Escaping the Bell Jar: Anne Stevenson and Poetic Self-fashioning, by Hannah Voss

In 1995, poet and critic Anne Stevenson gave a lecture on Elizabeth Bishop. Choosing to eschew any discussion of Bishop’s biography, Stevenson remarked, ‘A poet can suffer no worse fate than being celebrated for the wrong reasons’.

Being ‘celebrated’ was a complicated notion for Stevenson. Six years prior, she had published Bitter Fame, a biography of Sylvia Plath that was proving to be extremely unpopular among critics for its harsh depiction of Plath. Stevenson had begun to fear that her reputation would become indelibly linked with Plath’s; that she, too, would be remembered – if not celebrated ­– for the wrong reasons.

This fear was prescient. Upon her death in 2020, the New York Times, the Guardian, and The Times all remembered her in their obituaries as ‘Anne Stevenson, poet and Plath biographer’.[1] These headlines cemented a fundamental irony: that as much as Stevenson tried to define herself against Plath, so much would Plath’s persona and legacy come to bear on her own.

The presence of Plath’s ghost within Stevenson’s poetry and public self-fashioning predates the publication of Bitter Fame, and can be seen most strongly in her only explicitly ‘feminist’ poem, Correspondences. The poem features a character called Kay Boyd, who rebels against her prescribed role as woman in the 1950s. Kay allows Stevenson to confront her similarities to Plath, as the character is a composite version of both women. Plath and Stevenson were born two months apart and were both raised in New England, married in their mid-twenties, and were American ex-pats in England, living in Cambridge simultaneously from 1955 to 1957. Both were also, of course, poets.

Kay, also a poet, is the same age as Plath and Stevenson, and finds herself married and a mother in the 1950s. By 1954, however, Kay has had a complete mental breakdown and writes to her mother from an asylum in New York. She accuses her mother of turning her into a ‘dangling puritanical doll made of duty and habit’. In ‘Writing as a Woman’, Stevenson explains that Kay’s ‘hysteria […] is one many of us felt in the 1950s and 1960s; Sylvia Plath was a spokeswoman for a whole generation of Kays’.[2] Kay’s voice in Correspondences is an echo of Plath’s violent and emotional Ariel poems, written before she died by suicide in 1963.

However, Kay escapes Plath’s fate: she survives her breakdown and escapes the suffocating environment of Plath’s ‘bell jar’. For Stevenson, the bell jar is ‘a vacuum composed of self-cancelling values […] held together by a bullying will to succeed’. This bell jar is unique to the mid-twentieth century in that is a product of shifting – but not yet shifted – circumstances for women. Women like Stevenson and Plath went to university, were taught to be ambitious and chase professional success, but were also expected to excel as wives, mothers, and homemakers.

Though Stevenson identifies herself in Plath’s desire for success as both a poet and a ‘woman’ (as narrowly defined in the 1950s), she also sees it as the cause of her death. And so she steers Kay away from the bell jar in order to steer herself away from it, too. Instead of trying to ‘have it all’, Kay leaves her family and moves to London, rejecting her obligations as both daughter and mother in order to pursue her life as a writer. This perhaps unhappy solution reflects Stevenson’s own. She writes of her determination to keep both her poetry and her sanity, ‘[e]ven if I had to be cruel to my family’. Correspondences, then, reads as an attempt to exorcise Plath’s ghost, for Stevenson to move into a different way to write as a woman – a way without risk.

But with Plath’s explosive poetry and sensationalised death also came her celebrity. A celebrity that Stevenson could not hope for, but could not help but measure herself against. Plath comes to represent Stevenson’s desires and fears of the price to be paid for a literary reputation. As a result, Stevenson devotes herself to undercutting the idea of reputation as valuable. In an elegy for Sylvia Plath written in 1988, Stevenson contrasts a life of ‘gratitude and love’ with ‘reputation’s building ground’.[3] Later, in ‘Celebrity’, Stevenson writes of her fame as completely unconnected to her real self. Looking to a time after her death, she predicts that her ‘reputation’ will be ‘serving the name of [her] dust’, echoing a hollow version of herself made palatable for critics. Rather than an immortalising force, her reputation can only reinforce her status as a dead poet.

This rejection of fame, however, rings hollow. Her elegy to Plath ultimately seems to plead with her contemporary to leave some space for anyone else: ‘Poor Sylvia, could you not have been | a little smaller than a queen’.[4] As Adam Piette writes, despite its stated message, the poem seems to probe ‘“the other side” of Plath’s fame’, searching for the secret to her success.[5] Haunted by Plath, Stevenson’s poems read as though she is trying to convince herself she does not desire literary and familial success – the ‘bullying will to succeed’ that fuelled Plath’s greatness and her demise. She must instead locate greatness elsewhere, and in doing so fashions herself as a kind of anti-Plath: mature where Plath was childish, controlled and technically skilled where Plath poured out her soul in fierce, raw verse.

It is this intentionally crafted poetic persona that indelibly links Stevenson to Plath. However, it is worth considering Stevenson’s self-fashioning as an alternative response to the pressures of the mid-century. Whatever her true desires, Stevenson felt forced to abandon conventional notions of success in order to function as a woman poet. She modelled a female authorship in which women need not reveal their intimate selves to be taken seriously, and advocated for women’s writing to matter intrinsically without the approval of a largely male critical establishment – that same establishment which now calls her ‘Plath biographer’.


[1] Neil Gezlinger, ‘Anne Stevenson, Poet and Plath Biographer, Is Dead at 87’, New York Times, 19 September 2020 <;; Jay Parini, ‘Anne Stevenson Obituary’, Guardian, 18 February 2020 <;, ‘Anne Stevenson Obituary’, The Times, 23 November 2020 <;

[2] Anne Stevenson, ‘Writing as a Woman’ in Between the Iceberg and the Ship: Selected Essays (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), pp. 3–21 (p. 17).

[3] Anne Stevenson, ‘Letter to Sylvia Plath’ in Poems 1955–2005 (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005), p. 384.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Adam Piette, ‘Mothers, Mirrors, Doubles: Anne Stevenson’s Elegies for Sylvia Plath’ in Voyages Over Voices: Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 55–70 (p. 60).


Further reading

Jones, Emma, ‘To serve a girl on terrible terms: Anne Stevenson’s Writing Selves’ in Voyages Over Voices: Critical Essays on Anne Stevenson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 173–90

Malcolm, Janet, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (London: Granta Books, 1994)

Piette, Adam, ‘Mothers, Mirrors, Doubles: Anne Stevenson’s Elegies for Sylvia Plath’ in Voyages Over Voices, pp. 55–70

Redmond, John, ‘Staging Second Thoughts: The Poetry of Anne Stevenson’ in Voyages Over Voices, pp. 71–82

Stevenson, Anne, ‘Writing as a Woman’ in Between the Iceberg and the Ship: Selected Essays (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001)

—, Correspondences: A Family History in Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974)

—, Poems 1955–2005 (Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2005)

­­—, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (London: Viking, 1989)


Hannah Voss is a PhD candidate at Durham University, funded by a Durham Doctoral Studentship. Her thesis explores annihilation and writing selves in the work of H.D., Jean Rhys, and Anne Stevenson. She is currently a postgraduate representative for the British Association for Modernist Studies.