Of legs and letters: fighting for the body of Sylvia Plath

I have been spending a lot of time lately with Sylvia Plath - reading her fiction, poems and journals, exploring her self-representation as a writer, and a woman coming of age in the 1950s. I have even read her undergraduate dissertation:  'The Magic Mirror: A Study of the Double in Two Novels of Dostoevsky', a copy of which is held at the British Library.

Fortuitously, a new edition of Plath's letters has been produced, which covers the early years of her life and ends with her marriage to Ted Hughes in 1956. The Letters of Sylvia Plath volume 1 provides key insights into Plath's relationship with her mother, her memories of her father, and her writing and romantic entanglements before Hughes. Volume 2, which will cover her marriage, breakdown and depression in the years leading up to her suicide in 1963, is due out in 2018.  

There is little contextual information in the Letters, other than an occasional footnote reference t. The significance of the book is not, therefore, its analysis, but in bringing together a vast body of previously unpublished material. Some of Plath's letters have been published before, in a volume published and edited by her mother Aurelia. Letters Home was a sanitised version of Plath's correspondence, removing anything that was uncomfortable to Plath's mother.

This is understandable: Plath's adult journals and letters contain negative and virulent writing about Aurelia; as Plath worked through her therapy, the vampirish 'blood sucking' mother was as important to her self definition as the absent, beloved father. (Otto Plath died when his daughter was eight, from complications linked to untreated diabetes.)

In poems like 'Medusa', and in autobiographical novels like The Bell Jar, Plath raged against the mother whose grip seemed all too tight. Working things out in prose was her way of being. Plath has been treated dismissively as a writer at various points. The term 'confessional' poetry, which Plath helped pioneer, has been used in a denigrating fashion. Her femininity has been linked to hysteria, and her poetry concocted as a 'witches' brew'. 

I wrote in my last blog that Plath is still not remembered in Poets' Corner, unlike her more respectable husband Hughes. Interestingly, Prince Charles, who encouraged Westminster Abbey to have an official memorial to Hughes, has a private shrine to the poet at his own residence. I say 'interestingly', because Prince Charles, like Ted Hughes, has more in common with his friend the poet than you might think: like Hughes, Charles was vilified over his adultery. Like Hughes, Charles' wife remains more popular than he after she died young. Both Princess Diana and Sylvia Plath suffered with mental health complaints, and both Charles and Hughes were accused of contributing to their wives' tortured state. 

Plath is far more than her relationship with Hughes, of course. She was an extraordinarily productive and accomplished writer, whose poems are regarded as some of the best in twentieth-century literature. She wrote a radio play, a children's book, short stories and novels, and won a Pulitzer Prize posthumously for her Collected Poems. Her literary talents were evident from childhood; she wrote poems, won prizes and published in magazines, ever determined to be a successful writer. 

Plath graduated from Smith College in 1955, and won a prestigious Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge, where she met Hughes the following year. As she wrote in her diaries, Hughes 'blasted' all other lovers from her mind, though she also discerned he might be 'a breaker of things and people'. By June 1956 the two were married, moved briefly to America and back to England, where they had two children, Frieda and Nicholas. 

Plath's first collection of poems, Colossus was published in 1960, with her novel The Bell Jar being published in January 1963 under the pen name Victoria Lucas. The book was met by lukewarm reviews. The following month, on 11 February, Plath committed suicide. A single parent living alone, suffering from severe mental anguish, Plath placed her head in the oven and gassed herself. A careful mother to the end, she had first sealed off the kitchen from the rest of the house with blankets and tape, and left food and drink for her sleeping children. 

It's easy to see why there will be a large audience for Plath's published letters. The nature of Plath's early death, her semi-autobiographical writing, her desire to write and to thrive in the male-dominated 1950s, and her dramatic relationship with Hughes, read like threads of a dramatic novel. In 2003 a celebrity-stuffed film was made that conformed to the most common narrative: the brittle but brilliant woman who gave it all for love, and lost. 

These are, of course, just narratives. And Letters has received mixed reviews. Sarah Churchwell in The Guardian isn't sure that they are worth reading, since so much is taken up with Plath's childhood and teenage years, when not much happened, aside from her first suicide attempt, which helped shape the writing of The Bell Jar. I think this is missing the point. We can learn a lot about Plath's self-representation as a daughter, a writer, a lover and a depressive in these letters; themes that I tackle in more detail in my forthcoming book about loneliness. 

What I want to draw attention to here, however, are the ways in which ownership of Plath's body - figuratively, in her writings, but also literally, through the meticulous picking over the bones of her suicide - reflects the pulling apart of the writer as a symbol for so much else: feminism, creativity, motherhood, depression, family trauma and the death of a father. 

Writers argue about whether Plath was co-dependent with her mother, biologically prone to depression, abused by her husband; whether she benefitted or lost out by her creative relationship with Ted Hughes; whether she was loved by him, abandoned by him, killed by him. Some of these claims are easier to prove than others. 

It is interesting that volume 1 of the Letters ends with Hughes, and that this is where volume 2 will begin. Hughes functions as a natural marker because, for good and ill, the two are always linked. I lingered over including a photograph of them both here, rather than Plath on her own. Since I am discussing them both, it seems necessary to include Hughes. There is also something about this portrait - the intimate expression under the public gaze - that seems appropriate. 

Plath had loved other men before Hughes, but the brooding poet absorbed Plath fully after they met at a party in Cambridge. In their marriage, Plath juggled her many roles, as mother, wife, cook, cleaner, academic, novelist, poet, learning to write between the lines, though not always happily since Hughes' career and writing always came first.

Critics have debated the extent to which Plath and Hughes' literary and personal relationship was positive; how far she was his muse, and how far he influenced her writing. Seldom the other way around. In one light, Hughes has been regarded by critics as an inspiration to Plath, a man whose presence impelled her to write, and whose talents sharpened her prose. In another, Hughes seemed to have wrung Plath out, to have taken what he needed and, like any great man of literature, put himself and his needs first.

When they separated, an event usually attributed to Hughes' infidelity with their friend and tenant Assia Wevill, Plath was devastated, and depressed. She was alone when she died, just as she had been alone most of her life. In the 1970s, Hughes was accused of killing Plath, at least through his indifference. Just six years after Plath's death, moreover, Hughes' mistress Wevill also killed herself in eerily similar circumstance. In March 1969, Wevill dragged a mattress into the kitchen of her flat, drugged herself and her four-year-old daughter with sleeping tablets, and turned on the gas stove.

Critics called Hughes a murderer, and repeatedly chiselled Hughes' name off Plath's headstone, incensed too because Hughes had buried Plath in the small village where he himself grew up. Hughes benefitted from Plath's estate after her death since the two were still married, and he destroyed her final journal, claiming he did not want the children to be harmed by it. He also lost Plath's penultimate journal. Hughes had also beaten Plath physically, according to her journals and her letters to her psychiatrist,  one such beating having apparently resulted in a miscarriage.

Yet the polarising of opinion, between Hughes as creator and Hughes as destroyer, has continued. Hughes did not only obliterate Plath's work, it is argued, he also helped created it. It was he who collected poems for the release of Ariel in 1965. In 1981, he also published Plath's Collected Poems. Notably, however, he also profited from the estate and he didn't include anything written before they met. These letters he dismissed as 'juvenilia'. Plath, in Hughes' view, was only born once they met.

Supporters of Hughes cite Plath's mental health problems. They see Plath's suicide as a product of her own instability (or her genetic encoding), rather than the circumstances of her sustained abuse, marital breakdown and abandonment.

Plath's physical body, it seems, provides evidence of her fragile mental state long before Hughes: she lashed her legs in a desperate act of self-harm (and revealed the scars to her mother) before her first suicide attempt. One that occasion, Plath had taken an overdose of her mother's sleeping tablets, and hidden herself away in the crawlspace of the cellar. While a search continued overhead, she lay unconscious for two days before she was found. Her cheek was cut and infested with maggots from where she had bashed her head when waking. She would be self-conscious of the resulting scar for the rest of her life.

Even before Plath met Hughes, then, her body carried the marks of her mental illness. Some critics have gone further in challenging Plath's idolised status; suggesting, for instance that she was jealous and competitive, particularly towards other women. Psychoanalytic concepts - oedipal, neurotic, hysterical - are bandied about as everyday descriptions that summarise Plath's behaviour before sweeping it neatly into a pile. The conclusion is unerringly gendered and tied in a pretty pink bow: she died for love, as so many women do.

Unsurprisingly, it is Plath's children who carry the biggest burden. Her son Nicholas suffered from depression and killed himself in 2009. He was a successful fisheries biologist and an expert in stream salmonid ecology, but that doesn't seem to matter. Nothing can disrupt the linear media narrative: he must be damned by the inevitability of genetics.  

You can understand the frustration and resentment of Plath's surviving daughter Frieda, a successful artist and poet in her own right. She is forever cast in her parents' shadow, and mediates between Plath and Hughes in death, as no doubt she would have been called to do in life, had they both survived. 

Fifty-four years after Plath's death, her body is still fought over. Not only her writings and their interpretation, but also her mental illness, its causation, and its legacy. There is something self-defeating about this struggle, as there is about any attempt at retrospective diagnosis

Plath was an extraordinary writer whose existence and struggles were both universal and particular; she fought for the right to write at a time when women were still defined by their bodies, and by gender. She wrote about her frustration of having been born with breasts and ovaries, rather than a penis, knowing that her sexed identity would imprison her. 

Yet Plath was also a complex individual, with desires and feelings that were a product of her own beliefs, and articulated according to genre. How ridiculous then to dismiss her as self-indulgent, especially when writing in her own journal. Yet this is all too often the fate of autobiographical women.

When Plath wrote, whether in journals, letters or fiction, it was always according to convention. Ever conscious of a potential reader, ever self-conscious about the way she would be read (or come to perceive herself), nothing was unmediated.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath are therefore a wonderful addition to our understanding of the life and experiences of a complex and fascinating woman. But they are no more 'real' than any other source. There is no 'there' there, after all. All we have is text. 

 

 

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes  

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes