Sylvia Plath: Our fascination is undiminished

Fifty years after her suicide, the legend of Sylvia Plath and her turbulent and ultimately tragic relationship with Ted Hughes continues to fascinate, writes Dani Garavelli

Fifty years after her suicide, the legend of Sylvia Plath and her turbulent and ultimately tragic relationship with Ted Hughes continues to fascinate, writes Dani Garavelli

LIKE everything about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, the story of their first encounter has ­taken on a mythic quality. So highly charged was their brief clash during a literary party in Cambridge, he kissed her “bang smash on the mouth” and ripped off her headband, while she bit a chunk out of his cheek (before ­going off to spend the night with someone else). This episode, related in Plath’s journals, has come to symbolise everything that was right and wrong with the poets’ volatile relationship. It was passionate and fruitful, yes – the union of two remarkable individuals who fed and fuelled each other’s genius – but it was also savage, dangerous and seemingly set on an immutable trajectory towards destruction.

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When they met in 1956, Plath was a brilliant and ambitious, if troubled, young woman who had come to Newnham College from the US on a Fulbright scholarship and was determined to carve herself a reputation as a great writer. By the time she killed herself, 50 years ago this week, she was living alone with two tiny children in a freezing flat in Primrose Hill, London, having sent Hughes packing after discovering he was having an affair with their friend Assia Wevill.

In the months after their separation, she experienced a surge of creativity. Getting up in the early hours while her babies were sleeping, she produced some of her greatest works – fierce, angry poems such as Lady Lazurus – which would be published posthumously in Ariel, the collection which sealed her literary reputation. But as she worked through one of the coldest winters in 100 years, the depression she had experienced a decade earlier began to take hold again. Three days before Valentine’s day, 1963, she sealed off the kitchen with damp towels to protect Frieda, two, and one-year-old Nicholas, and stuck her head in a gas oven.

Dying on the cusp of second-wave feminism – Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published just eight days later – Plath was immediately co-opted as a heroine and martyr for the movement. Over the next half-century her story was repeatedly reshaped to suit different agendas. Central to this exercise was the demonisation of Hughes, who was portrayed as having sneered at her early offerings and undermined her self-esteem. This negative view of him was reinforced by Hughes’ controversial editing of Plath’s work and then when, six years on, weighed down with guilt and aware Hughes would never commit to her, Wevill killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura.

Proponents of Hughes – including his proprietorial sister Olwyn, whom Plath hated – fought back from time to time, pointing out that Sylvia’s mental problems began long before her marriage. But not even the publication of Birthday Letters – a collection of Hughes’ poems in which he attempted to cast himself in a better light – were enough to dispel the widespread conviction that, by abandoning her for another woman, Hughes had as good as pushed her into her grave.

Half a century on, Plath’s suicide still has the power to provoke furious debate. The weeks running up to the anniversary has seen a flurry of new biographies, academic papers and symposia, a controversy over alleged attempts to market the new edition of her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar as “chick-lit”, and ­another showdown between Plath’s friend Elizabeth Sigmund and Olwyn, who is Plath’s literary executor.

Cut through the war of words, however, and it is still possible to see their short-lived relationship as a love affair to equal any in the 20th century and a poetic powerhouse rivalled only by Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Doomed it may have been but, physically and emotionally, the marriage provided what they were looking for – a union within which they could raise a family, while continuing to express their literary individuality.

“I think you could actually credit Hughes with preventing Sylvia from committing suicide while they were together,” says Lesley McDowell, author of Between The Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers And Their Literary Partnerships. “She didn’t cope with rejection very well – she would be sending out work all the time and would ­often get a huge sheaf of rejections in return. I think when you look at their time ­together, he helped her to cope with that and to toughen up her work, which was what she always wanted.

“What’s interesting is that when she met Hughes she was already a published poet, but she still had this need for a creative soulmate, a writing partner. She was contradictory. She did want the ­conventional life, but she also wanted to be allowed to develop creatively. What she found in Hughes was someone she could marry and have kids with, but also someone she could write in the same room as.”

A few years earlier, while still in the US, Plath, who was originally from Massachusetts, had suffered a nervous breakdown after a coveted stint as a guest editor on Mademoiselle magazine in New York failed to live up to her expectations and she was turned down for a place on a Harvard writing seminar. She had taken an overdose in 1953 and been treated with electroconvulsive therapy. The roots of her emotional turmoil could be traced to the death of her domineering father Otto, when she was eight, and her latent hostility towards her mother. She was also frustrated by her straitened circumstances which she felt limited her freedom to write and by the double standards which dictated men could sleep around, while women were supposed to remain virgins. During her time at Cambridge she had dozens of sexual encounters.

After their initial kiss, Hughes – a man she described as a “big, dark, hunky boy” with a voice “like the thunder of God” – wooed Plath with a vengeance, turning up outside her residence and throwing stones at her window. Soon the pair were inseparable and within months they had married. In 1957, they moved to the US, where Plath taught at Smith, her alma mater, returning to the UK at the tail-end of 1959, when she was pregnant with Frieda. In her journals, Plath expresses her joy at finding “the big, blasting dangerous love” and describes a day of “good lovemaking” when she had run “about a hundred times to kiss [Hughes] in his niche or in his bath, to sniff his smell of bread and grapes and kiss his delectable places.”

Like the character in the semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, she ­wanted “two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time”. On the one hand, she dreamed of an idyllic existence playing the role of ideal wife and mother to a flock of children in their country home in Devon; on the other she wanted to be a world-renowned poet living in London. But in the early days at least she saw Hughes as “the only man there huge enough for me” and the relationship became the engine room of their creativity.

“I really don’t think Hughes and Plath would be the writers they were without the mutual influence in the early years of their marriage,” says Maeve O’Brien, an Ulster University post-graduate student who is writing a PhD on Plath and organising a retrospective of her work on campus.

“To his credit, Hughes took Plath’s work very seriously – he critiqued her, respected her criticisms of his work and set her writing tasks. One of her most famous poems, The Moon And The Yew Tree, was the result of one of those tasks. At the same time, he went to the States with Plath – the American influence on his poetry was what she gave him.”

A relationship forged between two such forceful, difficult characters was unlikely to last, however, and even before they returned from America the marriage was under strain. Sylvia had become reliant on Hughes and would fly into jealous rages if she felt he had been flirting. Her initial awe having dissipated, she began to see him as ill-kempt and egotistical.

Though he has been accused of rewriting the end of their relationship to lessen his guilt, there’s little doubt Hughes struggled to cope with her shifting moods and obsession with her father. It was difficult for anyone other than close friends, he later wrote, to comprehend her “death-ray” quality.

“What you can see from Plath’s journals is that towards the end of the marriage, before Hughes leaves her for ­Assia, she is trying to break away emotionally from him. She realises how dependent on him she is and she’s trying to pull back from that,” McDowell says. “But I think it was too late – she was always going to need someone and she over-identified with him at this point.”

After their separation, Sylvia vented her anger towards Hughes in a series of lacerating poems, including the notorious Daddy, in which she uses the ­language of the Holocaust to rail at both her father and the husband whom she has moulded in his image.

Almost as soon as she took her own life, the myth-making began. Plath became a feminist icon although her qualifications for such a role are debatable. Although she wrote with a distinctive female voice, she often seems to crave the very domesticity and subservience she rails against.

“Her poetry does have a feminist ­message. She was writing about things that were taboo in the 60s and there are very strong female figures in her poetry, but again these images are often ­ambivalent,” says Ruth Hawthorn, a post-graduate student, who has studied Plath, at Glasgow University. “She succeeded in a field which was dominated by men and in that sense she can be seen as a good feminist figure, but there is a fatalistic glamour round her reputation and she has this appeal to self-harming teenagers.”

Hughes, meanwhile, was being ­vilified; feminists attacked Plath’s grave (trying to erase his name from the stone) and picketed events he attended. Their outrage was heightened when Hughes was accused of excising the most personally damaging of Plath’s poems from Ariel and when he admitted to having burned her last journal “for the sake of their children”.

For his part, Hughes complained about the way the militants and the “peanut-crunchers” had appropriated the tragedy, observing “the fantasia about Sylvia Plath is more needed than the facts”. As biographers and academics lined up on both sides of the Plath/Hughes divide the atmosphere around any discussion of Plath’s work grew increasingly bilious.

And yet the creative legacy of their love affair endured right up until Hughes’ death in 1998. “They had always rewritten one another’s poems and responded to each other in verse – her attacks on him he responds to in Birthday Letters, so there’s a real kind of conversation throughout their poetry that goes on beyond her [suicide],” Hawthorn says.

Today, there’s still no pat answer to why Plath killed herself. Though Hughes’ poem Last Letter, published in 2010, is a powerful evocation of the ­extent to which the thought of his ­estranged wife’s last hours haunted him, it does nothing to clarify the dynamics of the relationship or resolve the issue of guilt.

You would think the 50th anniversary might mark the point at which a line would be drawn under our obsession with Plath; that perhaps now we could stop poring over her relationship with Hughes and pay more attention to the structure and importance of her verse. Yet what is Plath’s poetry but an expression of her inner turmoil, an attempt to communicate her anger and her neuroses? Since no-one was more consumed by what it meant to be Sylvia Plath than Plath herself, it is hard to imagine she would object to other people’s abiding fascination. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1