I have just finished reading the second volume of Sylvia Plath's Letters, published by Faber and Faber. They make for sober reading. The first volume, published in 2017, covered the period 1940-1956. In those, a smiling, bikini-clad Plath beams out from the front cover, while the pages are filled with the optimism and hope of youth. There are pockets of doubt and difficulty, the hint of rape and a suicide attempt, but also Plath's growing certainty of herself as a writer, a woman and an equal to the towering figure of Ted Hughes, with whom she is forever linked.
It is evident from the book jacket that the second volume will be a more serious affair. Gone is the summer sun and the happy expression. Viewed from the side and in monochrome, Plath's expression is serious, her hair tied up in a no-nonsense style. In nearly 600 letters, we follow Plath's marriage to Hughes, their movement around the globe and the UK, her library successes and his more immediate recognition, childbirth and child loss, a breaking-down marriage and her suicide at the age of 30.
To Plath, Hughes was a giant, a genius, a literary God. He must be fed steak for breakfast and waited on, his needs tended to. Yet she also resented her domesticity, her entrapment to the demands of her husband - first moving to Devon because he wanted space, searching for childcare in order to write, and juggling the demands of that writing along babies, cooking, cleaning and tending to Hughes. The marriage was intense. It was also violent. She wrote to her psychiatrist that Hughes beat her when she was pregnant, causing her to miscarry their second child.
In the foreword to the book, their daughter Frieda meets these claims head on. She writes in defence of her father, justifying his apparent violence towards Sylvia - which is also recorded in Plath's journals - on the problematic grounds that what was meant by 'a beating' is unclear (a hit, a swipe, a push?) and that her mother had been difficult, needy, disruptive. It is difficult to read this perspective, and to compare it with the plaintiveness of Plath's own journals, the constant fretting about existence that hovers at their margins, her need to do right, live right, be right.
Yet it is clear in Frieda's foreword how difficult it must be to have parents so utterly in the public eye and simultaneously capable of creating division. Plath was better known after her death than in life, with her books The Bell Jar (a semi-autobiographical novel about a nervous breakdown) and her poetry. Her writing is said to have contributed to the development of the confessional style in literature. And yet it is Hughes who is remembered in Westminster Abbey, not Plath.
Plath's final letters were written just a few days before she died by suicide in her London flat. She had successfully moved back to the city after being left by Hughes (he was unfaithful with their tenant Assia Wevill, who, in a terrible mirroring would kill herself and her daughter in the same way that Plath died). Plath seemed to be getting better; she had been knocked by Hughes' infidelity and the subsequent rejection of some friends, and she struggled with Frieda missing her father. She was convinced that her daughter had 'latent schizophrenia', and she fretted constantly about her wellbeing.
It took such effort on the part of Plath to reestablish herself, to find childcare, to push herself back into the London scene, that the exhaustion is apparent on the page. Her letters to people become repetitive as she tells one after another about Hughes' adultery and abandonment, the money he is to pay, his family's turning on her, her living in Yeats' house and how that was fate, and finally, the endless illness, colds and flu of her children.
In the main, Plath's letters have an enforced jollity even when she is struggling. From time to time she was angry and critical with her mother, but she also felt responsible for her, writing to her sponsor, the American author Olive Higgins Prouty, not to pass on information that might cause Aurelia worry. Prouty had suffered with mental health problems too, so Plath felt she was an ally. Plath was convinced that Hughes wanted her to kill herself, something she refused to contemplate.
But by the beginning of 1963, despite all her contrived hope and determination, Plath was sleep deprived, unwell, lonely and depressed. On 11 February, having previously convinced herself, and her psychiatrist that she was no longer a suicidal 'type', she left out a snack for the sleeping children, took precautions to seal the kitchen and gassed herself in the oven.
Two years after her death, Plath's collection of poems Ariel was published by Ted Hughes. These poems, including the eponymous poem written on her 30th birthday, drew on the pain of abandonment and loss that had followed her marriage breakdown. This is the writing for which she is best remembered.
And now I
Foam to wheat, a glitter of seas.
The child's cry
Melts in the wall.
Am the arrow,
The dew that flies
Suicidal, at one with the drive
Into the red
Eye, the cauldron of morning.