When I mentioned to a friend that I was reading the letters of Sylvia Plath, the advice I received was to take it slowly and take frequent breaks. The inference being that Plath’s letters would be a gruelling testament to suffering. It is a reasonable assumption. There is no major author in the post-war period more closely associated with numbing emotional isolation and excruciating depression than Plath. The short poems of her last weeks must be among the sourest, most sarcastic and seared expressions of suffering in modern poetry.
Those who know her work broadly know there is more to her but if you know little it is the last poems and her famous “Daddy” that you know. However, if one listens to the recording of Plath reading “Daddy” – that apparently bitter invective against a tyrannical father – you will hear the glee in her voice, undercutting the rage that a million young women have vicariously immersed themselves in. The likelihood that Plath wished to conflate into a single poem her mixed feelings about her father with the prevalent psychoanalytic preoccupation with the symbolic father figure – a poem as rife with absurdity as it is with anger – is not immediately obvious to the casual reader. The play of her humour and irony enliven the mosaic of cultural references she carefully arranged for us to find in her verse. This humour and learning is nowhere more evident than in her letters.
Born in 1932, Sylvia Plath grew up in a middle-class home in Massachusetts. The earliest extant letter is from 1940, the year her father died. Numerically, most of the letters are to Plath’s mother, the first ones written during summers spent with relatives, summer camps and at youth conferences. She wrote to a German pen pal for a number of years, explaining her life and displaying intense interest in German life. Her world was one of book-reading and stamp-collecting, cardigans, knee-socks, hamburgers and milk, blind double dates, picnics and bracing cycle rides.
She was accepted into Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. In almost daily postcards to her mother, she records her life. We follow her health, friends, studies and dates. Plath in these letters is an inquisitive, assiduous, intelligent, kind, thoughtful and creative young woman. She could be supercilious and self-impressed, as is only to be expected from an individual who had lived a sheltered life and received such praise and admiration while young. Even the most cynical reader would not be won over by her character.
She aspired to be a writer; she had been editor of the high-school newspaper. She started to write stories and poems. She wrote fiction that was published in women’s magazines and the new burgeoning market for girl’s magazines, such as Seventeen. At the same time she was submitting poems to The New Yorker, The Atlantic and other publications. Poems are included in the text and we see Plath growing as a writer. Photographs of Plath, her family and friends and images of her illustrated letters are included.
The core of the group is those letters written to her mother. One can see Plath sharing her pleasures and problems, delighting in magazine cheques and competition prizes, all the time wanting her mother to be impressed and proud. Performing for an audience and meeting her own punishingly high standards proved too much. She exhausted herself through overwork. In the summer of 1953 she had a nervous breakdown, experiencing insomnia and depression, which was treated with electroconvulsive therapy. Soon after, she attempted suicide not once but twice. The first time she tried drowning. In the most powerful letter in the book – made all the more memorable for Plath’s offhand dry humour – she described her failure to die.
Well, I tried drowning, but that didn’t work; somehow the urge to life, mere physical life, is damn strong, and I felt that I could swim forever straight out into the sea and sun and never be able to swallow more than a gulp or two of water and swim on. The body is amazingly stubborn when it comes to sacrificing itself to the annihilating directions of the mind.
So I hit upon what I figured would be the easiest way out: I waited until my mother had gone to town, my brother was at work, and my grandparents were out in the back yard. Then I broke the lock of my mother’s safe, took out the bottle of 50 sleeping pills, and descended to the dark sheltered ledge in our basement, after having left a note to mother that I had gone on a long walk and would not be back for a day or so. I swallowed quantities and blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness that I honestly believed was eternal oblivion. My mother believed my note, sent out searching parties, notified the police, and finally, on the second day or so, began to give up hope when she found that the pills were missing. In the meantime, I had stupidly taken too many pills, vomited them, and came to consciousness in a dark hell…
The search for the missing co-ed – prizewinning young authoress – made the pages of over 200 newspapers and Plath had to recover in hospital a figure of minor notoriety.
Plath’s failed attempt to meet Dylan Thomas and successful encounters with W.H. Auden and literary scholar I.A. Richards while she was still a student, show Plath’s ambition to rise to the status of these figures. Part fan adoration, part intellectual curiosity, part careerism, these events are recounted in her letters. In a letter of 4 November 1954, Plath wrote “I am really beat but beatific: my status quo.” The following year she applied to teach English at the American school in Tangiers. How different her life might have been if she had been in the company of Bowles and Burroughs rather than Hughes and the Movement poets…
Plath recounted a bohemian scene of a carefree outing with a boyfriend.
I was so tired, having slept about two hours all night, that I curled up in the backseat of the little car driving to new haven and fell deeply asleep. I awoke to consciousness of sunlight and a circle of people staring at me in unfeigned curiosity. [Richard] sassoon had stopped at a merritt parkway gas station for coffee, and the sight of a touseled girl sleeping soundly in the backseat of a volkswagon in the midst of empty wine bottles and books of baudelaire attracted attention, to put it mildly.
There are absences – not least many letters to boyfriends. Perhaps we should be grateful to have some intimacy withheld. There are no surviving letters to Richard Sassoon. We have some extracts that Plath copied into her diaries. They are the most literary, allusive and passionate of her early letters.
Plath was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went to study at Newnham College, Cambridge in September 1955. Plath arrived in England and was enchanted to an almost comical degree.
London is simply fantastic. So much better organized (beautiful “tubes” with artistic posters, two decker red busses, maps everywhere, all black cars and cabs, guides to theaters, all posted) than NYC; more beautiful than Washington (Parks with roses, pelicans, palaces, plane trees and fig trees and lakes and fountains) and infinitely more quaint and historic (obviously) than Boston). The “bobbies”” are all young, handsome, and exquisitely bred; I think they’ve all gone to Oxford. Flower girls, fruit stands with enormous peaches, grapes, etc. on every corner. […] Oh, mother, every alleyway is crowded with tradition, antiquity, and I can feel a peace, reserve, lack of hurry here which has centuries behind it.
In February 1956, the concluding year of this collection, she met Ted Hughes and began a relationship with him. She wrote about how excited she was to be with him and how he helped her creatively. “Ted is the most wonderful man in the world; I am constantly incredulous with joy at how much I love him and how magnificently well we work together.” Included is the text for “Ode for Ted”. They married in the summer of 1956 in secret because Plath feared (apparently erroneously) that she would lose her scholarship were it to become known she had married. There are long letters describing an idyllic honeymoon in the small obscure fishing village of Benidorm (“probably too small to be on your map”). She did not approve of the bullfight she saw. “The killing isn’t even neat, and with all the chances against it, we felt disgusted and sickened by such brutality.”
There are misjudgements in the editing of the volume. As is now house style for Faber & Faber correspondence present locations of letters are given (when that specialist information could have been given as end notes) yet no places are given for the location letters were written from. This is same as the Ted Hughes and T.S. Eliot letters. This was not always the case. The Larkin letters (published 1992) do have locations given.
The notes are prolific and detailed, sometimes excessively. When Plath mentions enclosing stamp hinges what is gained by annotating “The enclosed stamp hinges are no longer with the letter”? The biographical notes refer not just to recipients but individuals mentioned. Likewise, many of these are useful but footnotes for passing mentions to schoolmates could be considered excessive. It is sobering to see biographical notes on Plath’s school and university friends reading “(1932- )”. Plath too could still be alive now if she had not taken her own life over 50 years ago.
As this first volume closes, the prospect of the second volume offers us more varied correspondents – editors, authors, in-laws and so on – as she becomes a public figure in the British literary scene. It also promises insight into her final painful months.
Plath is much more than a victim. To underplay her complexity and her cool calculation as a writer is to ascribe to her little more than reactive emotionality. Indeed, if she were primarily the caricature of a hot-housed daughter, spurned wife and troubled mother – as many academics and students reduce her to – then she would be no writer at all. Above all the epithet “tragic” is a sweeping patronising description of a life as richly varied as any and presents the poet to be a helpless hostage in the grip of malevolent circumstances. Tragedy is a concept that is necessarily a retrospective judgement and is enmeshed in the idea of inevitability. Supporters of Plath who are driven by gender-political motivations exaggerate both her brilliant originality as a poet and the overwhelming influence of her husband’s infidelity in her choice of suicide. Plath was a great poet but very much a product of her time, influenced by her reading and her peers. Plath was distressed by Hughes’s infidelity but she was also subject to internal pressures and psychological issues present since her youth, not to mention the difficulty of coping alone with two young children whilst on powerful mood-altering medication. To understand anything about Plath the writer we must acknowledge her cunning, her craft, her ambition, her immersion in literature and her ambivalence. This understanding opens us up to acknowledging Plath’s complexity as a person.
There is no better way to understand that complexity than to read her letters.
In 1740 Samuel Richardson published one of the first novels in English, titled Pamela or Virtue Rewarded. In this book we are presented with a coherent directed narrative telling a story in the form of authentic letters between various characters. The author plays with boundaries of fiction and factuality, though readers can feel fairly certain they are reading a work of fiction. In this novel (and two subsequent ones) we get ostensibly independent documents which are really guided by the hand of the omniscient omnipotent author. We at once are immersed in a story, experience it through differing perspectives and appreciate the author’s ingenuity. It complements our intelligence and we in turn admire the craft put into this story. We enjoy the narrative and meta-narrative. Like Tristam Shandy, another experimental early novel, Richardson’s novels approach a near Post-Modernist play of pretence and self-awareness. The works were necessarily experimental as the English novel was only then being invented.
There is a peculiar aspect to reading collected letters by a single writer without replies. Unlike poems or stories, which although they might be related are individual communications, letters are incomplete. Lacking the chain of interchange, we confront something incomplete: a two-part musical score with half the pages missing.
Readers who are well informed about a subject find themselves reading letters through an external framework. If we read a book of collected letters in sequence, we read early letters with a degree of impatience, wanting to get to more accomplished writing and varied correspondents. We become tired of reading news repeated to multiple correspondents, especially in a complete (rather than selected) collection. We await significant career milestones, personal events and historical events, anticipating the writer’s responses. We search the last letter for profound insights into life or a final message to the world. Like attendees of a play we have seen before, we know what is in the characters’ future. The dramatic irony is that we know the accomplishments, tragedies, betrayals and reverses of fortune which lie ahead of the characters while those individuals do not. We are omniscient, watching characters struggling to overcome obstacles and challenges in their path, judging their morality and fortitude in their most private words. We have the power to skip ahead or go back – even of dismissing the spectacle by simply declining to read on.
Thus we as readers who consume a collection of letters have a unique response to the text – a text moreover that the author never actually wrote. The author wrote small texts and sent them to different readers without thought to how they would work together. It would be like printing a transcript of someone’s speech over the course of a day without context, pauses and responses. We encounter multiple discrete texts to different recipients in a totalised, cumulative and sequential manner. Books of letters do not have to be read in such a way and certainly researchers or students do use such books as reference resources. Our expectations adjust but we are beings formed of experience and temperament and it is impossible for us to entirely detach our expectations of narrative, drama and reading pleasure which colour our responses to a collection of letters. This is not to suggest that collections of letters and readings of them are misleading or intrinsically flawed. They are, of course, as every human endeavour and response must be but that is not the point. The point is that reading letters in collected form presents us with a distortion that we should constantly remind ourselves is a distortion.
Consider the case of diary reading. It has often been said that diaries are repositories of disappointment and disgruntlement, places where writers can unload their negative feelings to experience catharsis and meet no opposition or scrutiny. Consequently, diaries appear to readers as negative, bitter and petty. In truth they often are but they are a partial presentation of the self and as a record of character diaries can be very misleading, even if we constantly remind ourselves of the bias. With letters the matter we must bear in mind is not a distortion in the source (although it is natural that a writer communicates certain things and withholds other things on purpose) but that we are watching a film composed of multiple different silent films which flicker in and out and overlaying that is our historical understanding, which forms a continuous soundtrack which is anachronistic and not necessarily congruent with the film passages. Yet as we watch this film we naturally wish to consider it whole, narratively comprehensible and authored. Our human tendency forms this discordant fusion.
As long as we are aware of this tendency we can better understand our own reactions to reading volumes of letters and not succumbing to the temptation of believing we understand more than we actually do.
Sylvia Plath, (Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, eds.), The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956, Faber & Faber, 2017, hardback, 1,424pp, col. illus., £35, ISBN 978 0571 328 994
© Alexander Adams