead of the public’s preferred casting of her father as a villain and her mother as a saint. It can be hard to remember to think about authors as people and not as archetypes. Here’s a quote from her Foreword I found especially compelling.

I did not want my mother’s death to be commemorated as if it had won an award. I wanted her life to be celebrated, the fact that she had existed, lived to the fullness of her ability, been happy and sad, tormented and ecstatic, and given birth to my brother and me. I think my mother was extraordinary in her work, and valiant in her efforts to fight the depression that dogged her throughout her life. She used every emotional experience as if it were a scrap of material that could be pieced together to make a wonderful dress, she wasted nothing of what she felt, and when in control of those tumultuous feelings she was able to focus and direct her incredible poetic energy to great effect. And here was Ariel, her extraordinary achievement, poised as she was between her volatile emotional state and the edge of the precipice. The art was not to fall. (xix-xx)

But then there’s the poetry in the collection, too, of course. And Ariel is like a good blow to the solar plexus.

Someone told me that Plath’s poetry in particular is very autobiographical—to the point where someone not privy to certain details is unlikely to understand them. I read in the introduction, for example, that the poem “Lesbos” was omitted from the original British publication because the people Plath spends the poem scorning would recognize themselves. Part of me thinks that’s fair because “Lesbos” contains some of the most scathing language I’ve ever read. Before I knew more about Sylvia Plath than that she had committed suicide, I kind of thought of her as a wilting flower. Now I view her as one of the Furies.

Mostly, after reading this collection I wish I’d taken more than my required Intro to Poetry and Poetics. I’ve always been afraid of poetry and I still kind of am. I had an amazing professor for that class (and for my Renaissance lit class, which involved a lot of sonnets and whatnot), so it wasn’t the instruction. I see my anxiety as two-fold: first, most poetry I’ve read just hasn’t spun my wheels. Every once in a while, a poem will grab me. For example, I got really stuck on “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter” in a crazy way. But I have also enjoyed Thomas Wyatt, John Donne, and Frank O’Hara.

So there is poetry out there for me. Mostly, though, I often see poetry is scary. It’s dense, it’s rich, it goes deep. I’m much more comfortable with a lot of text to chew on. With poetry, it feels harder mine the riches just from the page. Sparse stanzas and profound metaphor give me headaches. One of my friends took a class on poets like Wallace Stevens and just hearing about it was rough. I’m not smart enough for poetry and I’m not a person who does well outside my comfort zone. (Which then brings me into a bunch of stuff I don’t like about myself that there’s not even enough room on the internet to talk about.)

I’m ashamed to be as undereducated on the subject as I am. But I would also eat Sylvia Plath if I could, even though at best I understood about 50% of what these poems even could possibly be about. I still felt drawn to them because Plath’s diction is so exacting and precise (the sign of reading too much nineteenth-century lit?), but I felt really stupid for not understanding them. It wasn’t just not understanding them…it was feeling like I was looking for gardening tools in the kitchen.

But the power of Plath is that I relate to her work with so much of my heart and soul. Is it her confessional mode? Is it the moods she invokes? Is it that the critics are right, that I am a depressed piece of shit wallowing in my depressed shittiness in any way that I can?  I don’t know. I really don’t. What I know is that when I read Ariel I could see things I’ve felt but beautifully on the page before me. And what I know is I want to read more poetry. And I know I want to know more.



If I Don’t Become a Sci-Fi Reader, I’ll At Least Become an Octavia Butler Reader

Spoiler alert: If Parable of the Sower doesn’t give you all the feels (or at least some of them), then you are made of stone.

It might surprise you to learn that in addition to not being much of a fantasy reader, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader either. I’m even less of a sci-fi viewer than I am fantasy: I think the tone of sci-fi is usually bleaker, and I don’t give a shit about space/spaceships/technology/aliens/many of the tropes and oversimplifications that come to mind. I do love the original Star Wars trilogy because I’m not a robot (sci-fi joke?).

I have known many sci-fi fans throughout my life and virtually none of them have convinced me to give the genre a try. Like most other tenth graders, I did have to read 1984 and I was like “whatever.” I did have friends growing up who have always told me, “Octavia Butler is really awesome.” For the oft-discussed Staff Reading Challenge at work, I decided my science fiction book would be Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Holy. Fucking. Shit.

Parable of the Sower takes place outside Los Angeles in the 2020s (2024-27ish). It’s told from the perspective of Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl growing up in a walled community outside Los Angeles. The U.S. has more or less fallen apart: global warming leads to scarce water and astronomical food prices; bands of scavengers roam around stealing, killing, and setting fires; dangerous street drugs threaten communities; corporations make actual slaves out of their workers. Lauren also struggles with something called “hyperempathy,” a condition brought about by her biological mother’s drug abuse, which causes her to feel the physical pain of anyone she sees.

Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister and she finds herself disagreeing with him over issues of faith. She begins to carve out her own, which she writes in verse in her diary, called Earthseed. As she grows up, she is forced to leave the community she called home and wander in search of a better future. Along the way, she encounters others who have survived horrific circumstances and starts to create a community that she hopes will prosper under her plan for Earthseed.

That’s pretty much glossing over this novel. This novel is gripping, it is heart-wrenching, and it is terrifying. Butler originally published Parable of the Sower in 1993 and she did her research about the threats she recognized to be facing society. Again: corporate greed, wealth disparity, climate change, dangerous drugs. Butler passed away in 2006, but I wonder if she ever talked about how her predictions had actually begun to come to light. They’re sickeningly prescient to me.

A quick diversion: when I was in eleventh grade, we read The Stranger. I loved The Stranger so much I’m afraid to re-read it because in one of my college French classes we read Nausea (or La Nausée because it was in French). I hated Nausea because it’s so obviously a vehicle for Sartre’s schema of existentialism: the characters are all in service of philosophy and it shows even with the language barrier. Perhaps The Stranger is the same if I look at it now that I have an actual literature degree. But this is something Butler manages to avoid beautifully: the problems are speculative and allegorical, but they don’t really feel that way.

My quibble: the love plots. Lauren has a couple of boyfriends both in- and outside her walled community. Now I’m generally not a fan of love stories, but Butler’s treatment was kind of weird. People kind of just get together and when they’re together they’re “together” and when they’re not physically together you kind of forget they are a couple. It was a little jarring, but it kind of makes sense in the novel’s epistolary form. I think Lauren has enough feelings about real shit (like the danger of feral dogs carrying off babies) that she probably doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about romance. But some element of romance is there and when it occurred, I kind of just went, “wait…what?”

What I really enjoyed about this book is that it wasn’t all bleak, even though it was pretty damn bleak. There is hope for Lauren and her companions, but it’s hope they must struggle to hold onto as they continue to encounter dangers. It’s also not cheesy hope. Like, through the power of community they won’t overcome global warming or melt the icy heart of a corporate slaveowner. They still have to use firearms to defend themselves and don’t think twice about it. It’s the kind of hope that seems appropriate to have given the reality they live in.

So, yes, everyone, go read Parable of the Sower, and make sure you have a box of Kleenex and something to hug nearby.

I’d love recommendations for your favorite sci-fi novels. But if I ever read only one sci-fi author ever, I’m pretty happy to have chosen Octavia Butler.

As If Kids Weren’t Terrifying Already, I Read A High Wind in Jamaica

Warning: As with most books I want people to read for themselves, I don’t spoil much of A High Wind in Jamaica.

A friend told me about A High Wind in Jamaica years ago and I’ve been wanting to read it ever since. Some time ago, the New York Review of Books said it was one of the best novels of the twentieth century or something. I even got halfway through once. It was my turn to pick for my book club, and the rest of the group went along with me, so I finally got to read it.

Written in 1929 and set in the nineteenth-century Caribbean, A High Wind in Jamaica is the story of the Bas-Thornton family. Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton have five children and live in a ruined plantation. Most of the story is filtered through the perspective of the children, particularly the oldest daughter, Emily, age 10. After a hurricane destroys their home, Mr. and Mrs. Bas-Thornton put the children on a boat bound for England. The ship is taken by pirates and the children (along with those from another family they knew in Jamaica) are also abducted. But what follows is not exactly what you’d expect.

The novel actually really reminded me of Wide Sargasso Sea, and even Jane Eyre in some regards, particularly in the descriptions of the islands. (For some reason, all the vegetation seems to bother British-born characters.) Hughes’s novel takes place after the 1833 Emancipation of Britain’s Caribbean colonies, but the narrator says something about not being to the West Indies since 1860, so I think it might take place in that intervening 20-25 year period. Either way there are similar shades to Rhys’s novel, though the locale is portrayed very differently.

I’m not 100% sure what I thought of this novel. I liked it overall, but I think I’d built it up too much in my mind. I found the descriptions to be powerful and economical. The introduction has no biographical notes about Hughes, but does note that he is reacting to Wordsworth’s conception of childhood as some time of purity and innocence. But as someone who has read my share of Victorian novels (though I think I was sick when we talked about Victorian childhoods in my class on Victorian novels), I think Hughes’s portrayal is also a radical departure from those. Characters that I’ve read from Dickens, the Brontës, and George Eliot are pretty innocent, but I’d characterize them more as vulnerable than necessarily innocent (especially Jane Eyre and Catherine Earnshaw).

The Bas-Thornton children are neither innocent nor vulnerable. The psychological portrait Hughes weaves of each is fascinating—unlike almost anything I’ve read before. His style is very dry, very dark, and very matter-of-fact in a macabrely humorous sort of way. I wish I could remember more of the Virginia Woolf I’ve read, because I have the distinct feeling there must be some way they’re similar—probably due to Woolf’s trademark psychological realism. But even Woolf’s child characters seem to absorb everything around them and carry it with them. Hughes’s tend to be oblivious or put up walls or react to immediate circumstances in terrifying or bizarre ways.

At times, the portrait is darkly funny, and sometimes outright disturbing. Again, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the book. I liked it, but I expected to love it. I could chalk it up to a bad reading, but I’m not sure that would remedy things. I was left with a weird feeling of foreboding. Not quite worthy of curling up in the fetal position, but enough it will stay with me until I re-read.

I have to add, I think my reading was colored by two external factors: 1) I had a very stressful week and had to burn through the book in under 24 hours (I know, I know); 2) the night before the book club meeting to discuss A High Wind in Jamaica, I read about 1/5 of the book and then went to see a special showing of EraserheadEraserhead is David Lynch’s first feature film, a terrifying and surreal look at a man who unwittingly fathers a baby that terms out to be severely deformed (i.e., not even human). I can’t help but wonder how much watching Eraserhead colored my reading of A High Wind in Jamaica. I already find kids kind of scary, so between the novel and the movie I think I’m just going to be giving any and all children some serious side-eye for a while yet.

I LOL’d at Something Nasty in the Woodshed: Gushing Over Cold Comfort Farm

Warning: this post reveals details from the novel Cold Comfort Farm. I really can’t tell if they’re spoilers or not, but I’m thinking not really.

I wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm before watching the movie (and I did, but I’ve seriously been sitting on that post for a month and it was only missing a paragraph). It’s rather a short novel. I had trouble finding it in the US—it is available on Amazon, but it’s one of those editions with deckled edges and I prefer to avoid deckled edges if possible. And, unpopular opinion time: I don’t like Amazon. I am super picky about my book editions  so I buy a lot of used and half the time if I get the one I want in a timely manner it is not in the condition advertised. Anyway, I found a good old non-deckled Penguin Classics Edition on my trip to England. I should have begun to read it then, since we visited some of the novel’s environs (Sussex), which are heartily and hilariously mocked at every turn.

Cold Comfort Farm was written by Stella Gibbons and published in 1932. As we flew through the winding country lanes of Sussex on the Virginia Woolf Tour, I expressed to my professor a worry I might not really get Cold Comfort Farm without reading some of the authors Gibbons pokes fun at, the two most famous being Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence. I have read Wuthering Heights, of course, but had never heard of Mary E. Mann. My professor assured me that it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any Lawrence or Hardy, and anyway Cold Comfort Farm is really poking fun at a couple of Gibbons’ contemporaries, Sheila Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb, whose work seems even harder to find than Gibbons’. Both these authors as well as Gibbons were very prolific in throughout their lives, but it seems Cold Comfort Farm is the standing popular legacy of all three.

Cold Comfort Farm is the story of an educated young Londoner named Flora Poste, who finds herself orphaned and without much to live on. Flora has ambitions of being a novelist later in life, and to publish the next Persuasion—but not until she’s 53. She wants to spend the intervening years gathering material, and while doing that she wants to tidy up the lives of any country relative that will have her. She chooses to live with the Starkadders at Cold Comfort Farm, Howling, Sussex. Something happened between Flora’s father and Judith’s husband—some wrong and she’s owed some kind of rights.

Flora certainly has her work cut out for her when she arrives. The Starkadders and their ilk live in squalor on their failing farm, just accepting the terrible conditions they live in as their fate. The linchpin of the Starkadders is their matriarch, Ada Doom (who married the late Fig Starkadder). As Flora’s pragmatic modernizing begins to take hold of the Starkadders, she finds herself the target of Ada Doom’s fury.

This novel is, in short, hilarious. In fact, it really is a shame it’s hard to find Kaye-Smith and Webb in print (I think they may be available by e-book, but I don’t have an e-reader) because I’m just dying to see how badly Gibbons skewers them. The names are ridiculous (Lemony Snicket owes a great debt to Gibbons). The narration frequently shifts gears into a lofty, brooding register that goes on in great detail about the earth. I lol’d heartily and most of my annotations are “hahaha,” “LOL,” and “Never not funny.” The characters had me in stitches. Here’s just a taste of Seth, the lusty younger Starkadder son:

He laughed insolently, triumphantly. Undoing another button of his shirt he lounged out across the yard to the shed where Big Business, the bull, was imprisoned in darkness.

Laughing softly, Seth struck the door of the shed.

And as though answering the deep call of male to male, the bull uttered a loud, tortured bellow that rose undefeated through the dead sky that brooded above the farm.

Seth undid yet another button, and lounged away. (41)

I made the comment in my post on Wuthering Heights that the characters in Emily Brontë’s novel just seem to soldier on toward their own dooms, and leaving being enough doom for their children to also be doomed to lives of misery. That element is taken to extremes in Cold Comfort Farm (which may take Wuthering Heights as one of the targets of its parody).  Perhaps the most famous is Ada Doom’s repeated line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed”—an event that has traumatized her for seventy years and keeps her bedridden and prone to rather convenient bouts of madness.

Examples abound, but most of them can be summed up by saying that the Starkadders do things as they have always been done and any attempt to get over it is seen as an affront to nature. Meriam, the hired girl, has born four of Seth’s children out of wedlock, and everyone but Flora views it as something that just happens every spring. When Meriam insists birth control is “‘flying in the face of Nature,'” Flora counters that, ‘Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy'” (70).

There are some metafictional asides that fed my inner English Major (yes, there’s a separate, inner one) and reminded me of Northanger Abbey. Gibbons seems to write for English Majors, and Flora may be one of the ONLY examples of a novel heroine who reads a lot of novels and walks away without being addled by all that literature. Take this delightful quotation:

Flora did indeed know. The quotation was from Shelley’s Adonais. One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was the fact that all kinds of persons acquired a familiarity with one’s favourite writers. It gave one a curious feeling; it was like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing-gown. (104-105)

It’s funny and it’s spot-on, but it’s also a good example of how Gibbons’ narrator frequently acknowledges the preceding tradition of English literature. Austen references abound in this novel (in fact, one of Flora’s biggest changes to Cold Comfort Farm is inspired after she reads a sentence from Mansfield Park).  And, of course, Flora’s aspirations are not just to write a novel as fine as Austen, but she does the sort of social arranging of Emma. And of course, Cold Comfort Farm has a rather unforgiving narrator satirizing country society, though manners are much more scarce than in Austen.

Sometimes this acknowledgment has a rather feminist bent. Perhaps that’s not what Gibbons was aiming for, but authorial intent is dead yadda yadda yadda. I’d really like to develop this line of thinking further, actually, because some of the mentions of the female-penned novels and agricultural novels Flora reads seem to be rather satirical. But there is great reverence for Austen and also the Brontës in a strange way. One of the people Flora meets is a writer named Mr. Mybug (actually Meyerburg, but no one does). Mr. Mybug is in the process of writing a book claiming that, based on the indirect evidence of three letters, that poor, sober Branwell Brontë actually wrote all the novels his sisters took credit for, while the sisters were all drunkards, jealous of his genius. He also doesn’t believe a woman could have possibly written Wuthering Heights and asks Flora if she believes women have souls. So I’m not sure what the relationship is between Gibbons’ ribbing of the agricultural novels Flora reads (after all, she learns well how to handle Cold Comfort from them) and her deep respect for Austen and the Brontës. But there’s definitely something there and I liked that something and would love to revisit it and unpack it.

On a personal note, this novel was a great way for me to tie my year of reading together, even if I’m not done with that year of reading yet. But this year I have so far finished the three Austen novels I hadn’t read (only counting the six complete novels, mind you), and my goal of finishing the complete Brontë novels (with three left). So Gibbons felt like someone in that tradition, even if that seems to be part of her project.

Things I didn’t like were trifles: the plot is a bit rushed at the end, and there is bizarre futurism afoot. By “bizarre futurism” I mean that the Gibbons makes reference to wildly anachronistic technology and wars that never happened (particularly the Anglo-Nicaraguan War of 1946). The rest of the novel seems to be contemporary to 1932, so these references are just jarring. Of course Gibbons didn’t know that a World War would explode within a decade either, but it gives those moments that acknowledge the temporal setting a really weird tone. Also, Mr Mybug/Meyerburg is an unfortunately anti-Semitic caricature, but truthfully I’ve heard more appalling anti-Semitism come from the mouths of people I’ve met, so it didn’t put me off 100%.

And the film adaptation is marvelous, as well. In fact, the screenwriters smooth over some of the novel’s wrinkles beautifully, but maintain very true to the novel. And the novel itself is so much fun to read: I really can’t do it enough justice here. I highly suggest everyone read Cold Comfort Farm and celebrate by watching the movie—and avoiding any woodsheds, lest they see something nasty.

Seven Period Pieces to Get You Through the Downton Drought

Warning: Contains spoilers up through the Series Three Christmas Special of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey‘s fourth season has begun across the pond, and is set to hit this side of the Atlantic in January. (Pretending, of course, there aren’t ways to find the show online before then.)

I can’t stop watching Downton Abbey, no matter how much I may want to. Most people pinpoint the start of the show’s sharp decline in quality to its portrayal of the Great War at Downton. For me, the third episode where Mr. Pamuk dies in bed with Lady Mary was kind of a stretch, but I agree Season Two was where it took a turn to truly groan-worthy. Season Three just made me mad: the cast ballooned with a bunch of forgettable characters (clearly writer/creator Julian Fellowes hasn’t seen and /or learned from Season 2 of Twin Peaks), plots completed their arcs at a rapid-fire pace, and it just wasn’t as good. Every week I would watch Downton and throw up my hands and be like, “Stop trying to pull my heart strings with your weak attempts and just make a better show and slow it the fuck down! If you add one more maid or aristocrat, I’m walking!” (I never did.)

One thing that bothers me a lot is the show’s hurray-for-jolly-old-England tone, which is as annoying as it is inconsistent. Granted, at this point more than eight years have passed on the show, and we’ve seen a fair amount of social change. But at the beginning of the show, Lord Grantham is this like eccentric dude who hires a valet with a bad leg to the complete horror of the other servants (I’m pretty sure Cora calls him “eccentric” at intervals). So Lord Grantham is like a progressive-minded dude who just loves his estate, right? Maybe it’s the War that changes him (I’ll have to re-watch, even though the thought makes me shudder), but that’s not him anymore. Somewhere a shift happened and now he’s all about propriety and fighting change. Like, Julian Fellowes can be a Tory, whatever, but the way the show engages with massive societal upheaval is so weird and it’s not done very well. They might as well give Lord Grantham a Union Jack cape. Except when it’s convenient, like when his own damn son-in-law participates in the fire-bombing of an Anglo-Irish Earl. No bigs.

And that’s another thing. Branson is an Irish Republican and the period during which Downton takes place is one of the most important historical moments in Irish history (here’s a primer to get you started). I went to Ireland just before the premiere of Downton Series Three. In preparation for my trip, I read a couple of short histories of Ireland. I’m by no means a scholar of Irish history, but Julian Fellowes barely addresses the so-called “Irish question” at all. Instead, Branson almost gets in trouble for participating in a fire-bombing, but he doesn’t, and when he sees the nobleman’s family out in the cold he feels really bad about it. I’m not saying he has to blow up Downton, but Jesus Christ, the English were killing his countrymen in the streets at that exact point in time. You think Branson might be a little conflicted marrying into the English aristocracy while his countrymen are fighting a war with the English? A gray area?! Horrors!  I’m not even saying that Branson doesn’t have to change his mind and become Lord Grantham’s BFF, but every time his radical politics come up, they end up just fading away and I’m wondering why Fellowes even bothered with the character.

Also, THEY KILLED OFF SYBIL. (I know, I know, the actress didn’t want to renew her contract, but could they have written her a better send off even if she had to die?)

Sybil was my favorite character. For one thing, Irish revolutionary chauffeurs are sexy as hell (see Entry #4 below). For another thing, Sybil was one of the few characters who live at Downton Abbey that actually engages with the wider world, particularly in the political spheres. When the War was on, Mary just angsted over getting married, and Edith helped kind of (and like drove a truck for a farmer and presided over the plot line with the worst prosthetic burn-victim makeup ever?), but Sybil learned how to boil some damn water and went to damn nursing school. If they had to kill her off, it should have at least been in a better way than “her father doesn’t want to offend the visitor by taking her to a hospital” or something. Like, it was pretty okay for the episode where Cora blamed Lord Grantham, but they reconciled pretty quickly. Again, your being a windbag contributed to the death of our youngest child? Well as long as you feel bad about it I guess it’s okay. Back to normal!

Alright, now that the rant is over, the point is this: whether you’re pining for the return of Downton or watch it on mute just to see the outfits, I’ve constructed a list of quality costume dramas to either get you through or set you free.

Before the list, I’ll note one strange omission: I haven’t seen Upstairs, Downstairs (the original or the purportedly awful remake) despite my love of upstairs-downstairs dramas.

1. If you want Downton-grade melodrama, watch The Grand

Another series about England in the 1920s, The Grand follows the lives of the staff and guests of a hotel in Machester. Like Berkeley SquareThe Grand is an urban drama, so there’s a lot less fox-hunting but a lot more intrigue. There’s also no aristocracy to speak of: John Bannerman has poured his whole life (and life-savings) into restoring his father’s pride and joy after World War I: The Grand Hotel. On the eve of its reopening, John and his wife, Sarah, are suddenly forced to ask John’s shady businessman brother, Marcus, to use his money and influence to save their hotel. Other plot lines include a maid becoming a protégé of the resident prostitute with disastrous results, the Bannermans’ son dealing with the after-effects of what he saw on the battlefield, and Marcus’s pursuit of his sister-in-law.

The Grand suffers from a similar affliction to that of Downton: a sharp decline in quality from the first to the second season. But while The Grand certainly ratchets up the drama in the second season, it’s certainly no worse than Downton Abbey. Also, be prepared for some casting changes between the two seasons: I’ll admit I never got used to them—maybe because of the decline in quality.

2. If your favorite Downton characters are the staff, watch Berkeley Square

This one-season series is everything I love about BBC Miniseries in the 1990s: a bit of melodrama, but strong enough writing to pull it off. The series follows three nannies who all work in Berkeley Square, London in 1902: the no-nonsense Matty, the struggling Hannah, and the boisterous Lydia. The series deals with the clash between Edwardian and Victorian ideas of things like masculinity, morality, and childhood.

I haven’t yet read Margaret Powell’s Below Stairs (although technically Powell was a kitchen maid, not a nanny), but if it’s anything like Berkeley Square, those women had a hard life. Beyond the generational clash of ideals, the nannies have to deal with things like being separated from their families, putting up with unwanted sexual advances from their employers, and even keeping their personal histories secret for fear that one bad reference will render them unemployable forever. Some of the plot points are a little silly, but the good outweighs the bad in this series.

3. If you think Downton was best before the Great War, watch The Shooting Party

I’ll show you below how Gosford is parent to Downton, but The Shooting Party is Downton‘s great-aunt. The movie is based on Isabel Colegate’s novel of the same name. The Penguin Modern Classics edition features an introduction by Julian Fellowes, so the similarities aren’t just coincidental. Set at a country estate in 1913, The Shooting Party is much leaner on servants than either Downton Abbey or Gosford Park. Even without much of the downstairs crowd, there’s still a palpable sense that the society these excessive Edwardians enjoy is starting to crumble at the edges.

4. If you wish Downton were bloodier, watch Boardwalk Empire

For some reason, Downton Abbey‘s version of the Roaring 20s doesn’t do it for me—they’re more like the Yawning 20s. I’m not the most knowledgeable person about interwar Britain, but I can tell you two things they didn’t have: Prohibition and a massive crime wave. Boardwalk Empire follows Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, the treasurer of Atlantic County, NJ, as he moves through the underworld of organized crime. Atlantic City itself is a little small-time, but Nucky engages with hard-hitting gangsters of the time in New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati. Downton Abbey will have an appearance of Virginia Woolf, but Boardwalk Empire features Al Capone as a major character (the downside to this is historical spoilers). If Downton’s lack of brutal killing and nudity get you down, get thee to HBO! (There’s even a sexy Irish revolutionary chauffeur and he does not back down.)

5. If you want to see what Branson’s countrymen are going through, watch The Wind that Shakes the Barley

If you get as worked up about the veritable neutering of Branson as I do, and if you haven’t had a good cry in a while, I suggest this movie. The film follows the O’Donovan brothers (played by Cillian Murphy and Pádraic Delaney), who live in County Cork during the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War that followed. At first, they disagree on whether or not to enter the guerilla warfare that engulfs the Irish countryside. They both join the IRA’s fight against the English, but after enduring some truly terrible things together the brothers find themselves divided again by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. There is some critical controversy over the film’s interpretation of Irish history, but as a film it’s heart-wrenching.

6. If you often roll your eyes during your Downton viewing, watch Cold Comfort Farm

Based on Stella Gibbons’s satirical novel of the same nameCold Comfort Farm is a parody of rural melodramas written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Flora Poste is orphaned at nineteen with an education, no fortune, an abundance of country relatives, and a love of meddling. She meets a challenge in her cousins, the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. The Starkadders are a gloomy bunch who go through ridiculous motions: their fieldhand is pushing ninety and cleans dishes with a twig, the hired girl is impregnated every spring by the lusty young son, and the farm is in terrible repair. The family prefer to toil hard toward their grim fates, under the thumb of their purportedly mad matriarch: Ada Doom, who doesn’t take kindly to the changes Flora has in mind. Ian McKellan, Stephen Fry, and Eileen Atkins support Kate Beckinsale, along with a fantastic cast of others. It’s not as uproariously funny as the novel, but it’s a great adaptation.

7. If you keeping watching Downton but wish it were just better all around, watch Gosford Park

Gosford Park is like the parent of Downton Abbey. A murder mystery set at a country estate shooting party in 1932, Gosford Park won Julian Fellowes an Oscar for best screenplay and it really deserved it. In the first season of Downton, I described the TV drama to friends as “Gosford Park before the interwar cynicism.” There are stark similarities in Maggie Smith’s playing a judge-y old aristocrat and you can see shades of Thomas Barrow in George the footman’s sneer. The humor is dry, the characters are fabulous, and things are subtle. The case includes not just Maggie Smith, but Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen, Helen freaking Mirren, Michael Gambon, Ryan Phillipe, Bob Balaban, and scads and scads of others. I never tire of watching these two-and-a-half hours of perfection. I frequently re-watch this film and wonder: what happened, Julian Fellowes?

Readers, what are your favorite shows/films/miniseries that take place between 1900 and 1940? What have I missed? What should I get next? It’s a long time till January…

The Misery Chick: Revisiting (and loving) The Bell Jar

Warning: I spoil The Bell Jar kinda, but not too much. Also I feel guilty for not using page numbers. Sorry!

My high school nickname was “Debbie Downer”; when I said something about, I don’t know, the world going to hell or something, my best friend would often shout out, “Debbie Downer! Wah wah!” When I was a teenager, I idolized no one more than Daria Morgendorffer and I emulated her in many ways; if anyone had watched Daria, I could have just as easily been called “the misery chick.” Another pop culture role model of mine was Kat Stratford from 10 Things I Hate About You. I know I read The Bell Jar on my own high school, and I probably read it because Kat read it. I have the distinct memory of spending a two-hour bus ride back from a band festival in my itchy symphonic band dress, trying to plow through Plath’s novel while people in the percussion session kept shoving food garbage onto the seat next to me. Other than that, I had no idea what was between the covers.

Until this past month. I chanced upon the audiobook version of The Bell Jar at the library and checked it out immediately. I just moved into a new apartment and I volunteer at a local library and thought maybe it was time to fill those silent hours with literature. I had great success listening to Tina Fey’s Bossypants while packing up from my previous house. Before my experiences with audiobooks had just let my mind wander, but either I’ve changed or I’ve trained myself with years of podcasts.

The one-sentence summary of The Bell Jar is that it’s the story of Esther Greenwood’s mental breakdown and consequent institutionalization in the 1950s. In some ways, that’s all there is to the plot. But the novel is so much more than that: the novel is the portrait of the dissolution of a young woman’s psyche, a young woman who has worked hard all her life, and is a talented writer, and seems like she should have it together.

I read some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry in the eleventh grade AP English (probably after my forgettable reading of The Bell Jar). Eleventh grade was one of the toughest years for me emotionally for a variety of reasons. We read “Daddy” in class. I wrote a paper on “Lady Lazarus” that received the first “perfect” score my teacher had given out on an English paper all year. Again, I remember loving the poem intensely at the time, but when an episode in Season Five of Mad Men came out with the same title, I was shocked that the final lines, which might as well be one of my rallying cries, had evaporated from my memory:

Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

So…why the Sylvia Plath amnesia?

Just before checking out the audiobook of The Bell Jar, I went to see Salinger, a documentary about the life and fame of J.D. Salinger. I tried to read The Catcher in the Rye when I was a shitty fifteen-year-old. I hated the book too much to finish it. Holden Caulfield was an asshole, the kind of shitty fifteen-year-old I couldn’t relate to at all (or maybe I could relate to him too much, but the voice is so annoying). I tried Franny and Zooey instead, and couldn’t finish that either because I thought J.D. Salinger was an asshole.

I think I got what I expected out of Salinger. A lot of it was fan boy service to Salinger—not just some of the people who’d driven to rural New England to track him down to profess their love or people who knew him. Some of it was just actors. I mean, I love Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Martin Sheen and Edward Norton, but what exactly are they doing in a literary biography but gush? Salinger has enough fans in authors, professors, friends of his, whatever.

Salinger kind of solidified what I’d assumed about J.D. Salinger: he was a dick. He saw terrible things during the war, he had a hard time dealing with fame, he went from struggling to be noticed by The New Yorker to the toast of mid-century literature. He also married a member of the Nazi Party, he treated his wife (different wife) and children horribly, and creeped on teenage girls all the damn time. I know we all forgive our heroes their shortcomings, but Salinger is not my hero and I was totally grossed out by the biographical details I learned about him, no matter how revolutionary he was as a writer. Bad English Major. I don’t even care, and anyway I know I’ll have to read Catcher in the Rye one day. I even own a copy. Is that hypocritical? Whatever.

After sitting through Salinger, I started to listen to The Bell Jar and it shocked me. I know it seems like every book I post about shocks me, but they all really do, I promise. I haven’t read a lot of literature from the 1960s, but The Bell Jar seemed way ahead of its time and very relatable to someone who was born a quarter century after Plath died.

The relatability is perhaps best summed up by one of most famous symbols in the novel, the fig tree, which appears at one of the many moments where Esther agonizes over having the world at her feet. But the novel has a much more feminist bent than I remember: Esther is determined to take control of her own sexuality and has some really harsh stuff to say about marriage. At one point (I don’t have an exact quote), Esther says something about how she doesn’t want to do anything a man tells her to do. I’ve found the following quote online:

So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.

Again, I’m not sure what was going on at the time, but this novel came out the same year as The Feminine Mystique, which is widely credited with jump-starting second-wave feminism. Plath also died in 1963, which means that she never got to see the directions feminism would go from there, or live in a time where women had wide access to contraception (The Pill became available to the public in 1960, but it wasn’t always easy to get). But even now, this stance is still somewhat controversial; I can imagine what it would have been like fifty years ago.

I am so glad I took the time to revisit The Bell Jar. I wanted to gorge myself on the prose; I believed my creative writing professor’s saying that writing poetry is the key to writing better fiction. During my first listening session, I loved the following quote so much I took the time to copy it verbatim:

There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you’re the only extra person in the room. It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction. Every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it’s really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from those lights and that excitement at about a million miles an hour.

I’ve had these feelings. I still have this feeling, this exact feeling. And the best thing about the audiobook was that these feelings and thoughts of Esther’s were perfectly expressed by the reader, Maggie Gyllenhaal. If I ever read the text of the novel again, I will hear Gyllenhaal’s voice. She was just perfect.

I was definitely the only person who raised their hand when our American History teacher asked our class, “How many of you consider yourselves a feminist?” When I got to college, there was a whole club for feminism (I dropped out of it after a year, though, because I am lame). In my freshman dorm I said something like, “I’m not a big fan of poetry, but I really like Sylvia Plath.”

I was laughed at for that statement, who promptly dismissed both me and Sylvia Plath. I was The Misery Chick again: high on my own depression. (Looking back, if I’d brought this up in the feminist group, I probably would have gotten the support I needed.) I lived through a couple of years of other assholes dismissing Jane Austen and feminist critics for reasons that make no sense to me. In my senior year, one of the classes I took mentioned Plath’s poem “Tulips” in a theoretical reading. We read the poem, and one of the most-admired, academically rigorous professors on the faculty (who happens to be a man) extolled Plath’s skill as a poet. The person who dismissed Sylvia Plath years earlier was in that class and seemed to agree with the professor. I don’t care if that’s not the way he feels, I felt vindicated.

A friend recently asked me if I thought people thought Sylvia Plath was a better writer than she really was because she committed suicide. I told him I’d found the opposite to be true: people dismiss her as crazy or weak because she committed suicide. It seems like to the average person, the bottom line of Sylvia Plath is that she committed suicide, and it casts a whole tone over her work for them. But we don’t let Hemingway’s suicide color our reading of his works. We generally don’t let J.D. Salinger’s bizarre idiosyncracies color our reading of his, either. Usually it’s frowned upon to let biography interfere with literary products. In my own feelings on Salinger, you’ll just have to take my word that I try to separate Salinger the asshole author from Salinger the asshole person. But most authors don’t have flattering biographies.

The Bell Jar is dark and deals explicitly with suicide and depression. A lot of Plath’s poetry is dark, too, and details the experience of struggling with psychological issues. But isn’t that what makes her work not just relatable, but important? Given some of the stuff I’ve read by present and past male authors on women in general and female authors, it seems like some of what I’ve experienced hearing Plath (and Austen, and feminist philosophers) being dismissed has a lot of it has to do with good, old-fashioned, straight-up sexism.

It doesn’t matter that Salinger wasn’t particularly well-received and may not be factually up to snuff. A group of people still made it and it has an audience. People love Catcher in the Rye, it’s read in high schools all over the country, it’s like the quintessential postmodern bildungsroman. When I listened to Maggie Gyllenhaal read The Bell Jar, I thought, Why not The Bell JarIt made me angry, even. Why does the bildungsroman of postmodern America have to have a whiny prep school asshole at its center? Is The Bell Jar the best novel ever written? No. But how many people are assigned one over the other in school as literature they can relate to? How many people choose to read one novel over the other? How often is that choice made on what is celebrated in popular culture?

So after my incredibly long, imperfect rant filled with what I’m sure are plenty of arguments I can’t articulate beyond “this is how I feel”: revisiting The Bell Jar has helped me reclaim a part of myself I’ve been suppressing. I love this novel. If you don’t, I don’t care. If you don’t think Sylvia Plath had mad skills, I don’t care either. I’m going to pull out one of my favorite Jane Austen quotes for this and every occasion of dismissing Plath as a misery chick or Austen as chick lit: “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

Journeys End in Lovers Meeting, or, Shirley Jackson is Pretty Awesome

Spoiler alert: This post contains some spoilers for Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and links to an article that spoils more Shirley Jackson works. But I try not to spoil too much when I think people should read a work, which is the case here.

My book club’s selection for October was The Haunting of Hill House, which we paired with a viewing of The Shining. I picked the book. For one thing, Halloween is coming up so it seemed festive. For another, I read this article and posted the link to Teh Facebooks, which spurred a friend of mine to tell me that she’s a big fan of Shirley Jackson’s work.

I read “The Lottery” in tenth grade, a short story with a shocking ending that sent a deluge of hate mail Shirley Jackson’s way in 1948. I saw the godawful adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House made in 1999—I thought it was good because I was at an age where I thought anything over a PG rating must be “good.” I don’t necessarily read a lot of the horror genre, but I love authors who are sour on society like Flannery O’Connor and (to a less grotesque extent) Jane Austen. Shirley Jackson is very sour on society.

I really liked The Haunting of Hill House, pure and simple. Jackson’s prose is clean and clear like water. When I have read novels that are supposed to be “scary,” gore doesn’t tend to scare me (except in Blood Meridian, but Blood Meridian is always the exception to me). When I was in high school and a frequent movie-goer, Hostel was the goriest movie in town. Hostel didn’t scare me; Capote scared me because it showed the sequence the whole Clutter family were unwittingly murdered in their beds for no reason. A single, silencing shotgun blast will keep me up at night, but torture porn puts me to sleep.

The Haunting of Hill House is a classic set-up: Dr. Montague invites some people who have experienced psychic episodes to spend the summer at Hill House. Hill House has a tragic history steeped in deaths, and no one who ties to stay there can stand to stay. Dr. Montague invites Eleanor Vance, Theodora (or just Theo), and Luke Sanderson (the heir to the house) to stay so he can run his paranormal experiments. Hill House doesn’t disappoint for strange happenings.

If you read the article linked above, you read that Shirley Jackson had a morbid sense of humor. In The Haunting of Hill House, she does a remarkable job of balancing this humor with the scary parts. The characters are all rather wry and sarcastic with one another until they’re not—and that’s usually the point where something scary happens (or sad; Eleanor’s life has been no picnic). This technique put me on edge every time.

While Jackson’s narrator shifts the perspectives a little bit, it’s most closely aligned with Eleanor throughout the novel. Eleanor is a troubled young woman—young in mind more than body. At thirty-two, she still lives with her sister after spending her twenties nursing her sick mother. Eleanor has an imagination that runs wild from the novel’s beginning, and as her time in the house wears on it’s harder and harder for both Eleanor and the reader to discern where reality ends and her imagination begins. This is done so well you almost don’t notice it, and then have to go back and do a second read to try to untangle what just happened.

To be truthful, one of the strongest emotions I felt while reading The Haunting of Hill House was anger directed squarely at Stephen King. I have a complicated relationship with Stephen King, which I’ve addressed elsewhere. I read Carrie in seventh grade—mainly to scare people. I moved onto The Shining, I loved The Green Mile, but ‘Salem’s Lot was the last straw. I gradually fell out of love with Stephen King, but I was still a fan enough that I watched the terrible miniseries Rose Red. So intrigued was I by the story beneath the awfulness that I even read the accompanying Diary of Ellen Rimbauer to see if maybe it would be better (it wasn’t, but I guess it wasn’t actually written by Stephen King?).

In under five pages of The Haunting of Hill House, the reader has been introduced to Hill House itself and its haunting/psychic energy/scary stuff going on, and also to Eleanor Vance, who psychically triggered a storm of stones to fall on her house as a child. Both Carrie and Rose Red feature troubled young female characters with telekinetic ability who experience an unexplained rain of stones. Both Rose Red and The Shining feature buildings with tragic histories that are somehow alive, or conscious, and prey on the people inside of them. So if you find yourself wanting more from Stephen King than just scary stuff, Shirley Jackson may be your answer. (Yes, I know King doesn’t just write horror, but that’s what he’s known for I think we can all agree.)

I don’t want to punish someone for being successful, but it troubles me that Stephen King can leave his publisher over not offering him enough millions of dollars, while Shirley Jackson died in relative obscurity. I’m not sure I’ve ever been afraid of anything written by Stephen King. What amazed me about The Haunting of Hill House was that I found it scary even though—unlike The Shining (film and book) and The Haunting—is that there aren’t obvious ghosts, like previous caretakers urging other characters to kill. There is no axe-wielding dad. There is only Hill House, Eleanor, and the unexplained. Is Eleanor losing her mind? Is some kind of supernatural mental ability causing the strange happenings? It’s never truly explained, but I prefer it that way, because I’m never feel beaten over the head.

Since I read The Haunting of Hill House, I have bought three more Shirley Jackson novels and a collection of short stories. I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.