Over fifty years after her death, the links that were always missing from poet Sylvia Plath’s story may finally have been found.
If you’re familiar with poetry or literature, or both, one would hope you might be familiar with one of the twentieth century’s best remembered poets, Sylvia Plath, who achieved great acclaim despite being light years ahead of her time; she is now credited with advancing the genre of confessional poetry. And if you’re at all familiar with Plath, you know that not only did she struggle with clinical depression for most of her adult life, but that she was married to fellow poet Ted Hughes in one of literature’s most controversial and infamously troubled marriages.
Anyone who has read or appreciated Plath and her work know that her life and marriage were stormy. She had already attempted suicide before she and Hughes met, and rumor has it that she did not disclose the extent of her ongoing struggles with mental illness before they were married in 1956. They moved around between the United States and England during the first few years of their marriage and eventually had two children, Frieda and Nicholas. She published her first collection of poetry in 1960, The Colossus and Other Poems, which ended up being her only book of poetry published while she was living. It’s said that Plath was devastatingly insecure when it came to her husband, and it turns out she was not entirely wrong to feel that way as, in 1962, Hughes left his wife and two young children for his mistress, Assia Wevill, a former friend of the couple. Although writing some of what is considered her best work in the time following their separation, Plath’s mental health struggles never let up and she committed suicide on February 11, 1963, at age 30. The Bell Jar, her novel of fiction that is considered to be largely autobiographical, was published shortly before her death and has since become a cult classic.
In what can only be described as circumstances similar to that of a literary tragedy, Plath and Hughes were still legally married at the time of her death and, as a result, he became the sole beneficiary of her estate and her entire body of written work was left in his hands. He burned her last journal and “lost” another, claiming it was for the protection of his children, as well as hoarding an unfinished novel and other writings of hers. He oversaw the posthumous publications of other books of her poetry in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and while he put the royalties from these books into a trust for Frieda and Nicholas, many still claim he only published some of her unseen poems for his own financial benefit: essentially making money off of his wife’s mental illness and eventual suicide. As a result, Hughes was (and still is) the subject of significant controversy and scrutiny in the literary community, especially from feminist critics, who pin a great deal of the blame for Plath’s suicide on him. People shouted “murderer” at his poetry readings in the years following her death, and while Plath’s tombstone originally read Sylvia Plath Hughes at his insistence, it was targeted by vandals who removed his name. Hughes died in 1998, but not before publishing a final book of poetry, Birthday Letters, which consists of writings that address his relationship with his wife, but it was far from any sort of apology (one could also say some form of karma came for him as well, as a few years after Plath’s death, his mistress committed suicide in a way hauntingly similar to his wife).
A volume of Plath’s journals was published for the first time in 1982 (pictured on right, photo credit: SylviaPlath.info), for which Hughes was an editor and it is now said that he heavily manipulated the text, especially if you compare it to the unedited version that was first published in 2000, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (pictured on left, photo credit: Amazon). In fact, some parts of the first published version of her journals were so mercilessly edited that, when looking back on it after reading the Unabridged Journals, some chapters and passages make no sense at all. So many Plath scholars and readers pour over her journals, abridged and unabridged, looking for answers to the question of why when, all along, we should have been looking for answers to the question of how. Countless critics have made observations and judgments that both publications of her journals, more so in the Unabridged Journals, are merely proof that Plath was paranoid and insecure of not only her marriage, but herself. The biopic made of her life by BBC Films, Sylvia (2003), which memorably stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as Hughes, is an enjoyable and enlightening portrait of her life, career and struggles, but it still leaves a portion of her mental illness unexplored and does portray her as a hopelessly paranoid woman who is ultimately destroyed by her own mind.
But this is the thing: Plath may have been paranoid and insecure, but it was not unwarranted. She did struggle with a never-ending battle with mental illness, and Hughes did have affairs throughout their marriage, disregard his wife’s struggles, and finally leave an unstable Plath alone with their two young children. Scholars and readers continued to spend years pouring over her journals and poems, looking for some semblance of answer to why. And perhaps publishers, let alone readers, enjoyed it that way. Plath’s reputation as one of the twentieth century’s best poets was essentially created posthumously: she was not nearly as well known when she was alive as she has been in the years since her death. To make matters worse, Hughes had a hand in this posthumous creation of Plath as one of the greats: it’s even said that the underlying sentiment of Ariel (1965), the first book of her poetry published after she died, is that Plath was a crazy girl, and Hughes was her long-suffering husband. By the time the abridged version of her journals came along, it only made sense that critics thought it was just proof she was a crazy, paranoid but somehow brilliant woman who was making more money in death than she did when she was alive.
Literary society seemed to be perfectly fine with having painted and created Plath as an amazing poet but who was a crazy girl that married a man incapable of commitment. And by marrying a man incapable of commitment, so to speak, all of the blame is actually pinned on Plath, if you read between the lines. As Emily Van Duyne of Literary Hub points out, this attitude has merely reinforced the “cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak.” She writes that only in the culture we live in can a man “spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead, wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and then be knighted by the Queen.” Van Duyne also brings up the television series Gilmore Girls, where pop culture and literature are a frequent topic of conversation. While Plath is mentioned several times in dialogue by the two main characters, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, she references when Rory debates choosing Plath for the topic of her entrance essay to Harvard. Lorelai mentions that it might send the “wrong message,” to which Rory says disappointingly, “The sticking her head in the oven thing?” Lorelai replies, “Yeah. Although she did make her kids a snack first. Shows a certain maternal instinct.” Ah, patriarchal sexism. It’s everywhere if you look hard enough.
Some might have thought that we had all we were ever going to have when it came to the facts, but true Plath readers know that when searching for a deeper understanding of her life, something was always missing. But now, in 2017, fifty-four years after Plath’s suicide, it seems we might finally have an answer to how.
In April, The Guardian reported that new, never-before-seen letters written by Plath had been discovered—letters that alleged she suffered physical abuse at the hands of her husband. The letters had gone unseen by even the most versed of Plath scholars, which were now finally presenting a missing piece of the puzzle that many knew existed, but never knew whether or not it would ever be proven. These new letters now gave some sort of sigh of relief to readers who had long since been frustrated by the gaps in her journals and writings, because if you know the Plath/Hughes story well, it cannot come as the least bit shocking that he abused her, both physically and emotionally. The letters were written between February 1960 and February 1963, the final three years of her life, sent from Plath to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, who had treated her following her first suicide attempt in 1953 (and is said to have been the model for the doctor who treated the protagonist in The Bell Jar, Dr. Nolan). The nine letters first reveal details of Hughes’ adultery, confirming he had more than one mistress, before going on to reveal Plath’s account of Hughes beating her shortly before she suffered a miscarriage in 1961. In one letter dated October 1962, the same time she was writing some of her best poetic work that would be included in her posthumous collection Ariel, Plath writes that Hughes wished she was dead.
And the award for Mr. Sensitivity goes to… well, not Ted Hughes.
The new and previously unseen letters are scheduled to be published two new volumes, the first of which is due out this October. Peter K. Steinberg, co-editor of the project, described it as an “amazing collection of material that has been completely off the radar.” He also commented on the “sensational” poetry that Plath wrote at the same time as these letters, saying: “It is possible that Plath found catharsis in writing out to Dr. Barnhouse; and that in doing so it freed her to write those explosive, lasting poems.” Andrew Wilson, author of Mad Girl’s Love Song, a biography of Plath’s life before she met Hughes, stated that with the publication of these letters and interviews with Barnhouse, we would finally have the presence of a “missing link” that had alluded her previous biographies. “These letters look as though they could fill certain gaps in our knowledge, and seem as though they can shed new light on the turbulent, controversial marriage between Plath and Hughes,” he said. One can only hope this is true, and that we Plath lovers may finally have more of the answers we were always looking for.
Have you ever read any of Sylvia Plath’s work? Are you familiar with her turbulent personal life with Mr. Hughes? What do you think of the revelation made by these new letters? Let us know in the comments!