Review by Karen Langley
Despite their groundbreaking achievements as poets, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton are still too often remembered for their dramatic lives and tragic ends. A pair of pioneering women poets, writing mostly in the middle of the last century, their work and lives were inspirational, though dogged by tragedy. Both women’s stories have been well documented; however, a fascinating new book by Gail Crowther takes a look at Plath and Sexton side by side, drawing inspiration from their first meeting at, and involvement in, writing workshops held at Boston University by the renowned poet Robert Lowell. It’s a powerful read which takes a wonderfully refreshing look at both authors and reveals just how important Plath and Sexton really were.
Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz takes its title from the social meetings the two writers had after their workshops were over. At their weekly get-togethers they would slope off to drink and discuss everything from sex to mental illness to suicide attempts; and although there was, of course, a fierce poetic rivalry, Plath and Sexton had much in common and drew much from their meetings. Whilst seeming to conform to the norms expected of 1950s wives, there was a lot more bubbling beneath the surface than you would think.
Gail Crowther is well-placed to write about Plath, having spent much time working in the poet’s archives over the years. She’s produced a number of books about Plath (one of which, These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath, co-authored with Peter K. Steinberg, I reviewed for Shiny New Books back in 2017); and her work throws much light on Plath and her life and writings, by exploring her archives. Here, Crowther structures her chapters to focus on particular aspects of the two poets’ lives, exploring subjects such as their early days, their experiences of sex, marriage and motherhood, as well as topics such as mental illness and suicide (inevitably, given the unfortunate end for both women). She compares and contrasts how Plath and Sexton dealt with these aspects, how similar or different things were for them, and how much against the grain of normality their behaviour was – and the portrait which emerges is very revealing.
On the surface, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton were very different; Plath appears as controlled, everything locked underneath a calm exterior (in Lowell’s workshops she presents as quiet, almost shy) and her behaviour mostly fits in with what’s expected of a woman of her time. However, Sexton seems very different: confrontational, refusing to fit in and do what’s expected of her, prone to breakdowns, dramatic behaviour, regular affairs and suicide attempts; publicly, she appears the complete opposite of Plath.
But as Crowther moves through their lives, watching them fight to write, cope with marriages which were unsatisfactory (though in very different ways), and wrestle with motherhood, it does seem that under the skin they were not so dissimilar. Both women were wracked with insecurity; both struggled to deal with their own expectations of themselves; and both knew that without their poetry they could not exist. Women’s art is often taken less seriously than men’s, with females expected to cope with both the domestic and the artistic in a way that men never are, and it’s clear that both Plath and Sexton had trouble with that expectation.
Sexton… appeared to have no notion of boundaries, whether emotional, sexual, or physical, with disastrous consequences for her daughters. Although she loved her children deeply and nurtured their development, she struggled to allow them to be separate from her in a healthy way.
The life-stories of Plath and Sexton have been written about extensively; and Plath’s in particular is probably the best-known. I was personally less familiar with the facts of Sexton’s life, having only dipped into her work and biography; and it has to be said that some of the details are shocking. Her behaviour towards her children was basically abusive, and Crowther is even-handed in her portrayal of this; she does not seek to judge, instead allowing Sexton’s daughter’s (very forgiving) testimony to speak for itself so that the reader can make up their own mind. Appalling as her behaviour was, Sexton’s mental health issues often seemed to control her more powerfully than Plath’s did, and nowadays medication would have no doubt helped with some of this.
Both poets have suffered from the way their legacy has been dealt with, leading to public perceptions of them which seem far from the truth. Much of Sexton’s difficult behaviour was revealed in her daughter’s memoir, which as mentioned strives not to be judgemental. After her death, Plath’s work remained with her estranged husband, and his handling of it has caused controversy over the decades. The discussion of Plath’s lost poems, missing novel and destroyed journals is quite chilling; and despite the efforts of various members of her husband’s family, the fight has continued to ensure she is remembered in a balanced way and not, for example, as her sister-in-law liked to portray her…
Running through this wonderful and absorbing book is an underlying thread of anger which you can sense Crowther feels strongly: about the treatment of women artists, about the trivialisation of their lives, about the unfairness of the way they’re judged. This is a fiercely and unashamedly feminist work which is exhilarating to read; Crowther’s writing is breathtaking and inspirational; and her weaving together of the stories of two poets’ lives is marvellous.
One area where the book excels is by demonstrating just how rebellious and transgressive both Plath and Sexton were. Crowther often shows their behaviour set against the expected behaviour of 1950s American women, and it’s incredibly revealing to see how almost everything they did was not the norm. The pressures on them to conform, marry and devote themselves to their families were immense, and it’s obvious that that pressure contributed to the constant mental strain under which Plath and Sexton lived.
One of the great injustices of the legacies of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton is the infamy of their suicides. Sensationalized, romanticized, pathologized, these two women have become defined, and known, by the manner of their deaths. This is not to say that the suicides are not important, or how they chose to die has no significance. Far from it. The problem has been that their lives get read backwards. All their productive, happy years, each word they wrote, every hope they had for the future, every illness or recovery, is seen as foreshadowing their death, in a way they did not experience themselves.
Women artists of all kinds have been critically judged by men over the centuries; their passions dismissed as hysteria; their creativity regarded as lesser than male achievements. As Crowther discusses, this is still an ongoing battle, and is often complicated by some of the very issues which existed between Plath and Sexton. Both women were ambitious, and there was a strong rivalry between them, a kind of battle to see who would become the great American woman poet. Plath left the stage first, and Sexton rued her loss at regular intervals until she took her own life. As for how their legacy is viewed nowadays, I would personally say that Plath is probably the most remembered of the two; however, where their poetry stands in the canon and whether it’s ever judged objectively, away from the facts of their lives, I’m not so sure.
Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz is an absolutely stunning piece of writing; erudite yet readable, knowledgeable and full of insights, the book sparkles from start to finish. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton helped to break open some of the doors closed to women, producing astounding poetry which still shocks today, and Crowther’s book is a triumph which reclaims them from the cult of suicidal genius and sets their achievements firmly centre-stage. An inspiring, moving and unforgettable read.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and still hopes that Plath’s missing writings will turn up in her lifetime…
Gail Crowther, Three Martini Afternoons at The Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath & Anne Sexton (Gallery Books, 2021). 978-1982138394, 280pp., hardback.
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