Since the morning of February 11, 1963, when the 30-year-old American poet Sylvia Plath placed bread and milk by her children’s bedsides, taped up the doors and windows of her London kitchen, put her head in the oven and gassed herself, an academic and publishing industry has grown up around her grave. It is an industry inspired not only by her body of work, most notably the visceral, emotionally violent Ariel poems written over the last six months of her life, but also by the sacred relics of her story itself, the salacious and sensational details of her mental illness, her suicide attempts and her fraught marriage to the famous young British poet Ted Hughes. For academics, feminists, biographers and critics, Sylvia Plath is their O.J. Simpson, their solid-gold scandal.
Indeed, the glut of Plath-ography — and the struggles among Hughes, Plath‘s literary executor, and the biographers who besieged him — itself inspired, in 1993, its own study: Janet Malcolm’s extended essay on ”the transgressive nature of biography,“ The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Malcolm‘s measured skepticism regarding the motives of all involved in profiting off the Plath-Hughes story impressed at least one reviewer, James Wood, as ”so subtle, so patiently analytical, and so true“ that he argued she had effectively had the last word on the subject: ”It is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean.“
Other cats are now crowding around this ever-tempting plate, however, emboldened by Hughes’ death, from cancer, in 1998, an event that frees biographers and memoirists alike from the fear — particularly in Britain, with its plaintiff-friendly libel laws — of litigation. As Malcolm memorably put it: ”After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world‘s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libeled . . . they are without legal recourse.“
Hughes, of course, suffered that ”careless malice“ long before his death, ever since Plath’s suicide and the dawning realization in the literary community that her last poems were works of genius. Published in 1965, Ariel became a totemic text of the nascent feminist movement, its readers quick to fasten on Hughes‘ role, however unwitting, in Plath’s depression and demise: A few months before her suicide, Plath had ordered him out of their home on discovering that he was having an affair. As her literary executor, he seemed inherently suspect, unconscionably slow in publishing her Collected Poems (which didn‘t appear until 1981, 18 years after her death) and self-protective in his editorial omissions in The Journals of Sylvia Plath, particularly in his astonishing admission that he had destroyed Plath’s final journal ”because I did not want her children to have to read it“ and that another late notebook of hers had ”disappeared.“
Feminists who saw in Plath a martyr to male perfidy called for his head, screaming ”murderer“ at his poetry readings, chipping his name off Plath‘s headstone. Hughes’ reputation was further blackened by the bizarre fate of Assia Wevill, the woman for whom he had left Plath. An aspiring poet and strikingly beautiful Russian-German-Jewish woman, Wevill continued a tempestuous relationship with Hughes after Plath‘s suicide, bearing his child, a girl called Shura, in 1967. Two years later, depressed by Hughes’ inability to make a commitment to her, Wevill gassed herself and her daughter in her own kitchen, in a grotesque re-enactment of her rival‘s death.
Hughes maintained silence about these events for years, but, nine months before he died, he published Birthday Letters, a book of poems about his relationship to Plath written over the previous 25 years. Surrounded by secrecy before its serialization in The Times of London (which paid 25,000 pounds for the privilege), Birthday Letters was a sensational publishing event and immediately became a best-seller, inspiring fevered speculation about its author’s motives (no one then knowing that his death was imminent). In 1996, Hughes had also sold a vast archive of his private papers, for a reported half a million dollars, to Emory University in Atlanta, and unsealed several sections of Plath‘s journals, which were published, in 2000, in The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950–1962. After his death, this new material was converted into fresh headlines in tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic, with the New York Post blaring, in 1999: ”Was Plath Unfaithful? — Documents Cast Doubt on Image of Suffering Sylvia.“
With Hughes out of the picture, the industry is working overtime. The first biography of Hughes (reportedly unearthing additional extramarital affairs and a possible illegitimate child) is soon to appear, and the BBC has signed Cate Blanchett to star as Plath in a film titled Sylvia and Ted. That’s not to be confused with Sylvia and Ted, the new novel by Emma Tennant. Known principally for writing faintly feminist sequels (such as Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice), Tennant came out with a memoir (Burnt Diaries) shortly after Hughes‘ death, in which she revealed that she’d had an affair with him in the late 1970s while he was married to his second wife, Carol Orchard Hughes. Her novel is breathlessly based, according to an author‘s note, on ”the story of the 20th century’s most famous — and most tragic — love affair,“ and her motives are said to be purely artistic: ”I felt that the biographies of Sylvia Plath, while useful and informative, failed to connect on a poetic and imaginative plane.“
In Sylvia and Ted, she connects with that plane by heightening the already-lurid details of Plath and Hughes‘ relationship with newly ”imagined“ atrocities, some apparently invented and many extrapolated from the questionable recollections of Elizabeth Sigmund — a friend of Plath’s who knew her only in the last year of her life and who had met her a mere dozen times. The players appear as familiar parodies of themselves, Plath as martyr, Hughes as monster. Tennant has Plath and Wevill confronting each other over Wevill‘s pregnancy the night of Plath’s suicide, Wevill recovering from an abortion in the flat where Plath killed herself, and Hughes committing statutory rape on a teenager in a field during his marriage to Plath. Complementing its vulgarity is the novel‘s portentous and often unintentionally hilarious prose: ”In the groan of an emptying cistern . . . as the last of the hot water comes grudgingly up into the ancient bath sounds the death rattle of married love,“ and ”There’s no need for Ted to pause by the caged cats when there‘s something like Assia on hand.“
The trashiness of this book more than justifies Hughes’ overwrought condemnation of the critics and biographers — whom he saw battening on his wife‘s body — in such poems as ”The Dogs Are Eating Your Mother,“ in Birthday Letters: ”Let themJerk their tail-stumps, bristle and vomitOver their symposia.“ As he wrote elsewhere, this kind of thing exists to satisfy ”curiosity of quite a low order, the ordinary village kind, popular bloodsport kind,“ and it is impossible to imagine that Tennant and her publishers had much else in mind beyond what Hughes termed the ”opportunity to make a penny.“
Another new book, Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, and the Story of the Birthday Letters, is less offensive, if superfluous. Erica Wagner, the literary editor of the London Times, who brokered the serialization of Birthday Letters in its pages and wrote ”accompanying commentary,“ has a gift for stating the obvious (as in ”Birthday Letters is nothing if not seen and lived“) and rehashes widely available biographical background in this Cliffs Notes for Hughes‘ poems. Wagner has also based her readings on the assumption that Birthday Letters represents great art, hardly a universal sentiment. James Wood described Hughes’ poems as ”little epidemics of blame,“ painfully self-justifying in their strange fixation on astrological explanations for Plath‘s and Wevill’s, as well as his own, behavior. They are a literary footnote to his wife‘s far greater work. And therein — in the implicit contrast between the husband’s achievement and the wife‘s — lies a clue to our enduring obsession with Sylvia Plath.
Women have always occupied a tenuous position in the history of poetry. There is no woman Shakespeare, no woman Milton, for reasons Virginia Woolf made clear in A Room of One’s Own. Women made their mark in fiction — Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontes, Woolf — but in poetry, their claim is hedged with qualifications. Only Emily Dickinson produced a body of work that seems enduringly broad, but Dickinson, with her reclusiveness and inability to engage with the wider world, perpetuates the stereotypical frailty, eccentricity and circumscription of so many women poets: Christina Rossetti, Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop.
These are the stereotypes that Sylvia Plath, in her poetry, tore down with a wrecking ball. One of the violent and thrilling accomplishments of Ariel was to smash every pompous, patronizing image of the ”poetess“ present since the days of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, demolishing the expectations of the romantic invalid, the weak, the passive, the compliant, the nice, the polite. Regardless of what she ultimately did to herself, Plath, in her poetry, is ”the girl who wanted to be God,“ and she speaks as a god, merciless and vengeful, with force and precision that were previously the province of men. Hence feminists‘ need to turn Plath into the tin goddess of women’s poetry.
Plath has a claim — perhaps a better claim than any other woman poet before or since — to true greatness, but it has been impossible for anyone, including her husband, to come to terms with it. As in these two latest books, the anxious, obsessive preoccupation with her ”story“ — controlling it, inflating it, owning it — attests to that. ”The woman is perfected,“ Plath wrote, in her last poem, but we‘re still trying to improve on perfection.
Caroline Fraser is the author of God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church.