NORTHAMPTON — Sylvia Plath, the writer and poet whose 1963 novel “The Bell Jar” was a vanguard of second-wave feminism, is the core of a small but thoughtfully curated exhibit entitled “The Bell Jars: Lyman Conservatory and Sylvia Plath’s Botanical Imagination.”
Plath attended Smith from 1950 to 1955. The show, which considers Plath’s professional and personal life (including her tumultuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes) through the lens of botanical imagery, has a kind of seek-and-find quality to it, with Plath’s poems, historical and botanical information, essays on Plath’s plant imagery, and photographs relating to the poet’s life and work scattered throughout the Lyman Plant House’s lovely Victorian-style conservatory.
But “Bell Jars” seeks to draw visitors into Plath’s era and imagination through physical experience as well. In the Fern House, the sudden dense, perfumed scent given off by the fronds is paired with an essay on Doreen, the sensuous friend in Plath’s novel whose smell reminds main character Esther of the musk of crushed sweet fern. In the Camellia Corridor, which also houses orchids, Plath’s “Fever 103″ is posted along with a QR code link to a recording of Plath herself, her Boston-inflected voice conveying the poem’s tortured exhilaration: “Hothouse baby in its crib/ The ghastly orchid/ Hanging its hanging garden in the air.”
“Fever 103″ can be read in any number of ways, but its first line (“Pure? What does it mean?”) broadcasts at least some of the concerns that haunted Plath: sexuality, self-definition, the limitations of traditional femininity. Other parts of the exhibit take those concerns and steer them in a more literal direction. While Plath used the bell jar in her novel as a metaphor for the isolation of the unwell mind from the rest of society — and though it is widely interpreted as a symbol of entrapment in prescribed feminine roles — in this show, the bell jar becomes a riff in its own right.
A portion of the exhibit features the historical uses of the bell jar, among other scientific equipment employed by Smith biology professors before and during Plath’s time at the college. (Plath’s botany instructor used bell jars to measure “the effects of transpiration” on the absorption of radioactive phosphorous — a reflection, the exhibit notes, of the era’s fears about nuclear fallout, imagery of which also crops up in Plath’s work.)
Besides being a formidable poet, Plath also had a talent for drawing, and reproductions of her sketches — an intricate pen-and-ink drawing of horse chestnuts, an abstract willow tree with burls suggested by wavy, scalloped lines — hang in the plant house’s exhibition gallery. They aren’t framed but are tacked to a board above a small desk area complete with an Oriental runner rug and reading chairs set up for visitors to peruse collections of Plath’s poetry, drawings, and biographies.
The casualness and personal detail (Plath’s four-year transcript is also tacked to the board) invites viewers to contemplate what Plath might have seen and felt as a Smith student in the ′50s — a hands-on tactic that “Bell Jars” makes use of in other ways as well. Guests are invited to complete a botany class exercise from Plath’s era in the Fern Room; clipboards and pencils are available for anyone wanting to explore the conservatory via the botanical drawing exercises the poet would have encountered as a student in Botany 11.
As for the more disturbing elements of Plath’s history — her suicide in 1963, for instance — the exhibit touches upon those briefly. But in many ways the issues the show raises have to do not just with Plath herself but the broader plight of women and the limited opportunities available to them at midcentury. Botany, considered a “feminine” science in the 1700s, began to exclude women from its professional ranks as its stature grew; by 1943, the exhibit notes, Smith professors seeking to understand what skills would make their botany students more employable in the field were told by some institutions that they mostly hired men — and that useful skills for women would be typing and stenography.
That fact recalls a passage of “The Bell Jar,” in which Esther says: “For a while I toyed with the idea of being a botanist studying the wild grasses in Africa or the South American forests … I loved cutting up leaves and putting them under the microscope and drawing … the odd, heart-shaped leaf in the sex cycle of the fern, it seemed so real to me.”
Esther isn’t necessarily Plath herself, but that observation of reality is specific enough to hear the ring of personal truth in it. Plath’s ambitions tended toward the literary, and her psychiatric struggles may have been independent of her career, but this exhibit, with its combination of women’s history and biographical detail, stirs up some poignant questions about Plath, and by extension other women of her era. Had Plath followed her scientific inclinations, would her sense of self, anchored by the reality of rigorous inquiry and scientific observation, have been stable enough to offer her a different fate? “The Bell Jars” leaves room to reflect, imagine, and measure the distance between the present and the not-so-faraway past.
THE BELL JARS: Lyman Conservatory and Sylvia Plath’s Botanical Imagination
At Lyman Plant House and Conservatory, 16 College Lane, Northampton. Through June 28. 413-585-2742, https://garden.smith.edu/
Francie Lin edits the Books section at the Boston Globe.