Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4, 11-20 February 2013
This first abridgment of Sylvia Plath's classic novel on BBC Radio 4, broadcast to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of its first publication, struck me as remarkable in two ways. I listened to it straight after the Book of the Week abridgment of Mad Girl's Love Song, Andrew Wilson's new biography of Plath, and understood just how autobiographical the novel actually was. Like the fictional heroine Esther Greenwood, Plath went to New York to work on an internship, and discovered the seamy reality lurking beneath the cocktail parties and the piles of eligible men. As the novel unfolds, Esther becomes more and more disillusioned with the life she has chosen; the people around her seem particularly superficial, while her working life seems dominated by piles of meaningless manuscripts. She finds herself retreating into despair, frustrated with her own inadequacies, as well as the constricting world around her that forces her to play certain roles - for example, as an eligible partner suitable for a procession of insincere men, or the perpetual virgin keeping herself "pure" for an ideal marriage partner. Listening to Lydia Wilson's reading, I understood more about Plath's experiences of inhabiting a world that was totally alien to her.
The Bell Jar also struck me as a remarkable comment on contemporary cultures - specifically the recreation of New York mediatic culture so beloved of successful television series like Mad Men. When we look at the characters in that show, with their slicked-back hair, immaculately pressed suits and frilly dresses, we're transported back into a world which - for the programme-makers at least - seems so much more attractive than the grimy reality of contemporary America. Viewers are invited to experience pleasurable nostalgia for a vanished world. However The Bell Jar reveals the grimy reality lurking beneath that world; it might have been great for the socially advantaged, or those seeking professional and social success, but it consciously excluded those who tried to be different. Esther Greenwood is an outcast, and no one makes an attempt to accommodate her; rather they expect her to conform to their mores.
The novel might be half a century old, but its content still packs a punch: I wonder whether things have changed much these days. Given the success of Mad Men, I'm inclined to doubt it. The producer of this Book at Bedtime was Di Speirs.