Arts & Books Books

The suffering poet who sighed for lost Edens

Sylvia Plath: her married name was chiselled away from her gravestone

Charting the toxic and tragic marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume II
Edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Krull,
Faber and Faber, 1,025pp, £35/$35

Since her suicide in the winter of early 1963, Sylvia Plath has been squabbled over by feminists who claim her as a martyr to their cause, literary critics who see her as one of the most important poets of her time, and Plath’s own family, who wish only to forget the awful circumstances of her death at the age of 30 in London.
In the struggle to take possession of Plath, the requirements of ideology, scholarship and privacy seem irreconcilable.

Plath’s former husband, Ted Hughes, has frequently been pilloried for his perceived cruelties. Above the two lines of poetry “Even amidst fierce flames, the golden lotus can be planted”, Plath’s married name “Hughes” has been chiselled away from her Yorkshire gravestone. Such insensitivity can only be the work of those who have no (or very little) idea of how difficult a marriage can be.

Part of the problem is that Plath died intestate – no arrangements had been made for the disposition of her literary remains. Ted Hughes appointed his sister Olywn as her literary agent and executor, but her stewardship of the Plath estate was problematic as she never really cared for the Boston-born poet. (“You liked her,” Olywn Hughes wrote to a friend in 1986. “I think she was pretty straight poison.”)

Much of what Plath wrote was conveniently mislaid or destroyed by Olywn and her brother. In his introduction to Plath’s short story collection Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Ted Hughes admitted that 130 pages of what was to be his wife’s second novel, Double Exposure, “disappeared somewhere around 1970”. It may be that the missing material was not worth preserving, but this seems unlikely. To her mother, Plath confided that she valued her “terrific second novel” so highly that she had no intention of publishing it under a pseudonym (as she had with The Bell Jar). Also missing are two of Plath’s journals. One of these chronicles her life during the autumn of 1962, when she wrote the extraordinary poems that would appear posthumously in Ariel and Winter Trees, among them “Lady Lazarus” and “The Rabbit Catcher”.

Olywn Hughes, who died in 2016, is certainly no saint in this second volume of Plath’s letters. One Christmas at her parents’ house in Yorkshire, she calls Plath “a nasty selfish bitch” to her face. Was she jealous of Plath’s claim on Ted? Two years later, in 1962, Ted’s beautiful German-Jewish mistress Assia Wevill (who herself committed suicide) is explicitly compared by Plath to the verbally abusive Olywn.

Unsurprisingly, Plath’s thoughts on Olwyn and Assia did not find their way into Letters Home (1975), a heavily doctored selection of Plath’s correspondence to her mother between 1940 and 1963.

Edited by the Plath archivists Steinberg and Krull, the present volume is quite some monument. Included are 14 positively radioactive letters which Olywn and Ted Hughes placed under embargo until 2016. These were written by Plath to her psychiatrist in America, Dr Ruth Beuscher, and describe in angry detail her husband’s “elaborate” deceits involving a secret bank account set up for his extra-marital needs. Courageously, Plath clings to the idea of her marriage as sacrosanct: “I am one of those women whose marriage is the central experience of life.” Her gradual disintegration is all the more painful to watch.

After six years of marriage, her dark and magnetic “Dearest Teddy” had become a “deserter” who caused Plath to miscarry after he “beat me up physically”. Did the future poet laureate really push his pregnant wife around this way? We cannot be certain.

By the time Plath was legally separated from Hughes in July 1962, she was left to fend for her two small children (one of whom, Nicholas, would later take his life). Alone and miserable in a rented London flat, she was desperate for a live-in help. “I shall try for a good Catholic,” she wrote to the Irish poet Richard Murphy, adding half-jokingly, “and maybe she can convert me”.

A strong-willed woman, Plath primarily lived for her writing. A dinner at TS Eliot’s house in Ted’s company was “one of those holy evenings”. Sharp portraits of Thom Gunn (“a very sweet British poet”), the Catholic poet Elizabeth Jennings and the London Magazine editor Alan Ross enliven the letters considerably. In her happier days of marriage, Plath is busy cooking, rug-braiding, trimming the Christmas tree and learning Italian. She makes clothes for her baby daughter Frieda, who would become her literary executor following Olwyn’s death.

The letters are not as “complete” as the editors claim. Elizabeth Sigmund, to whom The Bell Jar is dedicated, received a long letter from the poet on the eve of her suicide. It contained the words: “I can’t help sighing for lost Edens, but I think I’ve found my own strength now.” The letter is absent. Is it under seal? If so, why? It prompts the question of what Plath herself would have cared to publish were she still alive.