New novel explores the continuing influence of poet Sylvia Plath: 'She is all of us'
The new novel “The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.” uses real and fictional people and events to explore the continuing influence of poet Sylvia Plath.
At the center of the book is a mystery involving another novel: Plath’s semi-autobiographical work “The Bell Jar.” The novel tells the story of a bright young college student who struggles with mental illness and ends up in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt. “The Bell Jar” was published in January 1963 only a month before Plath took her own life. Eventually, it became a best seller and is still widely read today.
Journalist and psychotherapist Lee Kravetz is the author of “The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.” Plath’s “present and incurrent” voice in “The Bell Jar” is part of what makes this journey through a manic episode relevant 60 years later, he says.
“In the middle of the novel, [Plath’s] main character winds up hospitalized for trying to kill herself,” Kravetz says. “But if you really read it from the very beginning, you realize that she’s actually manic from page one. And the way that she sort of allows us to get into her character’s mind and behind her eyes, it was almost journalistic.”
Kravetz first picked up the novel while working in a mental hospital in Northern California — the same one where Ken Kesey worked that inspired “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — after getting his master’s in psychology. One day, Kravetz saw “The Bell Jar” in the waiting room and found it remarkable how the book could have been written today.
One character in Kravetz’s book is Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, who treated Plath at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. Plath called Barnhouse Dr. Nolan in “The Bell Jar.” In “The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.,” this character teaches readers about what treatment of psychiatric patients was like when Plath was a patient at McLean.
Beyond being Plath’s psychiatrist, Barnhouse became a friend and mother figure to Plath, Kravetz says.
Barnhouse was one of the first women psychiatrists in New England in the 1950s. When she started working at McLean in 1952, views and practices around psychiatric help were shifting, he says.
Some psychiatrists at the time subscribed to Sigmund Freud’s approach to treatment and employed methods like electroconvulsive shock therapy, while others started taking a new humanistic approach, Kravetz says. In the novel, Barnhouse takes patients to work with bees and leaves the ward to explore downtown Boston.
“By virtue of her being there and the only woman in the ward, but also more of a modern mindset, [Barnhouse] came in and she realized that actually experiential therapy could really help the patients as well,” he says. “These experiences shaped and helped heal many of the people that before would be locked away for many, many years.”
The narrative in “The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.” is told through three different timelines and three different women, all connected in some way to Plath. Kravetz says he set out to write a novel that shows Plath’s influence during her time and today.
The book starts with Bathhouse taking Plath under her wing when the poet shows up at the hospital during a manic break. Bathhouse teaches Plath the value of being in the moment and expressing herself in a way that wasn’t always allowed at the time.
Back in the ‘50s, many people didn’t share their thoughts or talk about feelings. Learning to express herself pushes Plath into the next phase of her writing career, he says, which led him to the next storyline in the novel.
Plath goes to the Robert Lowell Poetry Workshop at Boston University and develops into the poet people know. She also runs into her biggest competitor Boston Rhodes, based on Anne Sexton — a rivalry that “pushes her toward her inevitable end,” Kravetz says. Then the final modern storyline helps people understand why Plath mattered in her day and now.
Kravetz knew he wanted Sexton, an inspiration who got him interested in poetry, to play a role in the novel. Plath is perhaps the best-known writer of confessional poetry, and Rhodes is a student who would be at the forefront of the genre if Plath wasn’t in the way.
Rhodes takes the rivalry to a level Sexton never would in real life, he says. In reality, Sexton and Plath had mutual respect for each other as their rivalry played out in their work.
“You could see that they were influencing but they’re also sort of pushing against each other as well,” he says. “And as they were doing that, each of them was refining their craft and refining their voice, and their voice was getting louder and louder as well.”
Artistic rivalry is necessary, Kravetz says.
“The novel really touches on how we need our competitors to sort of keep us sharp and to keep us motivated to instill us with a sense of agency,” he says. “I think that was absolutely true for Sylvia, certainly for Anne Sexton and for all the characters in the novel. I think they appreciate Sylvia, but they also feel a little threatened by her as well.”
Kravetz says he relates to the character Estee, the curator at the auction house in the book. One day while Estee is working, two brothers show up with what she believes is the original handwritten drafts of “The Bell Jar.” Someone asks Estee why Plath is relevant today — a question Kravetz asked himself while reading it that planted the seed for this novel.
At the start of her journey into Plath’s work, Estee knows nothing about the poet. But as she digs, she finds a deep connection to Plath’s writing.
“One of the reasons Sylvia Plath is so relevant and remains relevant it’s because she’s talking about thoughts and feelings that all of us have, even those that we don’t talk about openly,” he says. “She was able to get to the truth of who we were and who we are. And as I came to the end of writing the novel, I saw myself in Sylvia more than ever before.”
The one mental illness with a connection to creativity is bipolar disorder — which Plath, Sexton and Lowell all had, Kravetz says.
“You can see how mental illness gave birth to the confessional poetry movement,” he says. “And I really wanted to understand who these people were and how their work sort of influenced the mental health and the psychology of the people who read it.”
People feel seen when they read confessional poetry, he says, and find a place where art and psychology connect.
“The best kind of art sees the way that we think in a way that nobody else can,” he says. “That’s why we relate to it so well.”
Plath’s work is very personal. She writes about her father’s death, her interactions with men, nature and her depressive spirals.
“Yet when we read her, we see ourselves. We see our own demons. We actually can experience the emotions of lust and death and grief that she talks about. They are so similar,” he says. “The reason people connect to Sylvia today is because she is all of us.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Book excerpt: ‘The Last Confessions of Sylvia P.’
By Lee Kravetz
The safe holdings room at the St. Ambrose Auction House has no windows, two late-nineteenth-century oil paintings on the back wall, a small wooden table, and privacy, the most valuable item in the archive. As a master curator for the house, I introduce myself to Elton and Jay Jay, the Dyce brothers. Elton, wearing a gray street jacket, blue jeans, and a T-shirt that reads FREE BEER, IT’S WHAT’S FOR BREAKFAST, asks, “What’s a master curator?” Think of my role as not merely that of a broker, but as a kind of archaeologist, a purveyor of restoration, a butler to history, though my essential utility is that of a caretaker, performing one’s calling with decorum and formality.
Yes, the water’s free.
“My specialty is rare books,” I say, and Jay Jay says he wants to know about the most impressive object the auction house has ever sold. St. Ambrose has moved paintings, atlases, and sculptures, all impressive, all special.
“What I mean is,” Jay Jay says, “what’s the most you’ve ever sold an item for?” I can tell that underneath his baggy pants, spotless white high-tops, and Bruins jersey, Jay Jay is toned, like a convicted felon is toned, like a bored junkyard flunky with a set of barbells is toned.
Several years ago, a Gutenberg Bible in my care sold for twenty-one million dollars. As I say this, the Dyce brothers share a kind of dazed, defenseless awe, and Jay Jay asks, who buys a Bible for twenty-one million dollars? As long as objects come up for auction, there will always be those willing to own them, no matter the cost. Collectors, investors, people for whom money is no object. Rather, it is the sellers who come from different places, different backgrounds, different means.
“So I’m thinking we came to the right place, then,” Elton says. “I mean, if it’s good enough for Gutenberg.”
Elton Dyce used to own a bar on Dorchester Avenue. It went under after his divorce—his second, he says. Afterward, he joined up with his brother’s business, buying and flipping houses, many of them dilapidated and in disrepair. The ones in foreclosure are often abandoned, meaning Elton and Jay Jay are left razing rooms and hauling furniture to Dennison Consignment or selling sofas and dining room sets on eBay. The house on Napoleon Street, an old Victorian, was empty when they purchased it through a probate sale. The Dyce brothers take turns telling me about the sagging old Victorian with the peeling paint, the drooping wraparound covered porch, the dripping radiators, the cracked ceiling plaster.
“Anyway, when we get around to inspecting the attic, I find this,” Elton says, nodding to Jay Jay.
Jay Jay reaches inside a duffel bag at his feet and lifts out a metal container. He places it on the table between all of us.
For a master curator, is there anything more perfect than coming face-to-face with a closed box? For instance, a seller once showed me a shoebox containing a first-edition copy of Victor Hugo’s Cromwell. Within a safety deposit box, I found a well-preserved Book of Hours bordered in illustrations of bright yellow lemons and caterpillars. In a cardboard storage box, I identified a copy of Julius Caesar dating back to the seventeenth century, its pages brown and chipped as though made out of thin sheets of clay. It has been this way from the beginning, when I first spied a dark case high up on a closet shelf in my home, reached my arms, stretched my fingers, brought it down to the floor, and opened it to find a black Corona typewriter—my mother’s—with its three rows of round keys, each one yellow, off-yellow, yellowish white with cracked coverings. The typewriter’s frame, the corner of the frame, specifically the left corner of the frame, was dented, mangled really.
What I’m saying is, objects, like boxes, carry multitudes. What I’m saying is, often when people bring their objects to a master curator for initial appraisal, I still experience a moment of anticipation, of pause, before engaging with it. It’s these revelatory intangibles that still keep me going. What I’m saying is, this is the case with Elton and Jay Jay and the object they’ve brought me today, a grayish-brown container with two flimsy handles on its sides. Keeping it shut is the job of a small, round lock. Fingerprints break its coating of dust. At this point, the box can hold anything. It just might hold everything.
The box looks as though one of the Dyce brothers has taken a screwdriver and pried apart the lock mechanism. “We’re hoping you can tell us what these are,” Elton says, raising the lid.
In my sweater pockets, my hands will always find a pair of cloth gloves. I pull them on before removing three college-ruled notebooks one at a time from the lockbox. Separating the notebooks, I lay them side by side on the table. The cover of the black notebook is torn and partially falling off its metal spiral. The blue cover of the second notebook is mostly intact. Written in black ink across the top of the third notebook’s green cover are the letters V and L.
Jay Jay says that in the house-flipping business, when it comes to seeking and locating hidden gems, he and his brother are like truffle pigs with their noses in the dirt. They know promise when they smell it. “They’re just journals. But . . . I don’t know—I mean, they look old, right?”
“Also, the way the box was wedged up there in the attic,” Elton adds, “it looked like someone put it way back there on purpose.”
“Like it was hidden,” Jay Jay says.
In my time as a master curator, I’ve learned the difference between recovered objects and discovered objects. One is lost. The other is buried, like a secret, like evidence. And yet all objects that transcend time endure a process of burial, a period of hidden preservation. That is, deceit is part of their makeup.
“Anyways,” Jay Jay says, “later, we were watching Antiques Roadshow, and Elton gets this idea that maybe the notebooks we found are worth something.”
I run two fingers across the V and the L drawn in heavy ink on the green cover. The pages inside are filled with handwriting, small, neat, vivid, and tender—
I reach the end of the first sentence and stop reading. It is only after I’ve studied the opening again that I move on to the second line and the third. The pad of my finger traces them like routes along a map, the foreign becoming the oddly familiar.
Elton, catching the color I feel rising in my cheeks, says, “So? What is it?”
“Well,” I say, “it appears someone has deliberately transcribed The Bell Jar.”
Jay Jay’s expression is lodged between mild interest and dull curiosity. He scratches his belly under his jersey. “What’s a bell jar?”
I know The Bell Jar, as a work of classic fiction from the mid–twentieth century, does not exactly fall in line with the more archaic works of my own critical catalog, otherwise procured chronicling the inventory of the Académie des Beaux-Arts, the archives of the Spanish National Library, or even the St. Ambrose Auction House. Still, as a book, The Bell Jar is instantly recognizable to those well versed in works of American literature. It is safe to say that the Dyce brothers are not. They are no more readers than they are antique book collectors.
“It’s a novel,” I say, “a pseudo-memoir really, written roughly fifty-five years ago,” and Jay Jay raises his hand, interrupts me, says why would a person transcribe a whole book? He says that it seems like a real waste of time, and Elton suggests it could be some kid’s school project. Either way, I can tell that the thought of the object being anything less than an authentic manuscript of historical, and therefore high-monetary, value is bringing Jay Jay down.
I lean over the table, returning to the open notebook. The text is full of scratched-out words, and variations of words, and words circled and underlined. To me, it reveals a kind of process.
In my mind, two gears click into place. Quickly, I flip back to the front cover. I touch my fingers again to the letters V and L. The oddly familiar becomes the irrefutable.
“Victoria Lucas,” I whisper to myself.
Elton turns the bill of his cap backward. “Victoria who?”
I raise my eyes to him. “Victoria Lucas. It’s a pseudonym.”
Jay Jay looks bewildered, as though I am speaking in another language. “That means it’s a pen name,” Elton says flatly, and Jay Jay, wounded, says, “I get what a pseudonym is. I’m asking, whose pseudonym is it?”
“Sylvia Plath’s,” I say.
The safe holdings room grows quiet. After a long moment, Jay Jay says, “Okay, I’ll bite. Who’s Sylvia Plath?”
From the book: THE LAST CONFESSIONS OF SYLVIA P. by Lee Kravetz. Copyright © 2021 by Lee Kravetz. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.