Join the fastest growing Social Network Capmocracy today! Your trusted Social Network
In New Volume of Sylvia Plath’s Letters, a Marriage Falters and Masks Fall Away

In New Volume of Sylvia Plath’s Letters, a Marriage Falters and Masks Fall Away


In 2000, a plaque was mounted outside a lavender-painted house in northwest London, commemorating the time when Sylvia Plath had lived and worked there. Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, presided over the unveiling at the home she had only briefly known (she was born in the bedroom). She was stunned by its size. The kitchen was two paces long. The bedroom was so small, she said, “It wasn’t possible to swing a gerbil.”

In her introduction to the second volume of Plath’s collected letters, Frieda Hughes marvels that her mother and her father, the poet Ted Hughes, were able to work and start a family in such tight quarters. The “stifling proximity” is her partial explanation for why the marriage so famously imploded — Hughes went off with another woman and Plath, left to fend for two small children, killed herself.

To write about the House of Hughes is to share that feeling of constriction — of standing in the middle of a cramped flat. There is little room to maneuver, few possible steps to take. Everything seems to have been said in the poems, journals, biographies and snowdrift of scholarship — and now these volumes of letters, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, totaling more than 2,000 pages.

Image
CreditAlessandra Montalto/The New York Times

The first volume, published last year, revealed the young Plath, from summer camp to Smith College, intent on two goals: to flay herself into becoming a writer and to marry — to give a man “this colossal reservoir of faith and love for him to swim in daily, and to give him children; lots of them, in great pain and pride,” she wrote in her journals. In this new book of letters, written between 1956 and 1963, ending a week before Plath’s death, at 30, we see the goals triumphantly and tragically fulfilled.

Plath was a diligent correspondent; you get the feeling she dispatched these letters before plunging into her real writing, as a way to loosen her fingers and warm up her pen. Mostly the letters have the peculiar distinction of being unsettling without ever being truly interesting. They contain few of the intensities we associate with her, the sour humor of “The Bell Jar,” the wild tenderness of her writings about her children, the “black sweet blood mouthfuls” of “Ariel,” her final book of poems, written at the pace of one or two a day before her children woke and the sun rose.

We don’t hear Plath but “Sivvy,” offering weekly reports, mostly to her mother, Aurelia, whom she so depended on and despised. To Aurelia were addressed odd letters, written with a rictus of brittle cheer, offered as proof of health, happiness and sanity. “It seems to be nothing but delightful choices & prospects for us two!” Plath wrote, as a newlywed.

Much of the letters continue in this vein; there is much crowing over writerly success, much mooning over Ted. “Ted is the most wonderful man that ever lived — far above any dreams I ever had!” she signed off on one note. This unembarrassed idolatry wasn’t just for Aurelia’s benefit; Plath carried on much in the same way with her brother, their mutual friends, Ted’s parents. “Ted is the one person in the world I could ever have married; it is simply impossibly to describe how strong, and kind of fun-loving and brilliant he is.” Compare this to Hughes’s mordant observation, in a letter to a fellow poet: “Marriage is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons.”

Image
Plath’s passport photograph, circa September 1959.

When Plath wasn’t banging on about Hughes’s virility, “his health and hugeness,” she waxed ecstatic about the pleasures of “domesticalia” and of serving as Hughes’s amanuensis and literary agent. She typed out his poems and submitted them to contests and magazines (keeping “20 manuscripts out continually”). She made scrapbooks of all his clips and reviews and handled all his correspondence. All practical matters were her responsibility, from the plumbing to the finances, and she took on a variety of part-time jobs to allow Hughes to stay home and write.

As the marriage faltered, the masks fell away. She wrote honestly of her unhappiness and fear, even to Aurelia. She revealed that Ted once struck her, possibly causing a miscarriage. She was frantic that he would spend the money she had saved for the children and desperate to find child care.

In 14 recently uncovered letters to the psychiatrist who’d treated her since her suicide attempt in college, we see Plath at her most vulnerable. It feels almost taboo to read these, so unabashed is her pain and humiliation, her sexual envy of Hughes’s mistress, Assia Wevill.

But there is something else that emerges in these letters. In “The Bell Jar,” the heroine modeled on Plath calls it “the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.” When Plath found a sheaf of erotic poems Hughes had written to Wevill, she registered the intense pain to her psychiatrist, but then she did something unexpected: She praised the poems for their proficiency. There was a stirring in her, of a life beyond Ted. She wrote to her mother of her relief at no longer being “servant-shadow;” to a friend, she confessed her boredom with domesticity. She wondered if she might accept her husband taking a mistress if she could establish some “ground-rights.”

In her final letters there was a note of wild, almost unbearable optimism. Inspiration ran like a tap; poems were pouring out of her. It seemed impossible that she would not make it, that she would not settle money matters with Ted and find a nanny. It’s a genuine shock to see her strength flare (“my life, my sense of identity, seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters, buried hidden places”) just as the pages begin to dwindle. No one can seem quite so alive on the page as Plath — “I have become a verb, instead of an adjective,” she sang, with months left to live. “I am so happy.”



Source link

About The Author

Related posts

Leave a Reply