SOCIOLOGY LOVE OF SYVIA PLATH
‘I have fallen terribly in love . . . ’
Sylvia Plath’s early letters reveal the poet’s many voices — from frank and funny to besotted, says Jonathan Bate
‘I am envious of males. I resent their ability to have both sex and a career’
From page 3 Sylvia Plath was not only a great poet, she also forged some of the best prose of the 20th century. Like her husband, Ted Hughes, she wrote letters of extraordinary wit and vivacity. Their publication in full is a major literary event.
THE LILLY LIBRARY/INDIANA UNIVERSITY, BLOOMINGTON; HARRY OGDEN smitten Sylvia Plath c 1953 and, below, with Ted Hughes, “singer, storyteller, lion and world-wanderer & vagabond”, whom she met at a Cambridge student party
We begin with letters from summer camp — that great American tradition. Even at 13 “Sivvy” has a poet’s eye as this letter from 1946 reveals “The lake water is always changing ... Sometimes it is mirrored and blue, and on other times a wild emerald green, with tossing sprays of foam and rough white caps.”
Then — another wonderful period memory — a sequence addressed to a “penpal” in Germany, offering vivid sketches of American teenage life (“Do you know that we have special magazines for young people?”), with more serious reflections on the aftermath of war and the Berlin airlift. One senses Plath (1932-63) trying to connect with the German heritage of her father, Otto, who died when she was eight.
And then she’s off to Smith College, a private liberal arts college in Massachusetts, from where her letters create a detailed and vivid account of university life. We get reading lists. We get slangy Sivvy: “I just love the word ‘grungy’.” We get proto-feminist Plath: “I am envious of males. I resent their ability to have both sex and a career. I hate public opinion for encouraging boys to prove their virility & condemning women for doing so.”
And we get breezy Sylvia: “The hygiene exam was peculiar . . . even K Frances Scott didn’t say whether the best way to stop a dormitory cold epedemic [sic] was to sterilize all dishes or to isolate the victims. Both look pretty sensible to me.” A footnote elucidates: “Kate Frances Scott, author of A
College Course in Hygiene, associate professor in hygiene, Smith College, 1927-55.”
Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil, the world’s two leading Plath scholars, have executed their editorial task with devotion. I especially liked the attention to detail in the footnote that reads: “SP participated in the 1949 tennis tournament at the Hunnewell Playfield courts, Wellesley. SP lost the semi-final match to Florence Santospago (1927- ).” Presumably they consulted Florence, but she couldn’t remember the score.
We also get ill Sylvia. Letter after letter is full of the most astonishing energy, but then her body collapses. “I was dosed with privine (a strong, allergy-creating nosedrop) and pyribenzamine (which left me feeling terribly groggy and slow) and sleeping pills.” That was in 1951. During the summer she had complained of “depression” while working as a nanny on Boston’s North Shore.
A more severe episode came after her junior year when she was 20. In New York, in the summer of 1953, she collapsed while working as an intern at Mademoiselle magazine. She went home, tried to take her own life, and was treated with ECT at the McLean mental hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts. In letters to various boyfriends she writes about the experience with great candour.
“I have emerged from insulin shock and electric (ugh) shock therapy with the discovery, among other things, that I can laugh, if the occasion moves me (and, surprisingly enough, it sometimes does).” She loved to laugh; we often forget just how funny a writer Plath was.
The breakdown provided the raw material for her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. When this was eventually published in America in 1971, eight years after her death, her mother, Aurelia, was bitterly hurt and ashamed at the publicity it gave to that first suicide attempt when Plath crawled beneath the family home and overdosed on sleeping pills. Soon after its publication, Aurelia had a heart attack.
During Aurelia’s convalescence,e, she made a proposal to Ted Hughes, who controlled his late wife’s literary estate. What about a collection of her letters? Aurelia wanted to shine a much more favourable light on the motherdaughter relationship than the one represented in The Bell Jar, and many of Plath’s letters home were full of joy. Aurelia worked for two years gathering letters, producing a thousand pages of material, enough to fill two volumes. Hughes and the editor at Harper and Row in New York proposed massive cuts, some to reduce the book to a manageable size, others to protect the privacy of the living, including Hughes. Plath’s letters in the months between the breakdown of the marriage and her suicide in Primrose Hill, north London, in the bitter winter of 1963 were a particular bone of contention. The resulting volume of Letters Home was deeply unsatisfactory. We have had to wait 40 years to see it replaced — and even now this first of two volumes only reaches to 1956, the year when Plath met Hughes while she was a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge. She married him four months later. Because Plath and Hughes lived, loved and worked together day and night for six and a half years, there are very few letters between them. It is therefore a treat to read her love letters from the brief period when they were apart, the autumn of the year of their marriage. She was still at Cambbridge; Hughes was working in London. The complete set, read with Hughes’s replies, reveals the depth of their passion. She writes: “And how I love you — I want you to feel it, to think of me, sitting here in the flesh & quick & loving you with all my mind, heart & body . . . I walk in the thought & love of you as in a sheath of radiance which keeps me.” But the real delight of this collection comes from the encounter with the sheer range of Plath’s voices. The Sylvia who writes to her boyfriends and college contemporaries has an edge and a mischief that are lacking in the “letters home”.
Hitherto unpublished letters offer a wealth of detail explaining the origins of her poems. So, for example, a letter of February 1956 reveals that although
Winter Landscape, with Rooks is set in the chilly Cambridge fens, its image of the sun was inspired by her time in France with her boyfriend the previous month. “New Year’s Eve we took midnight express to Riviera. My first shot of the new year was the red sun exploding up out of the blazing blue of Angel’s Bay in the Med. Sea like the cyclops-eye of a god. I made it a poem.”
The year 1956 would indeed prove explosive. She was soon writing to her mother. “The most shattering thing is that in the last two months I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt: I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large hulking healthy Adam, half-French, half-Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God; a singer, storyteller, lion and world-wanderer & vagabond who will never stop. The times I am with him are a horror because I am then so strong & creative & happy, and his very power & brilliance & endless health & iron will to beat the world across is why I love him and never will be able to do more.”
We all know how the story ended. We will have to wait for volume two for new details of the doomed marriage. Meanwhile, looking back over my marginalia in this treasure trove of a book, I have written “most poignant moment?” beside a footnote that consists simply of the names, dates and academic majors of five Smith girls in Plath’s year. Beside each of them, it says “(1932- )”.
Jonathan Bate is author of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life