Why Are We So Unwilling to Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?
New Letters Alleging Abuse are Only Shocking if You Haven't Been Listening
Back in April, the Guardian dropped an apparent literary bombshell—new letters had been discovered from the poet Sylvia Plath, alleging horrific physical abuse at the hands of her husband, the British poet Ted Hughes. The letters had gone unread by any major Plath scholar through one of those black holes so common, and frustrating, to those of us who love her work.
Examples of these holes are chronicled in various biographies and critical works on Plath: Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband, the forward to Judith Kroll’s Chapters In A Mythology. Even, from time to time, by Hughes himself, who casually claims to have burned Plath’s journals from the last two years of her life, in his forward to the 1982 Journals of Sylvia Plath. Materials from so-called “controversial” periods of Plath’s short life (she was barely 30 when she committed suicide in 1963), including her first suicide attempt and subsequent hospitalization in 1953, and the two years preceding her death have always been hard to come by, as Danuta Kean notes in her Guardian piece.
In the hunt for a deeper understanding of Sylvia Plath, things are always going missing.
The night the Guardian piece ran, I was grading end-of-term essays in bed when my phone began to go off a bit madly. Ping! It sang. Ping! Ping! Ping! The last time this happened in such rapid succession from multiple media sources (texts, email, Facebook), it was 6 am, and David Bowie, my other obsession, was dead from cancer.
Now, though, the news was Sylvia Plath’s new letters, via the aforementioned article: in minutes, four friends posted it to my Facebook timeline and tagged me, and three people sent the link via DM and text. Rather than blanch with shock, I read and reread, and felt sad and slightly numb. Then, a bit enraged.
To anyone as familiar as I am with Plath’s life and work, the fact that Ted Hughes was likely abusive—emotionally and physically—is not news. In fact, the only way we can discount the certainty of that abuse is if we choose to disbelieve Plath at her repeated word in her journals, reports to friends and family, and now, it seems, letters to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s therapist-turned-confidante. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic contains a dramatic account of Hughes attempting to strangle Plath on their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain—a grim tale supposedly told to the author by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother, who allowed herself to be interviewed for the book. Plath’s Unabridged Journals, published in America in fall 2000, and edited by Karen V. Kukil, who curates the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, are peppered with references to her violent relationship with Hughes.
I was 20 when I got my hands on the newly published Unabridged Journals—a rep for Random House snuck me a free copy in my mailbox at Brookline Booksmith, the hip independent bookstore where I worked part-time while I studied literature and creative writing at Emerson College, downtown. I felt like I’d been given a bacon cheeseburger after a Lenten fast: 1982’s abridged journals were one-third the size of this chunky tome, with its chrome-tinted photograph of Plath at her Smith College graduation, smiling, looking off-camera, being handed a white carnation by a disembodied, feminine hand. Plath, the Real Plath, always elusive, was in here, I felt. So familiar was I with the abridged edition that I immediately knew where to look, based on the dates, to discover sections that had been mercilessly cut in the previous edition—to the point that many passages had made no sense at all. Why, for instance, did Plath meet Hughes one night at a party, bite him on the cheek when he kissed her, flee to Paris to see another boyfriend with barely a mention of Hughes’s name, and then marry him with no further commentary three months later? What had happened in between?
I thought of those moments so many years ago as I scanned The Guardian’s bombshell article for its explosives. “Tantalising,” said Peter K. Steinberg, co-editor of Faber & Faber’s forthcoming edition of Plath’s collected letters, of the unseen material. Indeed.
The trope of literary scholarship as a holy quest with a grail at its long delayed ending is not a new one: at 20, I flipped to the previously hacked out sections of Plath’s work and found what I was looking for—what I knew, of course, would be there: Arrived in Paris early Saturday evening exhausted from sleepless holocaust night with Ted in London . . . I took myself in leash and washed my battered face, smeared with a purple bruise from Ted and my neck raw and wounded, too. Barely a year later, as the newly married couple was teaching in Massachusetts, Plath caught Hughes with another woman, a co-ed; this erupted in a spectacular fight, which left Plath with a sprained thumb and Hughes with “bloody claw marks.” Again and again, some similar fight; again and again, she forgave him, sometimes turning the blame on herself.
Eventually, in 1962, she threw him out. In less than a year, she was dead by her own hand.
I scoured and devoured the Unabridged Journals, searching for . . . something. What? Some skeleton key, some final clue. I had fallen down the same worthless rabbit hole so many Plath scholars drop through, never to return: I was looking for the why of her death, rather than engaging with the how of her life and work. I was committing a stupid, fallacious sin that would lead me to many maudlin nights, wondering if I would succumb to the same fate, picturing the dead woman’s body, the crying, hungry children, the gas. But this, too, was no accident; it was the expected response in a culture obsessed with the poetry of the dead woman while refusing to take her at her word.
“We end up with another now well-tested literary trope: Plath the crazy girl, and the crazy girls who love her, all of whom are seen as young, starry-eyed fools in need of scolding.”
Plath’s reputation as arguably the most famous poet in America and England was born posthumously, and partly constructed by Hughes, and a host of top-notch literary critics, many of them—most—his cronies: A. Alvarez, Robert Lowell, George Steiner. These were men who could make or break a new poet or novelist with one review in a London paper. But alongside their universal awe at Plath’s Ariel came another universal sentiment: that she was crazy, and that Hughes had been her long-suffering husband. When Plath’s journals, with their claims of abuse, began to be published, many of these same critics pointed out these claims as not only false but also proof that Plath was paranoid, crazy.
But Hughes had been having affairs throughout their marriage; it was just that no one would acknowledge it while he lived, and even, it seems, for some time after his death from cancer in 1998. Alvarez himself said Hughes was “constitutionally incapable of being faithful in a marriage.” New letters prove he was carrying on not one, but three known affairs at the time of Plath’s death.
In this way, we end up with another now well-tested literary trope: Plath the crazy girl, and the crazy girls who love her, all of whom are seen as young, starry-eyed fools in need of scolding. What are you thinking, you wacky broads? Don’t you know you can get in all sorts of trouble, loving someone like that?
On Gilmore Girls, a show that chronicles the literary life of a single mother and her brainiac daughter, Plath is a frequent topic of conversation. Rory, the daughter, is even seen reading the journals on an early episode. When it comes time for Rory to write her entrance essay to Harvard, she mentions Plath as a possible topic and is dissuaded from it by her mother, Lorelai—Might send the wrong message.
The sticking her head in the oven thing? Rory says, looking disappointed.
Yeah. Although she did make her kids a snack first. Shows a certain maternal instinct.
Rory ends up going with Hillary Clinton instead. Speaking of, this past November, I was nursing my wounds over the election by spending a weekend at Smith College, researching a book on Plath. At dinner one night, when the woman next to me at the bar asked why I was visiting, she shuddered, then smiled sadly, at the mention of Plath’s name. I used to love her work so much, she said, shrugging. But I outgrew it.
In this way, Plath is both deified and dismissed. We are talked out of her.
Over and over at Emerson, I started and abandoned long papers on the complex, problematic nature of Hughes’s editing of Plath’s papers, the ways her version of events was dismissed as crazy by his powerful friends. Over and over, I was told it was a fool’s errand, that Hughes was, to use the words of a certain male professor, “a saint” who had “put up” with Plath, that I should “ask anyone” if I doubted his word. This wasn’t a hypothetical suggestion—as a student at Emerson, many of Plath’s and Hughes’s friends and colleagues were teaching up the road.
Indeed, that same year, I stumbled into a reading by Peter Davison, Plath’s former lover and then poetry editor for the Atlantic. During the Q&A, a student asked how he’d started writing poetry and he replied, in a sing-song voice, We-ell, when I was a young man I dated a young woman called Sylvia Pla-ath . . . He went on to detail his relationship with her. After, I approached him, and said I was looking to do a comparative study of the journals for my senior thesis, and could I, perhaps, email him with a few questions?
Oh no-oo-oo, he replied, stepping back and shaking his head. I wouldn’t want to do that, I wouldn’t want to talk about her . . .
Of course he wouldn’t.
I don’t write this to argue that there is some kind of conspiracy or cover-up of Hughes’s behavior, or even that there is a single thread of golden truth about their marriage that these new letters, or any new document (oh, for those torched last journals!) will suddenly, gloriously reveal, allowing us closure on Plath’s biography. Instead, I want to point out 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. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”
In the 1944 film Gaslight, for which a common abusive tactic is now named, the protagonist, Paula, is driven mad by her husband, Gregory. He moves a painting from the wall, and when she asks where it’s gone, he tells her that she moved it. He has the gaslights dimmed and brightened, and convinces her it isn’t happening—that it’s all in her head. In this way, he makes her doubt her own reality, her own eyes.
Ted Hughes gaslit Plath for the seven years that they were married, and when she died? The bulk of the American and British literary establishment picked up where he left off.
But the lights look dim, I know it, generations of Plath fans have said for half a century.
Darling, I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean.