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On Sylvia Plath

In response to:

The Unbearable from the July 11, 2013 issue

To the Editors:

It probably will do no good to complain that Terry Castle’s presentation of Sylvia Plath’s life and fate in your issue of July 11 does little to shift the popular emphasis from her sensational story to her remarkable poetry—which is all that matters about her. I do, though, want to correct some of Professor Castle’s factual errors. Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes was for five years, on balance, neither “tragic” nor “catastrophic.” Between 1956 and 1961 their partnership produced some of the finest poetry of the midcentury; it is unlikely that Plath’s talent would have leaped from the labored mediocrity of her early work to the finely tuned professionalism of her late poems without Hughes’s support and encouragement. Hughes was not unfaithful to his wife until he met and fell in love with Assia Wevill. He did not abandon Plath and his children; she banished him from their Devon home. And Hughes never married Assia. It is probable that she gassed herself and her little daughter in despair of securing him.

Olwyn Hughes did not take over the Plath and Hughes estate in 1998; she yielded it up to their publishers, Faber & Faber. In 1986, when acting as my literary agent she got me commissions from Viking and Houghton Mifflin to write an “authorized biography” of Sylvia Plath, she had total control of Plath’s copyright. We worked together well until I spent a summer reading Plath’s early journals and letters (including letters from Dick Norton and Richard Sassoon) in the archives of Smith College and the Lilly Library in Indiana. At the time I had access to much of what now appears to be “new material” through Olwyn and through several helpful librarians in the US. As I neared the completion of Bitter Fame with a good deal of input from my American publisher, Peter Davison (who had known Plath well), Olwyn became afraid I was succumbing to pressures from the feminists who had attacked Ted Hughes, despoiled Plath’s grave, and disseminated the myth of Plath’s “murder” by her philandering husband. So, yes, Bitter Fame finally became a bone of contention between Olwyn Hughes and myself, but I wouldn’t say she “browbeat” me into anything but exhaustion.

Toward the end I neglected to interview several people who were sympathetic to Plath, including A. Alvarez, who had his own reasons for quarreling with both Hugheses and whose memoir of Plath reveals guilt about “having let her down” in her last weeks of life. Rereading Bitter Fame today, I don’t think it presents Sylvia as “shrewish” except as seen through the eyes of Dido Merwin, whose memoir I agreed to use as an appendix to the biography along with less prejudiced pieces by Lucas Myers and Richard Murphy. As for the two recent biographies by Andrew Wilson and Carl Rollyson that have provided Terry Castle with an excuse for indulging her own dislike of Plath and her horrible “madness,” I can’t imagine that they give us anything but more gossip to augment an obviously thriving and ever-profitable Plath industry.

Anne Stevenson
St Chad’s College
Durham University
Durham, England

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