What We Don’t Know About Sylvia Plath
On Revelations from a Chance Graveside Encounter
Many biographies of Sylvia Plath end with the author making a visit to her grave. They are largely grim accounts. Paul Alexander, in his controversial biography Rough Magic, describes a barren place on a cold November day; at the time of his visit, the stone, which has famously been repeatedly defaced by people chiseling the “Hughes” off “Sylvia Plath Hughes,” had been removed entirely. A (presumably) local person had erected a handmade wooden cross with “stout two-foot long sticks tied … with a piece of cord.” They had written her name in green felt pen across the wood. Anne Stevenson, in her equally controversial Bitter Fame, the biography “authorized” by the Plath estate, ends the book by visiting “a pathetic patch of garden, a wind-beaten rose, and a chip of flat rock with ‘SYLVIA PLATH’ inscribed on it in black paint.” Stevenson writes that the “vandals who made the temporary removal of her tombstone necessary were women for whom the legacy of Sylvia Plath was no more than a simplified feminist ideology.”
No one knows who has repeatedly defaced the grave (no one has ever been caught in the act). I imagine, given its now famous nature, that it’s not the same person, again and again over the course of the last 50 plus years—although I am admittedly tickled by the idea of a serial Plath grave-defacer, huffing and puffing up that steep hill in the middle of the night with a lantern, ready to go to work. And men love Sylvia Plath just the same as women. When I met her two-time biographer, Carl Rollyson, for coffee last spring he told me, “I wrote about Sontag, too, and she fascinates—but Plath was firing on all cylinders.” The co-editor of both volumes of her Letters, and arguably the leading Plath scholar alive, is Peter Steinberg. Yet somehow, when we think or write about someone so devoted to Plath that they would smash Hughes’ name off her headstone, we think about women—“feminists” in scare quotes, too blind or stupid to understand the subject of their own obsession, armed with a hammer, instead.
This past October, I flew to London to attend an event about the publication of Plath’s Letters at the British Library. But I was also in the planning stages for a novel about a queer Plath scholar, which takes place partly at her grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire; so the day I landed, I boarded a train for Leeds at King’s Cross.
Sylvia Plath died without a will. She was 30 years old at the time of her death, and a fairly well-off woman, thanks to an almost religious devotion to penny-pinching and considerable financial success from writing—both her own and her husband’s. Plath was famously married to the British poet Ted Hughes, although the two were estranged, as a result of Hughes’ infidelity, at the time of her death. According to the final chapter of Carl Rollyson’s 2013 American Isis, reports from Plath’s lawyer to her brother Warren, after her death, confirmed that Sylvia was seriously pursuing a divorce as recently as a week before her death. She and Hughes were both living in London, apart, when Plath died by suicide in her flat at 23 Fitzroy Road.
Because of her lack of a will, everything Plath owned went to Ted Hughes. In addition to the considerable monies she left behind, Hughes was now the rightful owner of everything Sylvia had ever written.
“Everything Sylvia had ever written” is often reduced, in our cultural imagination, to her unpublished, poetic masterpiece Ariel. Plath famously left the manuscript out on her desk in a “black spring binder”—now a set piece of Plath biographies and critical studies. When we think of what Plath didn’t publish in her lifetime, we tend to think of the famous poems in typescript in that binder—“Daddy,” “Lady Lazarus,” “Lesbos,” “Sheep in Fog.”
But the reality is, we still don’t know all of what Plath left behind, which was never more clear than when I encountered archivists at the conference “Sylvia Plath: Letters, Words, Fragments” in November 2017 at Queens University in Belfast. I mentioned to an archival scholar there that I had an idea for an anthology involving all of the short fiction prompts Plath sets out for herself, but never writes, in her Journals.
“Or which we think she never wrote,” she said, in a gentle rebuttal.
“Well, I mean… we can assume…”
“No,” she said, “we can’t. We never know what else might turn up.”
Later, after the first day of papers had concluded, and we were winding down with dinner and wine, I discussed what turned out to be an error in my paper. Descriptions of Plath’s appearance at the time of her death are rife with references to the two braided coronets she wore around her head; I assumed Hughes had cut her braids before she was buried. Today, they are housed at the Lilly Library in Indiana University. Now it was time for another gentle correction, from a different archival scholar—they were actually Sylvia’s childhood braids, which her mother cut and kept when she was an adolescent, then sold to the Lilly alongside her papers. “But I mean,” the scholar said, “Hughes may have cut her hair before she died, it’s totally possible. He was obsessed with her hair. There’s only one way to know.”
“What,” I snorted into my rose, “dig her up?”
The archivist raised one eyebrow, and sipped their cabernet.
This past fall proved the first scholar right, when the forthcoming publication of a “new” Sylvia Plath story was announced. “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom” was published first in the United Kingdom on January 3 of this year; HarperCollins, Plath’s American publisher, followed suit this week. This continues a long tradition that has its roots in Plath’s intestate death. Ted Hughes opened the black spring binder and took his heavy editorial hand to Sylvia’s Ariel; then, he took it to Faber & Faber, his own publisher, who put out the first edition in 1965. HarperCollins (then Harper & Row) came out with their edition in 1966.
A trend was set. With only two exceptions—Aurelia Plath’s Letters Home, and 1982’s heavily abridged Journals—all of Sylvia Plath’s work was edited, during his lifetime, by Ted Hughes, and then published by Faber in the UK first. American publication comes after: a lagging, redheaded stepchild.
Hughes cast himself, for the rest of his life, as the gatekeeper of Plath’s work: a snarling, sexy Cerberus. Permission to quote from Plath’s texts was next to impossible to secure, with the estate refusing the right if they disagreed with anything the author wrote; some Plath biographies from the time rely almost entirely on paraphrasing. Hughes made it clear in multiple letters to scholars and friends, some of which were published in newspapers at the time, that his was the definitive stance on Sylvia’s life and work. Moreover, sexy Cerberus had an affair with at least one Plath scholar, the British journalist Emma Tennant.Plath’s masterful Ariel poems are often discussed as an enigma, or some kind of otherworldly miracle. On the surface, this is a high compliment. In actuality, it’s nefarious.
In the wake of Hughes’ death, the venerated British publishing house remains firm at his post, with first rights to all of Plath’s work. In April of 2018, I was wandering through Bloomsbury, before I had to attend a conference reception at the British Library. London was resplendent in the early spring; the day was warm and mild. I was thinking of looking for St. George the Martyr Church, where Plath and Hughes were married in the spring of 1956, when I came across the Faber offices, on Great Russell Street.
I stood. I stared, reverent.
I never once considered knocking.
After Belfast, I had a nightmare.
In the dream, I was home. The phone rang. A British voice—a woman’s—answered when I picked up. She told me she was a rare books dealer, and she had Sylvia’s last journals, which Hughes claimed he had burned sometime in the 1970s. She wanted me to see them, but I had to go to England. So off I went, as we do in dreams, and the next thing I knew, I was in the pub of an old British inn. It was dusk. The ceilings were low, and the halls were narrow. Outside, green fields stretched for miles, darkening. I went to the pub to get a drink. Everything felt sinister. Everything felt wrong. I sat at the bar, next to a man who (of course) was Ted Hughes. A young Ted Hughes: tall, but hunched over his barstool, with an aura of the grim about him. He turned to me. He spoke.
What do you want?
I knew what I wanted. I wanted to see Sylvia’s last journals. I wanted to put my hands on the last things she wrote and thought before she died.
But I said nothing.
What do you want? he said again. His voice rose with menace. When he spoke, it was as though everything I knew, everything I thought, ever, about Sylvia Plath disappeared from my brain like ice melting—
That was my thought, in the dream.
I don’t want anything, I said, I want nothing.
Good, he said, and smiled at me, suddenly charming.
Then a barkeep said, Oh no, oh god, she’s coming, and ran out from behind the bar. He frantically closed and locked the door—an old-fashioned hook and eye—and began to shutter the windows, one by one. Then we heard it—a woman’s spirit which was made of a shriek rose and rattled the windows and doors, until the whole room was filled with the sound of the worst pain on earth—and it was Sylvia Plath’s banshee.
In Plath’s late work, America is the motherly sea, and Europe is a bloody, patriarchal hell; Sylvia is suspended between the two, gleefully walking this risky high-wire like a goddamn circus queen. In “Medusa,” the speaker of the poem can access her maternal bloodline through the “old barnacled umbilicus” of the telephone line; she can, importantly, talk. In “Daddy,” the “black telephone’s off at the root.” When the speaker tries to talk in her father’s foreign tongue, she stutters—“Ich, ich, ich, ich.” The language strangles in her mouth “in a barb wire snare.”