Sylvia Plath and the Communion of Women Who Know What She Went Through
Emily Van Duyne on the Lure of Charismatic, Abusive Men
Each time I left the Charles Woodruff Library at Emory University during my week-long visit there, I set off the alarm. I carried nothing but a tote bag with my laptop, cell phone, wallet, and one book—Charles Newman’s The Art of Sylvia Plath, a discarded library book from the early 1970s. This last was the culprit. The librarian at the front desk ran it through a scanner intended to de-library it. Still, the alarm sounded. Still, I walked quietly backwards, removing the book from, and handing over, my bag. Plath in hand, apologizing.
I went to Emory in November 2019, because Ted Hughes’s papers are there, and I needed to round out several chapters of my forthcoming book, Loving Sylvia Plath. Hughes and Plath were famously married from 1956 until her suicide in 1963, but estranged at the time of her death, with Plath actively seeking divorce. Because Plath died intestate (without a will), Hughes inherited all of her published—and, importantly, unpublished—writing. Loving Sylvia Plath deals with the ways Hughes used the editing and censorship of his late wife’s work to construct an image of a maniacal, death-obsessed Plath that was simultaneously a publishing phenomenon.
The Emory archive contains the bulk of his correspondence related to this editing and publishing—so, three days after Halloween, I flew south to Atlanta, my stomach in knots. I felt like I was facing the twisted history of Plath, Hughes, and the many fans and scholars who have tried to write about the whole complex mess. Until his death in 1998, Hughes was an immovable force—feminist scholars, in particular, were anathema to him, and he often forbade access to Plath’s work, or permission to quote it, to a range of writers. And while I have been sniffing around this story since I was a very young woman, I have too often (and probably too easily) been put off the scent—plenty of friends, and teachers, had told me I was wrong about Hughes’s character and his role in creating Plath’s iconic image. What if those people were right?
My fear that there was nothing to find went deeper than turning out to be the literary-feminist equivalent of Geraldo forcing open Al Capone’s vaults to find a handful of empty aspirin bottles. If I went to Atlanta and discovered there was nothing to discover, what did that mean for my understanding of Sylvia Plath? And since Sylvia Plath means so much to me, means so much to my life, its odd trajectory—what would my life mean, then?
In an essay I once wrote about Plath, I decried the idea that my work on her was “a Grail-like quest.” But maybe I had spoken too soon.
When I landed in Atlanta, I tweeted about being in the archive. Heather Clark, a fellow Plath scholar saw it. Happy Hunting, she replied.
Loving Sylvia Plath is partly about the way that Hughes used his power and influence to market a death-obsessed Plath to the reading public, and how, when this worked, he hoisted the blame for this (mis)perception of Plath onto others, including Plath’s friends and family, and women readers as a whole, as Janet Badia has brilliantly shown in her work. He reserved a particular disdain for young women students who he dubbed “cultists” and “unauthorized” biographers.
In the archive, I found much evidence for said marketing in his official correspondence with editors and publishers, from the poet Donald Hall, who first acquired Ariel for American publication by Harper & Row, to Frances McCullough, who eventually became both Hughes and Plath’s American editor at the same press. But Hughes’s official correspondence is mixed in with his personal missives. It felt impossible not to be drawn into Hughes’s personal papers, despite telling myself I shouldn’t “go there,” that what I needed existed in his business letters.I was a thief, stealing the evidence of what he did before someone can stop me, the evidence of what I felt in my bones all along.
Reading Hughes’s letters to friends and family, I felt more strongly than ever—since, now, here was hard proof of my long-held suspicions about his character, his actions, his intent for Plath’s work and legacy—that I was right. We—as in, feminist critics of Hughes, feminist fans of Plath—were all right. Ted Hughes was a morally corrupt person who exploited the women in his life, from his sister to his lovers to his editors and publishers, and his letters proved to me beyond a doubt that he was abusive, manipulative, and black-humored. He lies. He cajoles. In a 1962 letter to Olwyn Hughes, he tells her that he left Plath and their children after Hitler came to him in a dream and ordered him to do so.
In one letter to Hughes, Susan Schaefer, an American novelist and his close friend, spends two typed pages apologizing for calling Hughes on the phone to congratulate him for being named Poet Laureate of England, as though in doing so, she had committed a sin. Faced with a woman who won’t capitulate to clear tactics of manipulation, like British critic Jacqueline Rose, Hughes retreats in a rage, then makes threats. Rose made this discourse public when she wrote a letter about it to the Times Literary Supplement in 1992, but it is ultimately remembered as part of the larger narrative of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, in which Malcolm declares her frank sympathy for Hughes when she writes, “I, too, have taken a side—that of the Hugheses… .”
Hughes’s arresting personality and life force are the stuff of literary legend. I came of age reading books like Malcolm’s, or Diane Middlebrook’s equally pro-Hughes Her Husband, both of which expend thousands of words celebrating his magnetism (Middlebrook names a chapter heading “Ted Huge,” supposedly his nickname at Cambridge, where he and Plath met—nothing gets a bigger laugh/groan from my undergrads). For years, I’ve waited, reading him, to feel the same pull, to no avail. Blame it on loving Sylvia Plath, but sitting in his archive, all I could think was, why did so very many smart women fall for this guy’s line?
Of course, I know the answer to that question.
For two years, I lived with a charismatic psychopath, who is now the long-estranged father to my son. He was also a poet. We met during an online poetry contest, when I was about to leave a bad marriage and in an especially vulnerable emotional state. I won the online poetry contest, but I temporarily lost my mind, my heart, and control of not only my life, but, crucially, the narrative of my life, as he spent considerable time—especially after I began trying to leave him—telling anyone who would listen about a version of myself that was unrecognizable to me, and anyone who knew me. By that point, he had cut me off from my friends and family, moving us 1500 miles away from my New Jersey hometown to his hometown, in southeast Texas. I knew no one there; more to the point, no one there knew me. He could make me into any woman he liked to those people, and he did, inventing a violent, enraged person, so that when I sought help, there was little to be had.
Small wonder, perhaps, that when the dust settled and I found myself a single working, writing mother, that Plath’s story—and the story of everything that followed her death, as Hughes turned her into someone unrecognizable to her family and friends—presented itself with such clarity.
In the Hughes archive, I read letter after letter to his sister Olwyn, to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, to his long-time lover Assia Wevill (also the mother of their daughter, Shura), in which Hughes talked them out of any details that contradicted his agenda. I felt swept on an angry tide into the past. I wanted to tell these women’s stories. But—Who cares? So what? My critical brain nagged at me each time I thought I picked up the thread of an argument. All of these people are dead, some of them for half a century. What does it matter? Get back to the matter at hand.
But my brain fought back against itself—it does matter. It has to matter. Like so many writers, I have been trained in two ways, often simultaneously: as a critical reader and a creative writer. As a critical reader, I am forced—I force myself, gratefully, joyfully—into the box of the text, having been told that to look elsewhere is dangerous. As recently as 2013, I watched an AWP panel about Plath that asked the audience to look away from her biography and into her poetics. Ironically, the panel’s creator and moderator, the poet Sandra Beasley, opened by telling the packed Boston auditorium the story of how, when Hughes and Plath met at a party in February 1956, she bit him on the face. Ignore the personal details, said that panel, says that training. Yet, as soon as we try, the biography bares its teeth.
As a creative writer, I mine my own life for the conversation, the image, the moment that reveals itself as a deep metaphor for a universal lived experience. As a creative writer, I am stuck on the image I began this essay with—myself, apologizing, Plath in hand, as I leave behind Ted Hughes’s letters for the day. Me, feeling that every act of reading and decoding his work is an act of subterfuge. That library alarm went off because it knew—I was a thief, stealing the evidence of what he did before someone can stop me, the evidence of what I felt in my bones all along.
According to Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev’s biography of Assia Wevill, when Wevill made her will in 1968, she “left” Hughes “my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.” She also asked that she be buried “in any rural cemetery in England,” and that her headstone read, “Here lies a lover of unreason and an exile.” She spoke literally—Wevill was indeed a German-Jewish refugee who fled Hitler’s Third Reich with her family, so the latter seems a crucial wish to grant. Upon her death, Hughes, despite having no legal connection to her, scattered her ashes with no marker. Koren and Negev’s biography is called, tellingly, Lover of Unreason: two sympathetic strangers finally had the grace to give Assia the epitaph she asked for, in print.
Sylvia Plath, an American, is buried alone in Brontë country—the land of Hughes’s birth. Paul Alexander, in his controversial biography of Plath, Rough Magic (1991), notes that the plot next to Plath is empty, indicating that when Hughes joins her there, the story would finally end. But the story continues. When Hughes died in 1998, his ashes were scattered on Dartmoor, near the home he kept in Devon, England. He had two funeral services. The second took place in Westminster Abbey, attended, according to his latest biographer, Jonathan Bate, “by the great and the good of the nation, including Ted’s fishing companion Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother… The Prince of Wales privately described his poet as the incarnation of England… .”
From the perspective of a feminist scholar, there is a terror in all this grandeur: right before our eyes, Hughes can erase Wevill from the earth, and turn Plath into a stranger, but we never see him do it. He can author all this, simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible. Elizabeth Sigmund, Sylvia Plath’s close friend, wrote in her memoir about Sylvia coming to her in distress, after she discovered Hughes was having an affair:
I tried to explain to Sylvia the terrible, crushing class system in this country, and how people like the Hugheses suffered from it in ways which would be hard for an American college girl to understand. I asked her if she didn’t think that, somewhere, Ted had a feeling of inferiority. Her answer was a bitterly scornful laugh. ‘Ted has lunched with the Duke of Edinburgh,’ she said, which of course was no answer at all.
But Sigmund’s anecdote, while fascinating, falls short in its analysis of Plath’s response, which was not only an answer, but a prescient one. Already in 1962, Plath knew the power her husband wielded, in circles that moved well beyond literary ones.What was I thinking, going off with a man like Ted Hughes? What was Sylvia thinking?
Plath’s headstone has been repeatedly vandalized, her grave ignored so badly that feminist academics took up the case to make it a national monument in British newspapers, for fear she would be forgotten. Ted Hughes was eulogized by England’s future king.
For every book written, there is a shadow book: the stuff that doesn’t make the cut. When I started Loving Sylvia Plath, I thought it was a book half about Sylvia and half about me. I had a central question: When I met Hank’s father, I thought of him privately as “my Ted Hughes.” But I had spent my entire post-secondary education reading and writing about how dangerous Ted Hughes was to the women who fell in love with him. Why, then, would I have entered willingly into a relationship with someone who I associated so closely with him?
After a while, the book morphed. My story was getting in the way of Sylvia’s story. Editors confirmed as much. It changed from one that braided my life with Plath’s to one almost exclusively about Sylvia, albeit by a woman who loves her unabashedly, who is profoundly influenced by her work and her biography: a pro-Plath polemic, I called it in the proposal, feeling a small shiver of triumph run through me as I typed the words.
I don’t know the answer to the central question of my shadow book, yet. But I write Loving Sylvia Plath with the profound hope it leads me closer to the kind of resolution survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence are rarely granted—to the kind of resolution Sylvia Plath, who survived both, never got. A full-time professor and a mother of two, I write it in stolen moments, snatching time, snatching silence, wrenching the words from a world that sometimes feels like it holds them under lock and key. From one that hisses, Everything about her has already been said. Or, she deserved it.
Or, you deserved it. What was I thinking, going off with a man like Ted Hughes? What was Sylvia thinking? What if I hadn’t left that shitty east Texas town, all those years ago? What if I didn’t take back the story of my life? What if I didn’t try to (re)write the story of Sylvia’s life, of her afterlife, didn’t cast my voice into that chorus? Would it matter?
I don’t know. But for now, rather than wonder if I’m deserving, I’m subverting. I’m writing this love letter to Sylvia Plath. She deserves it. We all do.
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