Before The Bell Jar, before she became known as the “demon-plagued artist,” Sylvia Plath spent one summer in New York City working on Mademoiselle’s annual college issue. Elizabeth Winder’s new book Pain, Parties, Work explores that internship, Plath’s relationship with her fellow interns, her brief romances, and how the time set the stage for the rest of her short life.
To be a woman in the 1950s was to be bombarded with expectation. Teenage girls were to be well-behaved, to do well in school, and once they got to college, they could explore their interests. College girls might end up as “career girls,” but usually only up until they found a husband, when they would “settle down” into the preferred work of housekeeping and child-rearing. Fashion meant gloves, hats, and girdles to go with every tasteful ensemble. At twenty years old, Sylvia Plath stood on the cusp of making so many decisions “during a venomously tropical summer of record-breaking heat.” She took the train to Manhattan and checked into her room at the Barbizon Hotel.
This is the story of an electrically alive young woman on the brink of her adult life. An artist equally attuned to light as the shadows, with limitless hunger for experience and knowledge, completely unafraid of life’s more frightening opportunities. All New York’s gory beauty shooting through her in a white-hot current. Someone vulnerable and playful, who loved to shop as much as she loved to read. This Sylvia has blond hair, a deep tan, one suitcase, several boyfriends, two black sheaths, and a ticket to New York City. Starting on June 1, 1953, she will join nineteen other college young women to work on Madison Avenue as a guest editor for a fashion magazine called Mademoiselle.
Mademoiselle was thought of as the smart, cultured girl’s magazine – perfect for young ladies who liked to read James Joyce and also go to football games. Its readers were the type to care about fashion and world events, and though they still planned on getting married, they wouldn’t necessarily do so right away.
The Barbizon Hotel, meanwhile, fed right into these ideas and acted as a sort of finishing school for college-aged women. It was like “an upscale nunnery,” with curfews and chaperones and mandatory event attendance. Still, these ladies were eager to go and explore all the possibilities for their future that such a residence might provide.
Sylvia’s guest editorship ended up being an overheated, overworked affair, where she was encouraged by the magazine’s editors to work on the fiction section, since she previously won writing contests. What they didn’t realize was that Sylvia gave a great deal of thought to clothing – what items were appropriate for what events, what colors looked best with her features, how the perfect fabric could make an ensemble all the more unforgettable. Before arriving, she shopped and shopped for the “correct” New York clothing, and spent a lot of time considering fashion in her journal.
Her friendships with her fellow interns were not made easily, for she kept herself one step removed, always observing and always deciding how they fit into the story of her ideal life. Winder spends many paragraphs talking about how she could be bright and easygoing with some people, sultry and flirtatious with others, and in the next situation, reserved and self-conscious.
One of the women, Neva, recalls a day at the office when she received a large bouquet of flowers from the previous night’s date, the card reading, “Thanks for giving me a good time.”
They left me blushing with embarrassment. Sylvia seemed more judgmental to me than the rest, making me feel like a hypocrite, whereas her friend Carol was more honest and open about her sexuality – prancing around in her tight, short skirts with tanned skin and exposed legs, a common sight today, was a bit shocking to all the rest of us then. I really never saw Sylvia as sexy. She was more part of the intelligentsia that I so desperately wanted to join.
Still, Sylvia went on lots of dates and was not really all that prudish. In addition to the interviews with the people Sylvia knew at that time, Winder provides excerpts from Sylvia’s journals and scrapbooks, and has sidebar-type text boxes that go into further detail about haircuts, fashion and other historical details to provide context. Some of these text boxes are a bit distracting and unnecessary. Even if, for example, a paragraph about where girls would go if they found themselves pregnant before marriage is interesting, it doesn’t really apply to Sylvia’s narrative. Yes, I understand that part of this book’s point is to examine 1950s feminine culture, but this is a book about Sylvia Plath. A line must be drawn, one different from the one Winder has chosen.
Another thing that bothered me was the insistent use of, “Sylvia must have […]” when Winder is speculating on her inner thoughts. How do you know? The notes, bibliography and other sources cited at the back of the book do not necessarily correspond to these speculations. And with all the words spent on how Sylvia was terrified of having an image she could not control, I’ll make my own hypothetical statement – I think she would find this book both annoying and mortifying.
To be honest though, I am not terribly familiar with Sylvia Plath’s work nor her biography, beyond a few key facts many literary-minded people know. I did not go into Pain, Parties, Work as a Sylvia fangirl, nor did I go in as some who does not like her work (though it would be a bit weird, wouldn’t it, if I decided to read a biography of a writer whose work I did not enjoy). From this mostly neutral perspective, I found myself… Well, kinda bored.
Sure, I like a good and functional outfit, and working on a magazine sounds like difficult-but-great fun, and I am certainly interested in the feminist angle of this story. However, the speculation mixed with endless detail listing left me thinking, So? Winder wants to show, “How Manhattan’s alien atmosphere unleashed an anxiety that would stay with her for the rest of her life,” but I don’t think the book is entirely successful in demonstrating that point. In her description of Sylvia’s time before that summer, she seems just as anxious, and in the time after, when her depression ramps up, it feels like Manhattan was only a contributing factor.
If Pain, Parties, Work is supposed to be a commentary on the whole of standards applied to young women, then the followup interviews with her fellow guest editors make sense. We find out about how the magazine work informed the rest of their lives, and how the women handled it in different ways. If it’s supposed to be a book about how this time broke the “sunny” girl, then there’s not enough information. A major Sylvia Plath fan may still enjoy this book for whatever new facts they might glean, but for anyone else, one might be better off sticking to Plath’s actual work.
Full Disclosure: Harper sent me this book as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.