this is the most festive read of the holiday season
A very normal and healthy reaction to feeling like your brain has been dragged through sun-cooked gravel is to decide, one morning, to visit the grave of American writer Sylvia Plath.
You know who Sylvia Plath is, and if you don’t then you might want to read The Bell Jar. A book which many English literature students (including yours truly) has had the somewhat #blessed, somewhat horrifying experience of reading at 18 — because if you’re anything like I was on first read, you naively just relate and relate and relate. Because, if you’re like me, Sylvia Plath is an English student just like you; and so much of how she writes, how she feels, seems so much, just like you. And suddenly she can no longer write, and she is numb and you relate to that too. Then she’s half dead in her mother’s cellar, and the rest of the novel takes place, mostly, in psychiatric wards. It’s a fantastic book that gets stuck with you forever; perhaps, especially, if you’re 18 and an on-the-cusp-of-mental-health-issues English lit student when you read it.
Even if The Bell Jar isn’t on the top of your Christmas reading list, I can tell you now that Sylvia Plath is a brilliant writer who wrote only one great novel as well as a book of poems called Ariel; a few books (of essays, poems, letters) were published posthumously. She died very sad, in a sad way. Her gravestone is famously visited — and vandalised — in Heptonstall by former English literature students who collectively enjoy hot depression baths and hating on Ted Hughes.
I have planned to visit Sylvia Plath’s grave for every year (all eight of them) since moving a thirty-minute train ride away from it. I imagined the experience to be high drama. It would be right for me to go alone. To drink wine. To let several sparkling, controlled tears drag black ink down my cheeks in a hot-sad way. I once had a boyfriend offer to drive me to see it. I was extremely (and rudely) quick to say: No. It wouldn’t be right. I need to do it alone, for the drama. You wouldn’t understand. (Now, he’d probably agree.)
No, arrived during summer of 2020, mid-global pandemic, when I woke up with my heart feeling swollen and raw and outside of myself, all pumped up with helium and bouncing against the ceiling. I had been feeling dark and funny, but mostly dark, for approximately three weeks but maybe longer. It was all exactly right.
Also, I had booked the train the night before, when it had occurred to me after several “self-care-turned-destructively-somber” glasses of red wine that this was the best thing I could possibly do bar messaging everyone I’ve ever loved before or calling my parents at 1AM. I’d also ordered ANOTHER copy of The Bell Jar for collection on the way to the station because that seemed exactly right too. I would read it en-route and mark the date inside the cover. In case a future grandchild (I don’t have children) or maybe one of sisters’ kids (they don’t have any) turned 18 and it would mean something outside of myself. An intergenerational gift. This, I felt, was all exactly right.
It was sunny, which was not exactly right. That morning, I’d decided to have coffee with one of my best friends before getting the train. When I told him I was going to Hebden Bridge and he’d said: I thought we were going to go together? And I said: no — on a different day. Today I’m visiting the grave of Sylvia Plath.
To which he said something like: oh Jesus. Do you want to meet for coffee?
So we did, and sat outside Cafe Nero. It all felt very European and lovely, drinking coffee in this hot sun together. He showed me some photos from Grindr. I felt happy. Full of the kind of positivity that comes from friendship, and this was not exactly the right vibe. But soon enough I was on the train. I opened page one and wrote the date in the corner. I was on the way and once again, it was perfect. I felt miserable. It was exactly right.
The kids on the train were very loud, not one person was wearing a mask and I couldn’t read. I decided to stare out of the window at my reflection instead and focus on how sad I had felt over the previous weeks. I kept getting distracted by the kids and the masklessness and the fact I wasn’t reading. Why couldn’t I read lately? It could be the sadness. Except I was too distracted to feel sad. I was simply bored.
Thankfully, I arrived at Hebden Bridge feeling stoic and purposeful and weepy. Everyone was sitting out in the sun drinking in couples, and there I was, very clearly clutching the tail end of the heartstring balloon. Maybe the aorta or something. It was horrendously gorgeous weather and I felt tremendously awful inside. The perfect conditions remained. I followed my phone map through pubs and cute shops and warm post-lockdown 1 pre-lockdown 2 joy to the walk up to Heptonstall. I felt like crying. But in the not-hot kind way. Not ideal. If I could hold it in long enough the tears, maybe I could roll them out exquisite and singular like flowing sand built into one, or three, very hot-sad diamonds.
No one tells you that the walk up to Heptonstall is more like a 90 degree trek except for the multiple TripAdvisor reviews that I had refused to read. Which meant by the time I reached the top I couldn’t breathe; plus I was dragging a human organ behind me and also I was semi-dressed to mourn. Accidental endorphins are a sad vibe killer. But I was the only person around and I was determined to feel tragic.
I found the church and a grave yard, but it turns out it was not THE graveyard, so I spent a while longer trying to look like a forlorn waif while becoming mostly getting frustrated. When I finally found graveyard 2.0 it was clear which was Sylvia’s, mostly because of the queue. While waiting for a couple in front of me, I traipsed around high grass pretending to look at other graves, as if I weren’t carrying a fucking copy of The Bell Jar in my hand. When it was my turn, I stood. I couldn’t cry for the first time in 45 minutes, in three weeks.
I decided to go to a pub close by and drink alone, read my book and lean further into the high drama. The bartender asked where I was from and I said Leeds, and she said: a student? (she meant: “are you an international English literature student who has come here specifically to see Sylvia Plath’s grave like all the rest of them with your copy of The Bell Jar?”).
I said no.
I went and read Sylvia Plath’s only novel outside in the sunshine with a very large glass of white wine, even though it should have been red for the full effect, but it was too nice and summery for red, so white seemed better even if it wasn’t right. Several locals were there, all being socially distanced, mostly, and me. And I kept thinking: they know I’m reading The Bell Jar. Of course, they were thinking, she’s reading The Bell Jar. I was a fraud. It was all one big fabrication; a high drama, a soap opera to push everything I was feeling much further away. It felt better to make it bigger, beyond and cliché. That’s what was supposed to make all of this, feel alright.
When I left, trying to not fall back down the 90 degrees, I called my dad.
Where are you? he asked. I’ve just visited Sylvia Plath’s grave, I said.
He said: who are you with?
I said: I’ve gone alone.
He asked: Is she the one that did the oven thing?
I said yes, and he said: well that’s cheerful. Then he laughed. And I laughed.
And for a brief while after that, I forgot about the aorta, or pulmonary artery or whatever it was; it was exactly perfect, floating beyond my grasp.
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