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Reviewing Sylvia Plath

In response to:

Sylvia Plath's Apotheosis from the June 24, 1976 issue

To the Editors:

In your issue of June 24 Karl Miller reviews three books about Sylvia Plath. Two of them, Aurelia Plath’s collection of her daughter’s correspondence, Letters Home, and Judith Kroll’s critical book, Chapters in a Mythology, are serious works. Oddly, Miller chooses to treat the third, a patently rubbishy hotch-potch, purporting to be a “critical biography,” entitled Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness by Edward Butscher, as though it were equally worthy of critical attention.

Throughout his review, Miller moves from book to book in such a way that on occasions material from Butscher seems to be coming from the letters or possibly from Judith Kroll. Not content with this tactic, he opens his review, in guise of indignation on my brother’s behalf, by quoting an abusive line, seemingly from a poem by a member of the lunatic fringe of Women’s Lib (which otherwise few of your readers or Ted Hughes himself would ever have heard of) and inflates a recent incident in Australia where, during a group conversation, a woman asked Ted Hughes with obvious malice about Sylvia Plath—and gives the totally false impression that Ted Hughes’s poetry readings are regularly disrupted by hecklers from Women’s Lib.

Karl Miller, surely normally a man of discrimination and good will, has somehow fallen into the common style of certain reviewers who treat Sylvia Plath’s family as though they are characters in some work of fiction, or a hundred years dead, and proper subjects for speculation and academic dissection. It is almost as though, writing about Sylvia, some of whose work seems to take cruel and poetically licensed aim at those nearest to her, journalists feel free to do the same. Whether such writings are the result of this kind of contagion, or ordinary sadism taking its opportunity, or simply journalistic reflex, giving the public what it seems to want, I do not know.

Obviously a fully researched, authorized biography of Sylvia Plath is badly needed. In 1969 Ted Hughes signed an agreement with Lois Ames appointing her official biographer. He undertook to help her exclusively in the usual way (to give her his own records and recollections, make available Sylvia’s diaries, notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, etc. and to request family and friends to give their full cooperation). Lois Ames spent a good deal of time one summer with Mrs. Plath, made various interviews, and spent a few days in Devon talking with Ted Hughes and studying some of Sylvia’s papers. But over the years Mrs. Ames’s work on the book seems to have slowed to a standstill. My letters to her and those of Harper & Row and Faber and Faber have remained unanswered for a year and a half now. Her contract with these publishers stipulated delivery of the book by 1975. Her agreement with Ted Hughes grants her exclusive help until December 1977.

Edward Butscher first contacted me in 1972 asking for assistance with his critical biography. I explained the situation to him, informed him where he should apply for permission to quote and, in a PS, indicated that I would try to help if he had queries about Sylvia’s published writings. I understood at that time that his book was to be essentially a critical study linked by a mere background of carefully checked biographical data.

Butscher sent me his manuscript very late in the day, last summer, with another copy already on its way to his publisher’s printers. He wanted permission from me to quote from such writings as I controlled for the US (mainly writings by Sylvia not yet in the main Knopf and Harper editions). I had also offered to point out any errors I spotted and expected these to be mainly connected with final texts of writings, dating of poems and so on.

I read the typescript with amazement. As Peter Davison, one of the few sources used by Butscher who actually knew Sylvia well, wrote in a five-page letter to Butscher protesting about the mangling of information given: “How could one man get so many things so wrong?”

Butscher must have received several such letters from his “sources.” David Compton also sent me a copy of a letter to Butscher and has kindly given me permission to quote from it:

I am very distressed at the use in your book to which you have put our conversation about Sylvia Plath…. Particularly on the subject of Aurelia Plath it seems to me that you have chosen only my most adverse comments—thus falsifying what I seriously believe to be the truth, and most certainly causing unjust and unnecessary hurt…. As for my ex-wife’s recollections, these—and I positively remember warning you—are likely to be coloured (to say the least) by her vivid sense of the dramatic.

The same ex-wife, now Mrs. Elizabeth Sigmund, on the strength of only about a dozen meetings with Sylvia, all in 1962, mostly with either David Compton or Ted Hughes present, usually both, has provided Butscher with many of the more outrageously dramatized versions of events from 1956 on (though she is not always cited as the source). One of these Karl Miller paraphrases confidently in his review. Little heed was taken by Butscher of David Compton’s letter.

I wrote to Butscher, seriously urging him to withdraw the book from his publisher and rework it. He refused. I informed Lois Ames (sending copies of my letter to Harper and Faber) that I would have to break the strict letter of our exclusive agreement with her if only in a negative sense in order to try to put a little semblance of reality into several biographical episodes, portraits, etc. in the Butscher book. I took the absence of a reply from Mrs. Ames as consent. A long, wearying correspondence with Butscher, then with his editor at Seabury/Continuum, followed. I found the portraits in the book of my parents, of Ted, of Sylvia herself, of Mrs. Plath, and of others virtually unrecognizable. Incidents were novelettishly sensationalized or just plain false. I protested particularly about the treatment of Mrs. Plath. “If Mrs. Plath feels offended or unfairly treated when she reads the book,” replied Butscher, “she can sue me for libel, although, as you must realize, she would never win.”

Butscher agreed to some changes I suggested, refused others, ignored several. He was flippant about wrong datings of poems and absurd readings of them (one of which Karl Miller takes up unquestioningly in his review). I know Butscher did not make many of the changes he had promised to Peter Davison to his final text. Whether he made the ones he promised to me I do not yet know as in spite of requests to his publishers I have never received a copy of the published book. Neither Harper nor I received the usual formal requests for permission to use the massive amount of quotation from Sylvia’s writings nor any payment for its use. No one was even informed that the book was to be published in Canada as well as the US (this should have involved further permissions requests to me, and also to Faber and Faber for material quoted from The Bell Jar).

I informed Frances McCullough at Harper & Row, of the position and requested her to have Warren Plath, Sylvia’s brother, examine the book and do what he could to mend matters. Warren too, it seems, patiently gave Butscher long detailed lists of corrections, largely in vain.

I saw there was nothing further I could do and resigned myself to the knowledge that the book would simply add to the mountain of garbage and muddle that already exists in the guise of serious commentary on Sylvia Plath and her work.

I wrote several times to Lois Ames urging her to at least drop the exclusivity clause of her agreement with Ted Hughes, so that, even in the event that she had not quite abandoned her work on the book, a properly researched biography could be written by someone else forthwith. Again I received no reply. I would like to repeat my request to her here.

Olwyn Hughes

London, England

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