Germany & the Anxiety of Remembrance

I was walking in the vast forestland of Grunewald the other day, accompanied by someone who grew up in East Germany in the days of DDR. She spoke of how she was taught Russian in school but has now forgotten most of what she learnt. After losing the ability to remember her Russian education, she vowed to retain her English vocabulary. She remembers Germany as a country that, in her childhood, was divided by the territorial interests of foreign invaders. World War II (1939 – 1945) arguably set the stage for the Cold War (1947-1991), and the construction of The Berlin Wall, set across the landscape like an ugly scar, made Germany’s dissolution a tangible reality.

It was during this conversation that I realised how events of the last century still retain so much prominence in the lives of German people today. Forgetting is unimaginable. Treading through neat rows of trees heavy with leaves, my companion pointed out that they had all been planted, tall and straight like soldiers in a row, decades ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that much of this land had been obliterated in the Second World War by the Allies who littered the land with bombs: tearing out the trees by their roots and sewing seeds of destruction in their place.

Seventy years after WWII, it is estimated that more than 2000 tons of unexploded munitions are uncovered on German soil per year. Casting my mind back to a century ago, it is easy to imagine the curves of the Havel River shrouded in mist; the barks of the trees and the foundations of buildings reduced to ash and cinder.

To me, this newfound information was remarkable. Somehow I had never contemplated the probability that of the millions of tons of bombs dropped on Germany by Allied aircraft, at least some of them would have failed to explode. It hadn’t occurred to me that while I was taking a pleasant afternoon walk in the forest, I was actually ambling across a minefield.

The discovery of bombs, and their safe detonation, is, I’m told, standard procedure in Germany. People will be digging in their gardens and will come across munition lying unsolicited in the ground. Being asked to leave your home in such an event is a daily menace – more of an inconvenience than a weighty cause for alarm.

While the East and West of Germany rose from the ashes of a ruined Reich, layers of unexploded bombs lay beneath its surface. An apt metaphor, I think, for how the legacy of the World Wars is still embedded in the soil, the foundations, of German society.

Berlin’s visual culture of remembrance is almost suffocating in its excess. Memorials to victims of National Socialism crowd the city. Each Museum inscribes guilt into the description of every artefact. Statues pertaining to power and national pride are, unlike other places in the world, notably absent. New reconstructions of buildings have in common an architecture that inspire little emotional response in their simple design. It all seems like one huge apology. This is a city who cares about the lessons of its past, and has its moral and educational mission inscribed in every last scrap of its stone.

Peter Eisenmann’s National Holocaust Memorial is emblematic of this mission. Placed strategically between the central crossing of Potsdamer Platz and Tier Garten, it is nigh impossible to ignore. One does not merely stumble upon it, but is accosted by its harrowing shapes that tower above street view. Constructed of 2711 large concrete slabs reminiscent of coffins, it demands to be interacted with. When walking through its narrow aisles, the coffins engulf you the deeper you go in. Children play hide and seek in this maze, their voices lost, like those of the dead, to the impersonality of stone.


But how does a country truly repent for the heinous crimes of its past, and for how long? While the generation of individuals who survived Germany’s 1933-1945 Nazi era is dwindling by the day, Germany’s youth have now been passed the baton to bear the burdens of its past. And while the legacy of the Holocaust is still, as in Eisemann’s Memorial, at the forefront of everyone’s imagination, guilt is epidemic. Germany’s contrition is enshrined in law and written into the ‘federal government’s funding objectives.’ The World Wars take centre stage of every classroom history lesson. Education about more recent German history, like that of DDR, is forfeited in lieu of the remembrance of the deaths caused by the National Socialist regime.

This constant apology, this inability to forget, has seeped, I’m told, into current politics. After Hitler, the ‘you know who’ of the past century, the man who ostensibly cannot be named in conversation with anyone of German origin, all parties now choose to languish comfortably in the centre. Politics has become diluted, as neither Left or Right dare to express any views that may be considered ‘extremist.’

What does seem to be a consensus though is Germany’s willingness to talk about it. Far from labelling its past as taboo, Germany admits to its prior aggressive war politics, its responsibility for the World Wars and the crimes of National Socialism to such an extent that generations from now may still feel the weight of its legacy.

In February of this year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the nation’s guilt after Poland imposed a law that criminalised any suggestion that Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. This is ultimately just a war of words played out on the international stage. A petulant blame game. It’s not enough that Germany must apologise visually and rhetorically again and again. In the current view of the world, no reparation can be made.

But what is the future?

Germany must remember those who fell victim to the World Wars and to the Holocaust, as all countries should. The past should not be eradicated, but understood. Guilt should not be absolved, but transferred to its actual perpetrators – the last generation of Nazi criminals who will soon be lost to history.

While the young should have no guilt, they must, at least, have a view.


Unlike any other place I have been to, Berlin’s old coexists with its new. The city is still largely under construction, torn between its opposing agendas: commemoration of the past, and innovation for the future. The city centre, while laden in concrete, retains its beauty in a complex collage of remodelled pre-war structures and baroque architecture. Functionality collides with ornamentation. Berliner Dom and the Reichstag, which have been recently reconstructed, maintain their pre-demolition splendour. On the East Side, creativity flourishes as artists continue to move into industrial spaces to practice their art. Older buildings lie in disrepair as vessels for rain and canvases for graffiti. Berlin’s monuments to the dead are located in the beating heart of the city, forming a part of Germany’s past and future.

To visit Berlin is to feel a part of the current of history. In language, in architecture, in memorials, this place seeks to repair the damage of the last century. While bombs may lie dormant beneath its surface, Germany’s sense of cultural responsibility, however, does not. How long must this country continue to repent? Only time will tell.

Language as Witness: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o on his Kenyan heritage

“Thought for despair? No! I am part of a living struggle. And without struggle, there is no movement, there is no life.’

I was reading in the Guardian recently about the Kenyan novelist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Admittedly, I had never heard of him. Ngũgĩ was imprisoned without trial for a year in 1978, during which time he wrote his memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil.’ Quoted in the article is his longstanding belief that, ‘The theme of resistance, and writing in prison, is eternal.’[1]

Ngũgĩ’s initial ‘crime’ was language. He wrote and staged a play, ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ (‘I will Marry When I Want’) in Gikuyu, his mother-tongue, choosing to employ local people with little money or experience as his stars. Scratching his memoir into the folds of prison toilet paper, Ngũgĩ outlines how his oppressors were ‘seeking some kind of confession’ of his guilt against the ruling order; an admission of his political ‘sins’ that were subversively inscribed in his memoir.

In the article, Ngũgĩ is quoted discussing his reasons for writing in Gikuyu and ceasing to write in English – a question often raised about his writing.

What Ngũgĩ describes is an exile from his own language, dating back to when Kenya was taken over by British settlers in the late 19th century, and a desire to reclaim it. He suggests how Africans have, throughout history, been colonised in every sense of the word: in life and in language. Ngũgĩ describes the slave trade, where individuals were forced to surrender their language, even their own individual names, by their white colonisers.

Words inscribe identity. One’s own language is connected to an origin. Relinquish language and we relinquish our sense of self. While Ngũgĩ wears his own language like a badge of honour, he discusses how some Africans view it as a shroud of shame.

It’s clear to me even now that English is a colonising force, with a lot of countries seeking to resist its pervasion into their native language. Even in Europe, I am viewed to many as a coloniser, seeking to pollute language with my English tongue. Whether we like it or not, we still hold the weight of our colonial history in each word that we speak.

Writing in Gikuyu was Ngũgĩ’s statement against enforced colonisation by other languages. Only his mother tongue is apt to bear witness to his persecution.


Language inescapably ‘bears witness.’ It becomes infused with the authority of history and experience. Terms become loaded with associations, fraught with connections to suffering. It is for this reason that Theodor Adorno (German philosopher and sociologist) said, and I quote in translation, ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’

This is a difficult phrase, even more so in German, even more so taken out of context. But my interpretation of this is that language becomes loaded; impressed upon by people and cultures held at ransom. Adorno thought that language after such periods becomes inadequate to express such horror. To persist, after Auschwitz, in the production of ‘monuments’ (in this case, poetry) is to participate in the perpetuation of that ‘barbaric’ culture. But what does this mean for language?

If to write is somehow to participate in barbarism, then is not to write to abstain from guilt?

In another article from The Guardian, Ngugi wa Thiongo’ describes the sight of ‘men, women and children in a convoy of barbed-wired lorries being forcibly relocated from their lands to make room for white settlers. They sang a sorrowful melody, but one that described their love and solidarity in hardship.’[2] He was ten years old.

History lives in language, in song and in melody. Inscribed in the barbed-wire lettering of caged men, women and children and the gates of Auschwitz.

A writer engraves his or her own identity in their words. Choosing to write in Gikuyu was the beginning of Ngũgĩ’s conception of himself as differing from the white writer’s self-image. Embracing his African origin is testimony to how language, used in the right conditions and for the right purpose, can be an assertion of power and agency.

Ngũgĩ writes: ‘I return again and again, in person, and in my writing, for the same reason that I have clung to my Kenyan passport, like a religious relic, that reminds me of the unfulfilled dream the caged men and women once sung about.’[3]

Words can, literally, get lost in translation. I will be reading Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s memoir, ‘Wrestling with the Devil’. Perhaps not in its authentic language, but with authentic empathy and interest.










[1] Information and quotation informed by this article:
[3] Ibid.






In no particular order, five books that have had a lasting impact on me.

Heaven’s Coast: A Memoir – Mark Doty

A memoir of complete integrity. The first book to ever make me cry. Heaven’s Coast is a heart-wrenching account of Doty’s partner’s battle with AIDS. From diagnosis to death, Doty describes his lover’s body as its own malevolent landscape – its journey as turbulent as the tide. With a force of descriptive power, Doty tells us about a life of rare communication, beauty and absolute synonymy with another. In reading this, you realise the true sacrifice of love; its unrelenting power to consume and, eventually, heal you.

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Set in the 1960s, this novel is an important statement about India’s post-colonial history; its age-old caste-system and its divisive ‘love laws’ that govern ‘who should be loved, and how. And how much.’ The narrators are fraternal twins, entangled and connected body and soul, but divided by familial tension. Roy’s prose is deeply touching, inscrutably honest, but delicate. Too painful in parts to bear. Told through the eyes of childlike curiosity and wonder, Roy creates sensuous, ethereal images that are rooted in the beauty of nature – the ‘small things’ of the world that the adults of the novel have forgotten. Sharply inflected by devastating moments of suffering, this novel inescapably touches you at your very core.

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

An odd choice, I hear you say, but this book is remarkable. The book begins: ‘Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul’ and is spoken through the voice of Humbert Humbert – a middle-aged professor who becomes sexually involved with his twelve-year old stepdaughter. You may wince, but this novel will play on your sense of morality. While you hate Humbert for his descriptive fantasies of molestation, you may catch yourself sympathising with him. You may condemn the ostensible sexual precociousness of the spoilt Lolita, while recognising fragments of her childlike innocence. This book forces you to leave all thoughts and feelings in balance. I charge you to come up with a conclusive interpretation of this novel. Go on, try it.

Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels

When it rains, think of us as we walk under dripping trees or through small rooms lit only by storm’ – my favourite line of this beautiful book infused with the whispers of memory. In a rather unusual literary account of the events of the Holocaust, Michaels uses the experiences of two narrators – Jakob Beer, a Polish Holocaust survivor, and Ben, the son of two Holocaust survivors – to describe how trauma seeps its way through generations, permeating through every crack of the past. Jakob and Ben become submerged in history, unable to move on from the suffering endured by their forefathers. This novel is an enlightening, poetic and heartfelt exploration of themes of trauma, grief and loss, told through the authoritative lens of memory.

Why be happy when you can be normal? – Jeanette Winterson

It is a resounding cliché to refer to this book as unabashedly ‘honest’, but that’s exactly what it is. An honest portrayal of a life spent wondering who you are and where you come from, finding your feet only to find that the ground beneath you has been whisked away, loved and in love but unable to fully cope with it. Winterson does not shy away from any detail of her life, and it is for this reason that I entirely respect her as an author, and as a person. Her prose is hurried and turbulent, written with the urgency of one desperately trying to make her reader understand. She does not call for you to psychoanalyse her, she does this aptly enough herself. If you want your heart wrenched out of your chest, I would seriously give this a read.



The Act of Creating: Stories without a Shape

Writing is essentially an act of artifice. We channel our innermost thoughts into complex structures and eloquent language. We leave out the ideas that are perhaps not as good or too deeply personal to share. We seek validation. As humans, we intrinsically apply a filter to our expression.

In academic writing, the need for structure is aggrandized. We all must conform.

As an undergraduate, I had to grapple with learning a very formalised style of writing that I wasn’t used to. My process for writing had always been what I like to refer to as ‘creative’, when actually it is wildly impractical. Whenever I had to write anything, I would sit in the middle of the floor surrounded by paper: drafts of ideas I’d written on the bus or in the middle of the night, sticky notes, scraps of articles. None of this was ever in any order. This is just how my brain works.

I spent my first two years at University feeling inadequate for my inability to strictly plan an essay and carefully formulate and refine each idea before writing. I would sit for hours trying to make all my points fit into a neat structure but words would evade me every time. Each sentence I wrote lay out of place on the page, defenceless before my judgement. A wise person once told me to ‘trust my own process.’ Success came when I found this freedom in my writing.

As humans I think we have an instinctive compulsion to have everything constantly in order, whether that be our homes, our priorities, our minds.  Whoever said that creativity couldn’t come out of chaos?

I was reading about Henri Matisse, one of my favourite artists, following an exhibition I visited in Charlottenburg, Berlin. Matisse would labour over arranging shapes and colours until he created something that appeared effortless, which made me think back to my own writing process.

By simplifying everything, we can create an ‘art of balance’, to use Matisse’s words. 


‘Odalisque in Red Trousers’, (1924), Henri Matisse.

Very few of us can create in a confined space. Trying to write in someone else’s structure did little but affirm the limitations of my art. It is good practice in life to allow, within reason, the mind to speak for itself. Applying self-consciousness to writing only inhibited me from creating.

‘Formlessness’ is what I would describe my writing technique to be. I herald the importance of writing without restriction; allowing a story to take whatever shape it wants without being bound by structure and rigidity.

Twentieth century artists – abstract expressionists to post-modern artists like Mark Kelley and Cindy Sherman, used ‘formlessness’ as a tool for creativity. The Tate Modern had a rich offering on this term when I googled it. Artist Jackson Pollock apparently ‘dripped paint onto a canvas that was laid out on the floor. The paint would get mixed up with the ash dropping from the artist’s cigarette and other bits of detritus, all of which would end up in the final work of art.’[1]

I love this image of a blank canvas being decorated with a sporadic range of material. This is true for writer’s too. The life experience of a writer is brought to bear on his or her work with kaleidoscopic effect. The flickering of ash from a cigarette they inhaled, the newspaper they read this morning, the appalling break-up they had last month or the joy they had at the arrival of a postcard from a loved one, all contribute to the final product. Ideas flourish at the hands of the uninhibited.

Poetic forms are created all the time by writers who require a new format to speak their own language. I love spoken word poetry for this very reason. It’s characterful and conversational. No strict shapes, often no ascertainable rhythms, just truth. Dressed down.

Maya Angelou says, ‘When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am.’

This is true for all of us. We are all artists and we all use different mediums and processes. Allow yourself to speak without restriction.



WATCH IT: Review of ‘Madeline’s Madeline’

On Sunday 25th February, I watched writer-director Josephine Decker’s third film at the Sony Centre as part of the Berlinale International Film Festival. Decker boldly confronts issues of mental illness and identity in ‘Madeline’s Madeline’ with a remarkable sense of sensitivity and openness. This film is especially interesting in its attention to the nuances of a confused millennial teen’s sense of self.

The simple plot, the elephant in the room, is the unspecified mental illness of Madeline that has driven a wedge between her and her mother. Regina (Miranda July), ultimately weak and ineffective in her attempts to control Madeline, battles to maintain a relationship with her daughter. Her maternal concern often comes out in screaming and shrill sounds of despair that July skilfully allows to perforate her dialogue.

            ‘You don’t know myself. I am being myself.’

Madeline clearly internalises the stress of her home environment. Amongst rather violent verbal tirades against her mother, we see momentary glimpses inside Madeline that seem to elude definition. Madeline is not one self, but many.

“The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat — you are inside the cat.”

Madeline’s acting class becomes an escape, but also a powerful tool for self-creation. An interesting relationship is struck between Madeline and her acting teacher. Evangeline (Molly Parker) seems to be interested in Madeline’s talent, but only so far as it reflects her own as a director.

Decker brings into the forefront questions about storytelling through Evangeline, who is completely wrapped up in her own artistic vision for her performers. Who has ownership of a story, and who has the right to tell it?

Evangeline performs the role of a surrogate mother to Madeline to such an extent that the teen becomes notably dejected at the announcement of Evangeline’s pregnancy. Both Madeline and Evangeline are trying to fill some kind of vacuum through the relationship and Decker’s treatment of this theme is superb.  The transference of control from actual mother to surrogate mother is striking, but feels almost too much like Stockholm syndrome.

In the final scene, Madeline releases her narrative of pain and suppression in an immersive monologue that she performs in front of her acting class and her mother. This moment is chaotic, made up of fragmented angry speech and unrelated thoughts and emotions that recount her story. Within this, we see the strength of a woman who takes control of her own personal and artistic journey.

Helena Howard (Madeline) is remarkable in her performance of such raw, explosive emotions which makes for an altogether intense viewing experience.

Sound design gives rhythm to the most extreme moments of this film, building suspense with snatches of music and visceral echoes of panting and heavy breathing. The unfocussed camerawork gives an ethereal, dreamlike quality that disorientates our sense of narrative.

When Evangeline attempts to take Madeline’s story to use it in a piece of theatre, the other actors protect her from the cloying hands of their power-hungry teacher.

The stealing of another’s story for artistic purposes is seen as a heinous crime. Evangeline’s empathy with Madeline only stretches as far as her desire to make Madeline’s vulnerability into art.  Some kind of triumph for Madeline is achieved. Evangeline is eventually weakened in the wake of Madeline’s assertion of her own power and identity.

Madeline plays out her mind’s vacillations between ecstasy and delusion, she plays the vulnerable girl coping with an identity crisis, she plays the devilish virgin who offers herself to her teacher’s husband, and she plays the cat – the lone, independent woman with nine lives, each carefully crafted for our viewing pleasure.

No matter how abstract things get in this movie, the emotion driving it is always visible.



Sylvia Plath and the Art of Dying


‘It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenberg’s, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.’

An odd line for the start of a book, I thought, upon reading the opening of The Bell Jar. I had read about Sylvia Plath before: sadist, suicide fanatic, suppressed artist, but never before had I read her novel which, upon further investigation, is undeniably about her life. A life characterised by such a sharp, unsettling sense of self-hatred as to make one quiver while reading. But this is only speculation.

Plath has been psychoanalysed to an inch of her life since her suicide in 1963. Sunday 14th January 2018 marked the 55th anniversary of the publication of The Bell Jar and occasioned my desire to add my own share of interpretation. It would be easy for me to mythologise Plath as a suicide fanatic, majestically draped in a robe of madness, but this would serve to trivialise her torturous experiences of clinical depression. What is striking about Plath, however, is the way in which she spoke of death with such an ease of expression. This was a woman who was deeply enraptured by visions of her own destruction that were so intimately crafted and, ultimately, so memorably enacted.

When considering the biographical details of her life, the opening line of The Bell Jar becomes more comprehensible. It was the summer of Plath’s senior year at college, the summer where they ‘electrocuted the Rosenberg’s’, and where Plath received electroconvulsive therapy multiple times before her first medically-documented suicide attempt. Plath, like her protagonist Esther, was in New York interning at Mademoiselle, a job a lot of women would have died for, chasing a rather stilted version of the American dream. Surrounded by conflicting modes of American womanhood – the domestic homemaker of the 1950s, the secretary who was learned in shorthand but ultimately subject to a man’s dictation– Esther, and Plath, began the downward spiral of despondency.

In The Bell Jar, death is a longing, a desire, but also a real, proven, possibility. The novel is sharply inflected by sharp motes of Plath’s own brush with self-destruction. Anne Sexton wrote how she and Plath ‘talked death with burned-up intensity, both of [them] drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb.’[1] This metaphor of electricity is used time and time again. Esther feeds off the adrenalin, the electric feeling of seeing ‘redness flower from her wrists.’ The potent image of red vividly reminding us of its author, Plath – a woman bent on mutilating herself body and soul. The reality of hurting oneself is glamorised. A nightmarish image of sinking further into a blood-stained bath ‘under a surface gaudy as poppies’ is swallowed up, forgotten, as we are lulled asleep along with its victim.

The morbid lucidity of Esther’s moments of pain are shocking to the reader, but all the more pleasurable to their author. Esther plays a game with us, and equally with herself. How much pain can she inflict upon herself, and how much can we hurt as a consequence?

One of Plath’s most momentous attempts at suicide is described in The Bell Jar. Esther heaves her body into a gap in the cellar wall and, after swallowing her mother’s sleeping pills, lies still on the brink of oblivion. She describes how ‘‘The silence drew off, bearing the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep’’. Her fragile body, this vessel of ‘tatty wreckage’, is finally numbed, nearly engulfed and swept away with the tide, but is saved before extinction.

I said earlier that is was easy for one to mythologise Plath because in a way, she wanted us to do that. She said herself that The Bell Jar was a ‘throw[n] together’ series of events from her life that she focused upon ‘fictionalising to add colour.’ You can’t help but think that suicide is an assertion of power and character; the additional ‘colour’, the redness flowing from the wrist, needed to remedy a life lived in torment.

Esther’s fantasies of suicide are tied to famous fictional narratives. Death is a stage, and we the spectators. Madness becomes theatre. In Plath’s poem ‘Edge’, she writes:

‘The woman is perfected. 

Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment.’

This is a woman that has been prodded and preened and packaged up in an image of death. At last, perfected. In ‘Lady Lazarus’, a woman who has survived several acts of self-destruction, the cat with nine lives, says that,

‘Dying is like an art.

Like everything else.

I do it exceptionally well.’

It is in these poems that I hear echoes of Plath’s own residual thoughts of suicide. It is she that is finally placed in the centre of the amphitheatre, here until the final close of the curtain, where her dead body will be brought onto the stage in full display.


23 Fitzroy Road. Previously home to W.B. Yeats, Plath moved here with her two children after her split with husband and poet laureate Ted Hughes. It was here that she was discovered after she had taken her own life. 


Plath’s final collection of poems are characterised by what her daughter Frieda Hughes described as a ‘distinctive Ariel voice.’ Ariel is where Plath’s inner demons – rage, violence, punishment, fever – are tangibly personified and brought before us as an offering. You feel the energy of a tormented psyche in search of something deeper, darker, to ‘colour’ her life with catastrophe.

The electric imagery, the rage, returns, and then the numbing effect. The speaker of ‘A Birthday Present’ exclaims ‘My god, the clouds are like cotton’, a smothering, white expanse, muffling, nursing a wounded soul with the numbing effect of ‘carbon monoxide.’ But these clouds are in ‘armies’. They too desire to hurt. The speaker cries, ‘I am alive only by accident.’ She does not want to be saved.

In ‘Tulips’, the imagery of white returns with a hallucinatory quality. The speaker contemplates ‘how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed in.’ She says:

‘’I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted, 

To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.’’

The tulips offer an offensive brightness which startle the speaker. She does not want flowers. She desires an existence devoid of self that only the sterility of the hospital can offer. She wants only to be ‘empty’, effaced. Eileen Aird remarks that: ‘The world of Ariel is black and white, one into which red, which represents blood, the heart and living is always an intrusion.’[2] The redness, the life of the tulips should ‘be behind bars like a dangerous animal’ while she, empty, light as a cloud, can be ‘free’, ‘peaceful.’ It is Plath’s own dead body that is left, wounded, despised, when a whisper of, ‘from the bottom of the pool, fixed stars/ Govern a life’, is heard, echoing, reverberating, at the end of the collection. Each word dropped like a stone in the ocean.

As self-confessed, ‘peanut crunching’  voyeurs of Sylvia Plath’s plight, we have cast her opus under the eye of the interpreter more times than one can count. The posthumous unearthing and publishing of her works reveals a woman who seemed reluctant to reveal herself. Self-flagellant, self-sadist, sufferer of torturous thoughts and assaults, she was a woman who, seemingly, did not feel in the world. Subject to continuous psychoanalysis for all who read her works, it’s doubtful that Plath’s mind and body will ever rest in peace.



[2] Eileen Aird, Sylvia Plath: Her Life and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.


The Bronte Sisters: A Literary Obsession

After finishing my degree in English Literature, I travelled to the Yorkshire dales with my dad to visit the house of the Bronte’s – something I have wanted to do since I was a child. The maze of Haworth’s moors and precarious country pathways seemed to uphold the same shroud of mystery that had always, in my mind, been placed upon the Bronte sisters. Treading amongst the heather that speckles the grassland with majestic purple flowers I imagined the likes of Cathy Earnshaw or Jane Eyre – fierce female characters of the Bronte novels – clambering over the moors in search of their lost loves, and strangely felt at home.

It is true that no body of work has ever inspired me as much as that of the Bronte sisters. Three eighteenth-century women, each with an extraordinary intellect and a deep understanding of human nature; each subjected to the same fetters that all Victorian women were shackled to, managed to create texts that are continuously remembered and reimagined today. Like the ghosts that haunt their novels, they linger in the English imagination.

So who are the Brontes?

Picture a morose widowed father, a tragically inebriated brother, a house overlooking a graveyard and the wild expanse of the Yorkshire moors and you get the setting of the Bronte sisters. Sound like a gothic novel? Now you see where the Bronte’s got their inspiration from.

There were four children: Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell, who all grew up in a house at the foot of the moors. Patrick Bronte – a Cambridge graduate and longstanding Reverend of Howarth Parsonage – bestowed upon his children the gift of an enriching home education. It was here that their genius was kindled. Storytelling became embedded in daily routine. Feeding off each other’s minds, they grew inside their fantasy world and cultivated stories based on their immediate environment: the rugged, tumultuous moors and the domestic routine of the family home. As I trekked through the moorland, I felt the whispers of Cathy and Heathcliff whip round my ears with a bluster of wind. It is in the idyllic, yet treacherous, expanse of the moors that the Bronte’s characters come to life.


 The Bronte sisters have reached almost mythical status based on an understanding that they wrote such extraordinary books sheltered from the world in the confines of their home. This isn’t exactly true. Emily Bronte was not a lonely spirit shut away under the tyranny of her father, but a woman who actually enjoyed the comforts that cooking over a stove could afford. While her chief protagonist, Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights, ran heedlessly to the turbulent terrain of the moors, Emily wished to sit by the fire, composing her stories in time to the click of her knitting needles.

The home was a powerful symbol for Emily and Wuthering Heights attends to its invasion. The female sanctuary becomes impaired by the violence of tyrannous villains and divisive social conventions, even the sublimity of nature when the branches of an oak tree penetrate the haunted chamber of Lockwood. While demonic in aspects of their characters and the treatment of each other, Heathcliff and Cathy possess a love that is otherworldly. Cathy exclaims that ‘he is more myself than I am.’ The lovers become central to each other’s understanding of the point of existence. After Cathy dies, Heathcliff spends every waking moment wishing that he were in the earth with his beloved. It is this extinction through the elemental forces of nature that each character strives for, and eventually achieves.

We may put whatever emphasis we will on the fact that a peaceful coexistence beyond the grave is strikingly implausible for a modern audience, but the fact that Heathcliff and Cathy, ill-fated and fatally flawed, can maintain a love across the boundary of life and death is quite a remarkable concept in my eyes.

Perhaps it’s the lack of real emotion in our society that makes these novels appear, to some, like classic, empty love tales. Those old romantic tremors in our hearts, described so intimately in romantic novels as the pangs of love, are now felt as vibrations of our phones, notifying us of a ‘like’ on an Instagram selfie. Our concept of love has been diluted, reduced to the gratification of an extra ‘super-like’ on Tinder. Emily Bronte would be turning in her grave.

I don’t believe in ghosts but I believe in the heights of human passion.

And this is what the Bronte’s do. They make you believe and experience the full spectrum of human nature. They demand recognition of women’s experience as charged with intense bodily and emotional feeling.


In Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne recounts the story of Helen who leaves her drunken husband Mr Huntingdon to create a new life for herself and her child. Possibly influenced by her brother who was bent on boozing himself into an early grave, Anne paints a portrait of a Byronic figure of great fascination, but also of vast moral failings. In a rather mocking and derisive tone, Mr Huntingdon says, ‘I have an infernal fire in my veins that all the waters of the ocean cannot quench’ – words that don’t belong in the mouth of such a shallow individual. These words are really for the novel’s heroine, and for Anne herself. Women stifled, but not broken.

In a diary, Anne longed to ‘go out into the world, to act for myself, to exercise my unused faculties, to try my unknown powers.’ The Bronte sisters possessed knowledge of their own strength and capability – a lesson to women everywhere to harness the ‘unquenchable’ fire stoking inside them. Jane Eyre – Charlotte’s novel that tells of a woman who must establish true independence before marrying – ends with the family house set ablaze. The fire decimates, purges, yet creates anew.  It is thus atonement with nature, and with oneself, that is the pinnacle of human achievement in these novels.

The Bronte’s works have always symbolised to me what I believe to be absolutely true and vital in life. The novels deal with the most fundamental, mythical and primal aspects of human nature. It is for this reason that they remain so important not only to myself, but to the canonical history of English Literature.

#gothicnovel #romantic #romanticism #Bronte #literature #eighteenthcentury