My Second Home, by Dave Haslam, is the fourth book in the author’s Art Decades series. These beautifully produced mini books explore ‘a variety of subjects rooted in cities’. The latest work focuses on a holiday Sylvia Plath took in Paris over the Easter period in 1956. Her visit was to prove pivotal.
As someone who has visited Paris on several occasions, I have never understood its appeal. Sylvia Plath adored the city and would have liked to live there. The explanation given for her desire to make it ‘her second home’ provided the most convincing reasons I have encountered as to why the place may be regarded fondly.
Sylvia was born and raised in America but, by the mid 1950s, was on a Fulbright scholarship at Cambridge in England. She does not appear to have enjoyed her time there, struggling to make female friends.
Apparently, a young woman who wears bright red lipstick and dyes her hair blonde can’t possibly be taken seriously as a person, let alone a poet.”
Sylvia had been dating Richard Sassoon for some time. Having spent Christmas 1955 with him in Paris – her first visit to the city – he told her they were finished and she was not to contact him again. Her Easter trip was an attempt to see him, to get back together.
Good girls were expected to be decorous, aspiring to marriage and babies. Paris in the 1950s was a place of ‘expatriates, gay bars, desire, faithlessness and illicit liasons.’ Most visitors experienced only the bourgeois side, never travelling to working-class neighbourhoods. Sylvia was entranced by the literary history – along with the art, theatre and her walks by the Seine. Her mood at the time was crashing between euphoria and despair.
A month before this second trip to Paris, Sylvia had met Ted Hughes for the first time – at a launch party for a new poetry magazine. After her death he would write of her love for the city, which they visited together following their marriage. He derided her ‘manic enthusiasm’ – so different from his more dour perspective.
“He suggests she perceived a fantasy Paris. He lists the sources which had created her sense of the city, including writers in the interwar years like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. Her Paris, he suggests, was an aesthetic rather than a realistic version.”
From journals and letters written by Sylvia at the time, the author pieces together how she spent each day of her vacation, along with her fluctuating state of mind. Using what is now known about her life and work – before and after Paris 1956 – it may be deduced the influence this trip had on what came next.
“Fate, decisions, a conversation with a stranger, a moment of irresponsibility, someone hearing your faint cry. And opportunities, choices”
The writing is spare yet compelling, a potted biography of a now widely revered young woman that gets under her skin. Sylvia’s life has become legend with Ted Hughes cast as the villain. In this short book the reader may view how she embraced a beloved city and the prospect of freedom it granted. Hers is never, it seems, a truly happy story, but there are moments of sunshine that she pounced on with an exuberance her husband would begrudge and disdain.
A short read but one that deserves to be savoured and will satisfyingly linger. Recommended for anyone with an interest in Sylvia Plath and the times in which she lived.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Cōnfingō.