Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963
Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness
Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath
These three books about Sylvia Plath have all been coming out within the space of a few months. They are not the first books on this subject, and they will not be the last. Ever since her death in 1963 she has been the goddess of a cult, whose homage has tended, in a romantic spirit, to represent her as a victim of the hard world that poets must inhabit: more recently, and less disarmingly, it has also tended to represent her as a victim of the cruelties and deprivations to which women have been subjected by the supremacy of the male. When her former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, appears in public, women yell abuse at him, ask how Sylvia is keeping, and ask about her suicide. There’s a woman’s poem which refers to Ted’s friend and Sylvia’s rival, Assia Gutman, who also committed suicide: “Hughes has one more gassed out life on his mind.”
Such displays, which are part of a new barbarism to which Western societies have become accustomed, will not be cut short by these books, if only because books have comparatively little to do with the matter. Sylvia Plath was amused that English boys should think of her as “a second Virginia Woolf,” and Virginia Woolf, to whom she felt “very akin,” has lately been taken up in the same way, by the same sort of people: the realities of the relationship between each woman and the man who loved her have been violently abridged or drowned in anathema.
I shall look at the three books mainly from a biographical point of view. Ms. Kroll is opposed to the biographical approach to Plath’s work, which is assimilated in her book to mythic patterns, and construed as swept up, in the end, into a flight from biography, a bid for transcendence. For that reason among others, the book can be considered very interesting biographically. Sylvia was born in Massachusetts in 1932, the daughter of Otto and Aurelia Plath, who were respectively of German and Austrian stock. If she was a “second-generation achiever”—an expression Edward Butscher makes use of—then her parents were achievers too.
Otto was a biologist and an expert on bumblebees, which were later to buzz in his daughter’s bonnet. Aurelia, who had been his pupil, went on to become a teacher herself. In Letters Home, she explains that her husband grew hypochondriacal, a briefcased recluse, who declined to go to doctors, though ailing and seeming to feel he had cancer. By the time diabetes was diagnosed it was too late to save him, and in 1940, having lost a leg, he suffered a pulmonary embolism and died. Sylvia was eight. Two years later the mother and her two children moved to Wellesley. What it cost her to enable the family to survive and prosper is something that Aurelia has perhaps found it difficult to assess, though it is clear that biographers will be ready to enlighten her.
Sylvia loved it at Smith—“as I always sit in the middle seat in the front row, it seems as if Mrs. Kafka is talking directly to me”—and she achieved a great deal there, including a holiday stint on Mademoiselle in New York, which she was to write about in her novel The Bell Jar, and from which she returned to perform a suicide attempt, in August 1953, taking pills and retreating to the shadows of a “crawl space” under her mother’s house. She was retrieved, hospitalized, and given electric-shock therapy. In England, at Cambridge, she met and married Hughes, gloried in that marriage, had two children by him and lived with him, mostly in the West Country, for some six years. In 1962 she discovered that her husband had formed a friendship with Assia Gutman, and the marriage broke up.
She was now in the phase during which practically all her important verse was written. These must have been months of the utmost strain. She took responsibility, not only for her poems, but for her children, and for a move to London, where, on February 11, 1963, she ended her life. “We have come so far, it is over.” “Sylvia died today,” said Ted Hughes in a telegram to America. For a while, Aurelia was unable to believe, or at any rate to acknowledge, that her daughter had committed suicide.
This is a story which is told only very indistinctly in Sylvia Plath’s letters and in her mother’s commentary on those letters. Was she as agonizingly intent on prizes and places, as deeply captured by a fear of less than perfect marks, as this volume discloses, while also disclosing a bright, achieving domesticity? Her mother is apparent as “Dame Kindness” in a poem which is as much about herself, and her own kindness, and human-kindness, as it is about her mother: were the tendings of Dame Kindness repaid in kind?
No one would expect an absolute candor from anyone’s letters home. Omissions are marked in the published text, moreover, and cuts were conceded (and refused) to Ted Hughes, who owned the literary rights. He has as his agent his strong-minded sister, Olwyn. Olwyn and Sylvia seem to have angered each other over the question of who stood closer to Ted, and on one occasion Sylvia fled from a quarrel, at a witching hour, out onto the Yorkshire heath, as if in the general direction of Wuthering Heights. Olwyn is for ever being thanked for kindnesses by writers about Plath: this is scarcely like praising the Eumenides, but it is probable that some of these writers have experienced a sense of constraint in describing and documenting events which have survivors—survivors with a very natural interest in what is to be said about themselves.
At the same time, we may not really need to bother about lacunae in examining the insufficiency of Letters Home. Aurelia Plath does not disguise her concern to sugar her daughter’s strange history by producing her fond and normal letters. The commentary has it that she died of overintensity, strain, and that the suicide attempt of 1953 had been caused, or strongly conditioned, by disappointment at being denied a place in Frank O’Connor’s creative-writing class. Aurelia says of her daughter’s “life-experience” that, in 1963, “some darker day than usual had temporarily made it seem impossible to pursue.” Sylvia’s patron, Olive Higgins Prouty—cultivated upperclass women are apt to have three names in the commentary—is quoted as warning: “A lamp turned too high might shatter its chimney.”
Neither the commentary nor the letters enlarge on the poet’s feelings about her dead father, which have often been regarded as the source of her breakdowns, and of her double or multiple personality. Sylvia Plath could show herself to observers and readers as alternately benign and hostile, as Snow White and Old Yellow—to borrow terms from interpretations of her work—as the possessor of true and false selves. And if we accept that there were several selves, we might also accept that only one of them is on show in her letters home.
It might be said, therefore, that the letters are bent on withholding her “true” condition. “Starless and fatherless, a dark water”: I remember seeing these and other late lines in typescript soon after they were written, and feeling that she needed help, that they were the truth. Hers was an orphan state, and as with other Romantics, it is possible to feel that she had chosen that state, while also being chosen by it, and had invented that truth. These procedures could not have been made known to her mother, and her own conduct was often to appear to disown them.
Plath saw herself as “adoring and despising” her father, whose death made her feel both bereaved and guilty. She may have imagined herself betrayed by his departure, which could have been experienced as suicidal, and she needed to exorcise him, as she proceeds to do in her ritualistic poem “Daddy.” Ambivalent feelings toward her mother, too, ensued, and she is awarded a hard time in the “Dame Kindness” poem. Equally, emotions about her father could coincide with what she felt about her husband. As I say, this drama is excluded from the letters: here, wholly acceptable, she is Miss Kindness, and Miss Success.
The fatherless Plaths’ fight against poverty and failure meant that Sylvia could seem, as in the letters, morbidly ambitious, battering down the women’s magazines: “I will slave and slave until I break into those slicks.” Success, however, though a momentous and perilous business, had to wear a smiling face, had to drink and offer cups of tea, and conspire with her mother to deny the existence of hostility. Kroll follows Sylvia Plath into William James’s varieties of religious experience, and suggests that Sylvia worshipped, and was, the white goddess of poetry. For James, there was a further variety of experience available to Americans, which he identified with the worship of the bitch goddess of success. In Sylvia Plath’s case, both worships could be dissembled in domesticity.
“Dearest one,” she wrote to her mother on March 3, 1953,
…The dress is hanging up in my window in all its silvern glory, and there is a definite rosy cast to the skirt (no, it’s not just my attitude!). Today I had my too-long hair trimmed just right for a smooth pageboy, and I got, for $12.95, the most classic pair of silver closed pumps…. With my rhinestone earrings and necklace, I should look like a silver princess—or feel like one, anyway. I just hope I get to be a Junior Phi Bete this year so I can use it for my Phi Bete dress, too. (Do you realize that I got the ONLY A in the unit from Mr. Patch!)
…God, how I wish I could win the Mlle contest. This year would be so ideal while I’m still in touch with college…. Bye for a while, Your busy loving, silvershod Sivvy
What can there have been to excise from that particular letter? Later in the month she tells of receiving rejection slips: she once said she had hundreds—“they show me I try.” She wants to “hit” The New Yorker with her poems and The Ladies’ Home Journal with her stories. She hears “the great W.H. Auden” speak in chapel. April is kinder: elected editor of the Smith Review. Then there’s the text of a telegram, announcing her guest editorship at Mademoiselle. The excitements of her spell on the magazine are despised in The Bell Jar, and described there by means of a successful approximation to Salinger’s wit and sophistication which no more resembles the self of her late poems than it does that of her letters home. In the letters, these excitements amount to glamorous fun. But they helped to thrust her into that crawl space.