Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

Image from poets.org, taken by Rollie McKenna
I love the way Sylvia Plath describes people in her journals. Here is a little glimpse of a family that I am particularly taken with, written in the journal of 1962.

"Mrs. Bertha Billyead an amazing & indomitable woman: white short hair, tall, keen blue eyes & pink cheeks. Quite greedy, though fattish, she ate lots of scones & cream & jam for tea. She cans (or bottles) about 200 weight of jam a year. And extracts her own honey. Secretary of the Conservatives in the country. At the end of the afternoon, she brought out her scrapbook of her life in British Guiana. An astounding document. Lots of pictures of waterfalls seen from the air in her three-seater plane; her black silk flying suit, like Amelia Earhart; her handsome pilot; close calls. Pictures of her with short hair, in pants, handsome herself, ordering a cowering black to move some dirt, on horseback, driving a locomotive which she & her engineer built, straightening the 7-mile railway tracks they made to help get the timber to the river. A succession of wood houses, grander & grander, as they made more & more money. They were at first too poor to buy meat; at the end the grant was sold for 180,000.* I couldn't understand whether the Major was her first husband, or second. Or whether she & her father built the timber plantation, or she & her husband. At one point, she said that she had no children but attended a Mother's Union meet as she had cared for a lot. And then, when she was showing me the pictures of children & weddings in the hall, she seemed to say "These are his children", meaning the Major's? Her father, George Manly, an amazing man of 89 in white linen jacket with that military blue eye who attributes his health to drinking a quart of rum a day all his life, said that when a jaguar was troubling them, she locked up all the dogs resolved to shoot it. Heard a noise, a scratching, at the house window in the dark. Crept downstairs with rifle & outside: saw a dark shape fall from the window. That's a dog, she thought, that the jaguar has thrown out. I'll save it. She ran & embraced the dark object, which turned out to be the jaguar. It dashed off & hid in the chicken shed. She went over & shot into the shed, then did run. In the morning the natives found the jaguar in there, dead, shot through the lung. So she is a big woman. Very opinionated. Said that these women get multiple sclerosis from worrying over their husbands' bad health and not accepting what God has sent them!

Major Stanley Billyeald curiously the odd-man out. Always making jocular references to his wife's expertise (on bees) & domination: "She has her finger on my jugular." A man of action; can't stand still. His father was a drunkard journalist & pot-boiler. He started in the ranks of the calvalry himself & worked up to head of the C.I.D. in British Guiana. An immense admiration, sardonic, for lawyers: how they can make monkeys of truths & learned men. He writes all winter: reports. Can't talk standing still: walks round & round the lawn, with a sort of horse-rider's lurch. He blue eye, also, his clipped silver moustache. The old man, his father-in-law, a sort of elderly double of himself. Three things I'll tell you, he said: There is no sentiment in business. There in no honesty in politics. And self-interest makes the world go round. All right, I said, I give you those. Gave Ted a box of little Velocity cabbages in tins & a couple of bunches of very odd cylindrical green celery ("for soup").

George Manly, the old man, was according to his daughter all sorts of wonderful & odd things. He seemed drastically hungry for a listener. Brought out his photograph album with prize-winning photos he had taken: of an old hawker with white hair and wrinkled like Methuselah; a fat little native baby eating dirt;snow on a wire fence (That's a bee-comb", someone guessed, to his delight), hand colored lily-pads like violent green saucers, and moonlight on the big waterfall (Kaieteur?), the highest in the world, in British Guiana. Bertha B. said something about his being a crack marksman, a world champion, & a trick entertainer on a party with the king & queen (which?)) He brought Ted to his bedroom at the end, to show him little boxes of jewelry he made from loose colored rhinestones & frames which he gave to friends; showed him his watercolors for doing photographs, and his mother and father, an oval black and white portrait of a dark, oppressed little woman & bearded smiling patriarchal man (her parents were killed in the Mutiny; she was married at 14). He prided himself on making the baby smile. Pretended to eat Frieda's parsley & then gave it back, while she made her queer "shy" face, sliding her eyes to one side under her lids. Promised to tell a story of a cockroach. Gave me a sprig of "rosemary from remembrance" as we left. Brought out a Captain Hornblower book, autographed to his from C.S. Forester, whose picture he had taken atop the big falls."

I think it's amazing how many people are in the world and that each one of them has a story like mine.

If you're interested in reading Sylvia's journals, the unabridged copy is published by Anchor Books, edited by Karen V. Kukil.

1 comment:

  1. this is so fascinating and makes me think a lot about how people are. isn't it wonderful? thanks for sharing.

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