Dr Gail Crowther is a writer, academic, and researcher, specializing in Sylvia Plath, feminism, and other subjects. She has also co-authored the book Sylvia Plath in Devon (Click here to buy.) Here, we were lucky enough to interview Gail:
Hello Gail, thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Hi Lydia, you’re welcome, thanks very much for interviewing me.
What was it that originally sparked your interest in Sylvia Plath?
I found Sylvia Plath purely by chance one day in my school library when I was 13. We often used to get taken in there for a lesson with the instruction to ‘read a book for an hour.’ How great that sounds now! Anyway, one day I was browsing the shelves of poetry and pulled out a book by someone called Sylvia Plath. I opened it and fell into the poem ‘Mirror’ immediately. “I am silver and exact.” I had never heard such a voice and I had never read poetry like that before and I was instantly dazzled by her words. My first question was who wrote this stuff ?– and from then on, well, I think it’s fair to say, I’ve been quite taken with both the woman and the work.
How did your book ‘Sylvia Plath in Devon’ come to fore?
The book had been suggested by a Guardian journalist, Sam Jordison, to Elizabeth Sigmund. He thought it would be interesting for her to write a fuller memoir about her friendship with Sylvia. Then an editor from Fonthill Media contacted Elizabeth to say that they would be interested in publishing it, so Elizabeth contacted me and asked me to get involved. I had met Elizabeth about four years earlier after being introduced to her by Peter K. Steinberg while I was finishing my PhD. I turned up at her house in Cornwall one freaky, snowy January when the temperatures were the lowest they had been for over a century. The snow and ice were thick on the ground. I loved Elizabeth instantly and ended up having to spend the night at her and William’s [her husband] house as the weather was too bad to leave. We sat chatting in front of her log fire until midnight. From that meeting, we wrote a paper together called ‘A Poem, A Friend’ published in Plath Profiles and then from that we wrote a book together!
Have you considered writing a follow up?
No, I haven’t considered a follow up as I think really to follow on from that time would involve having to write about Plath’s time in London and the end of her life and really I feel that has been covered in great depth already. I deliberately ended my part of Sylvia Plath in Devon at the optimistic moment where she leaves for a new life in London because it seems she was full of hope then and she was a woman who appeared to love and embrace life. I find her posthumous reputation a bit unfair, with the focus on her unhappiness and suicide. I’d much rather remember her as a spectacular writer and woman. I don’t mean to downplay how unhappy she obviously was at the end, but nevertheless she had some very joyful and productive times in her life and these often get overlooked. I am, however, always researching and writing about Plath, so there will be follow ups, but perhaps just not chronological ones!
How do you think being in Devon affected Sylvia’s poetry and prose?
I think it had a direct and immediate impact on all of her work – poems, stories, the ‘missing’ novel, letters, and very likely her ‘missing’ journals too. We see from the journal fragments that are left from 1962 that Plath had started keeping quite detailed notes on her neighbours, presumably either as a writing exercise or to be used in some future project. One of her short stories, ‘Mothers’, features local people she knew, with names changed of course, but barely disguised. She wrote some of her most evocative poems about her house, Court Green, and the garden, the view from her bedroom and study windows, and the narrow Devonshire lanes that she rode on Ariel. You can see it and feel it when you visit there. It’s like stepping into a Plath poem.
Do you have any favourite Plath poems?
Aaargh, that’s the most difficult question! I guess I have two favourite sorts of Plath poems; ones that she reads aloud and then ones that I read to myself from a book. So I love Plath’s performance (because I do think that is what it is) of ‘A Birthday Present’, ‘The Applicant’ and ‘Point Shirley.’ Reading quietly to myself, oh this is too difficult, and seems too easy to say all of them, but….
Apart from Plath, your website says about your interest in feminism and animal rights. What sparked your interest in these subjects?
Interestingly these interests all converged at the same time as Plath – at the age of 13. I suddenly seemed to have an avalanche of understanding about the world and how it seemed to operate, and although I didn’t have the vocabulary or knowledge then to be able to express this, I became very concerned with what at that point seemed to me to be injustice and unfairness. As soon as I realized where meat actually came from, I stopped eating it, utterly horrified and appalled. Once I knew about the existence of slaughterhouses and what goes on in them, there was no going back. It took me a few more years, oddly, to link this up to the dairy industry, but once I had done that, then I became vegan. This then spreads out into other areas such as not using any products tested on animals, not wearing animals (leather, suede, wool), being against the use of animals in entertainment, and so on. This belief directly links to my feminist beliefs because in a sense it is all about power and how power operates and is abused. It doesn’t surprise me that in a world where animals can be treated how they are, that any other life form might be subjected to similar treatment too, whether that’s based on gender, ethnicity, class, age, and so forth. A lack of compassion and love has devastating consequences. If there is to be any hope at all then it has to be based on a belief that everyone and everything has a right to a safe life free from abuse, torture, murder and hate.
Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Yes, yes and yes. Of course feminism is not without its problems, and it does have a history of being a movement that typically favours and concerns itself with white, straight, middle-class, western women. But due to the power and diversity of voices, for example, black feminists in the 1960s, this has opened up conversations that are essential within feminism in order for it to try to embrace all women. I say ‘it’ but actually I seem feminism more as feminisms, in the plural. In terms of where I place myself on the feminist spectrum, I guess that would be as a radical feminist. I don’t think patriarchy can be negotiated. I think it has to be absolutely and utterly dismantled and replaced with something much more inclusive.
Do you think Sylvia Plath has a place in feminist history? If so, how?
I think it’s really important to remember that Plath pre-dates second wave feminism. She just missed it by a matter of months. So any place she has in feminist history is sort of given to her retrospectively. This makes it hard to know if Plath herself would have been a feminist and I think speculation about that is a bit pointless in a way. It’s very hard to read a poem like ‘The Applicant’ and not see it as an attack on patriarchal institutions. In some ways the fact that Plath was doing this before second wave feminism kicked off makes her even more remarkable – she didn’t really have the existing movement to draw on. The fact that (male) poetry editors at the time referred to her late 1962 work as ‘extreme’ shows just how out there she was with her thinking. It’s hardly surprising that she was picked up by the feminist movement because of this, but I’m saddened that often she was presented as a martyr/victim. Plath was many things, but I do believe she was way too strong and powerful to have ever been a victim or a martyr.
For anyone who wishes to follow in your footsteps, do you have any advice?
That’s a tricky question. I guess I go with Virginia Woolf on this one – you need a room of your own. You need a working space that is just for you. It doesn’t matter how big or how small it is. The times when I have written the least is when I have lacked this space and the times when I have written the most is when I have had my own little nook or cranny somewhere. At the moment I am very lucky to have a writing shed and I can highly recommend this for being productive – away from the house, away from the phone, just shutting yourself off and the world out. I’m also a great believer that in order to write, you need to read. The two, to me, seem inextricably linked. And finally, in order to write really well, I think you need chocolate & cake & crisps in copious quantities, all washed down with a pot of tea.
And finally, one random question: Which do you prefer-a book or kindle?
A book. A book, every single time.
Thank you very much Gail for answering our questions! Don’t forget that you can buy Sylvia Plath in Devon by clicking here. Also, you can visit Gail’s website by clicking here.