Mr. Hone, I’m afraid I have bad news.
Plath’s letters have been collected for the first time, edited by Peter K. Steinberg, an archivist specializing in Plath, and Karen V. Kukil, the editor of Plath’s journals and curator of the Plath collection at Smith College. The first volume — attractive, immense and done up in trendy millennial pink — is just out.
The era has passed in which those who held Ted Hughes responsible for Plath’s suicide would chisel her married name from her headstone. But the years have passed more slowly, you suspect, for the family and the Plath estate. Frieda Hughes, the couple’s daughter and only surviving child (their son, Nicholas, killed himself in 2009), begins the book of letters with a spectacularly defensive foreword — a tribute less to Plath than to Hughes:
“The reason my mother should be of interest to readers at all is due to my father, because, irrespective of the way their marriage ended, he honored my mother’s work and her memory by publishing ‘Ariel,’ ” she writes. “It seems to me that, as a result of their profound belief in each other’s literary abilities, my parents are as married in death as they once were in life.” There is the effect, slightly comic and horrifying, of the daughter presiding over the vow renewal ceremony for the ghosts of her parents.
But it does set the stage for the strangeness of these letters, first glimpsed when Plath’s mother, Aurelia, published a selection of them in “Letters Home” (1975). Her intention was to humanize Plath, to reveal her as a healthy all-American girl. Alas, it went very much the other way — the “psychic osmosis” between mother and daughter, of which Aurelia was so proud, was perceived to be pathological, and perhaps even the root cause of Plath’s depression.
Whatever the diagnosis, to speak of Plath’s letters is to speak of her relationship with Aurelia, to whom she wrote twice a day at times — long letters that swarmed to fill every inch of space on the page and trailed onto the envelopes.
This was, no doubt, lovely for her mother (and her biographers), but it can be rough going for even the committed Plathophile. We spend a small eternity at a summer camp where young Sylvia assuaged Aurelia’s anxieties with daily briefs on her diet and hygiene. In one moment of high drama, she longed for a toenail clipper.
As she grew up the reports to Aurelia continued but now included lists of her admirers and awards, invitations to the Yale junior prom, compliments from professors.
The journals, published unabridged in 2000, were, of course, a darker place. There her violent imagination could bloom. Her pet insult was “smiler” — for the false and appeasing; her own inclination as well, we learn in the letters. She would admit, in passing, to her loneliness in college before screwing on a smile: “My room is lovely.” “The campus is utterly lovely.” “The freshmen are dears.” “Lisa is very sweet.” Even a suicide attempt is glossed over. “My escapade,” she called it in a letter to a friend.
Her intense ambition was on full display, however. She even poked fun at it: “I’m chock-full of ideas for new poems. I can’t wait to get time to write them down. I can’t let Shakespeare get too far ahead of me, you know.”
The other great, governing hunger in her life was for a leading man, a colossus, which she found in Hughes, the hulking Heathcliff of her dreams. She met him in England, where she was on a Fulbright scholarship. She bit his cheek, he ripped off her earrings, they married four months later. In her letters to him, the determined peppiness finally fell away and the Plathian imagery — and nastiness — emerged. On a professor of hers: “I have a morbid desire to cut open her fat white flesh each time I see her and see if its onion juice or what that keeps her going.”
But these early letters reveal something the journals don’t: a flicker of uncertainty about Hughes that now seems prophetic. He “has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met,” she wrote to her brother. To her mother: “He is a breaker of things and people.”
But she won’t be cowed. She’s conquered him, she reported two weeks later. “I have passed through the husk, the mask of cruelty, ruthlessness, callousness, in Ted.” She preened: “Every thing I do with and for Ted has a celestial radiance, be it only ironing or cooking.” She documented their days, their productivity with joy. She hoped for seven children.
It’s not Plath’s death necessarily, or even the dissolution of her marriage, but her doubleness that’s been the abiding mystery. In his foreword to her journals, Hughes wrote: “I never saw her show her real self to anybody — except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.” It’s a line picked up by critics from Elizabeth Hardwick to Janet Malcolm, this belief in the authentic Plath, the aggressive genius lurking behind the polite banalities, that finally flowered in the final poems — the “blood jet,” she called them.
The achievement of this avalanche of letters — 1,300 pages and counting — is that it disabuses everyone of the notion that Plath wasn’t aware of her contradictions or in (some) control of them. She referenced her two selves every time she went from blonde to brunette (“I’m rather sure that my brown-haired personality will win out this year,” she wrote to a boyfriend. “Gone is the frivolous giddy gilded creature who careened around corners at the wheel of a yellow convertible.”) Her honors thesis was, in part, on Dostoevsky’s “The Double,” after all, in which a self splits, and one kills the other.
“How can you be so many women to so many people,” she once wrote in her journal, “oh you strange girl?”
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