Sylvia Plath: Will the poet always be defined by her death?

(Image credit: Alamy)

Since Sylvia Plath died in 1963, she’s been turned into a crudely tragic symbol. As she inspires more biographies, will we ever get closer to the ‘real’ Plath.

21 July 2021 | Lillian Crawford | BBC Culture

When a female author dies by suicide, it defines her. From Virginia Woolf to Sarah Kane, everything she did, everything she created during her life becomes part of a death-drive narrative. When a male author dies prematurely, it is a tragic stopper in his creative output – we mourn the poetry Dylan Thomas never wrote after he died aged 39 in 1953, for example, distinct from his self-destructive lifestyle. Woolf’s novels and Kane’s plays are dubbed as being manifestations of mental illness, while Thomas’s poetry is brilliant in spite of, rather than because of, his alcoholism and troubled life.

Chief among those female artists who have become defined by their suicide is the US poet and novelist Sylvia Plath, who died on 11 February 1963. Since then, her name has become a by-word for female angst. Her works represent rebellious but depressed young women as evidenced by their appearance in pop-culture settings – Kat in the 1999 teen rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You clutches a copy of The Bell Jar, as does Maeve in recent Netflix series Sex Education. Plath has become a crude symbol of the girl outsider who rejects conventional standards of femininity to take her life, and death, into her own hands.

There is a steady stream of biographical works about Sylvia Plath, including three notable releases in the last 18 months (Credit: Alamy)

There is a steady stream of biographical works about Sylvia Plath, including three notable releases in the last 18 months (Credit: Alamy)

The impact of this interpretation’s proliferation is to devalue women’s engagements with Plath. To read her coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar, for example, is seen by many as a girlish rite of passage towards more serious literature, a perception often reflected in the YA-style cover designs. This isn’t the case for narratives of male comings-of-age, from the works of JD Salinger to David Foster Wallace. But the truth is that Plath was one of the first authors to tap into the raw reality of being a woman. Before feminism’s second wave and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Plath wrote of her discontent with a woman’s inferior place, her sexual urges, and how these pressures affected her mental health.

At the same time, The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are works of fiction. They are grounded in Plath’s lived experience, as all literature must be, but they are not, of course, direct autobiography. Biographies often cite Plath’s works as evidence for real-life events, and, as is the case with Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, use them to claim Plath was always depressed; Stevenson ends a chapter about her youth with the egregious statement: “The idea of suicide formed in her mind like the ultimate and irrevocable fig”, referring to the famous metaphor from The Bell Jar where the heroine Esther Greenwood sees all her potential futures as figs on a fig tree. A similar prejudice has continued to affect creative women, whereby they are dismissed as using art as therapy. The problem we face with Plath is that the mythos of her life and death has made it difficult to disentangle her art from that – but also know who the “real” Sylvia Plath was, in any case.

The Plath cottage industry

The desire to know Plath has nevertheless fuelled an industry. A new biography claiming to shed more light on her life than before appears on bookshelves with increasing regularity, including three notable releases in the past 18 months alone. One of these books, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, published in March 2020, focuses solely on her suicide. Another, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther, published in April, is a dual biography of Plath and fellow Bostonian poet Anne Sexton, who met at a writers’ seminar held by poet Robert Lowell in 1959. The third book is Heather Clark’s massive biography Red Comet: published last October, it is, alongside Crowther’s, one of the first books about Plath to make full use of the recently-published, full and unabridged volumes of her letters, and deliberately subverts the reverse, death-focused chronology of earlier tomes.

Even as these books may hope to understand Plath from a fresh perspective, their mission is arguably rendered ever more challenging by the steady stream of critical and biographical works ready to supplant them, alongside the ever-increasing volume of published material from her archive. There has even been a biography of her biographies: in 1994, the great New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who died last month, published The Silent Woman, a study of Plath books (including Stevenson’s controversial Bitter Fame) which sought to consider the forces of influence which determine the nature of biographical writing.

When preparing her book, Malcolm contacted Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and the literary executor of her estate, seeking an interview with Ted to supplement her research. The response she received was an extended, unprompted critique of the “myth of Sylvia Plath”, something Olwyn believed was fuelled by a combination of Plath herself and Plath’s mother, Aurelia, who was, Olwyn claimed, “ashamed of the mental illness”, and determined that only her daughter’s “best side” was remembered. Olwyn was horrified, she went on, by a lack of “human feeling” shown by writers and the public for Plath’s family and had as a result “totally changed [her] entire attitude to people”. However, what Malcolm achieved with The Silent Woman was to remind us that Plath was not a myth, but a woman who had lived and breathed as we do. By bringing herself into the story in order to reflect on her own role within the posthumous narrativisation of Sylvia Plath – rather than acting under the pretence of objectivity – Malcolm wrote the most human book on the poet to date.

The 2003 biopic Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, was criticised in a poem by Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes (Credit: Alamy)

The 2003 biopic Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes, was criticised in a poem by Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes (Credit: Alamy)

Olwyn’s criticism of Aurelia Plath was most explicitly targeted towards her editing and publication of Sylvia’s Letters Home. This collection, published in 1975, compiled correspondence from Sylvia Plath to her mother, from her time at Smith College in the early 50s until the end of her life in 1963. As recorded by Janet Malcolm in The Silent Woman, Olwyn saw Letters Home as a response to “the hammering [Aurelia] took” from her fictionalised depiction in The Bell Jar as Esther’s mother, as well as several poems, including Medusa and The Disquieting Muses. In 1971, Aurelia had written to The Bell Jar’s US publisher and asked Ted not to release it, lamenting that, with its thinly-veiled portrayal of her as an unsympathetic taskmaster, “as this book stands by itself, it represents the basest ingratitude”. By contrast, the selection of doting letters from “Sivvy”, was intended to show that there had been a deep mother-daughter bond between them. Aurelia hoped to publish the letters in two volumes rather than one, but because of restrictions imposed by the publisher, she condensed her collection.

It wasn’t until 2017-8 that the unabridged letters were published, edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil. This collection demonstrated the different written voices with which Plath corresponded with friends, lovers, and family, revealing a more complex and human writer than the one-dimensional daughter created by the Letters Home. Unlike that previous collection, these volumes are also presented without edits to the original language, and without either a personal introduction from Aurelia or any additional commentary from her. Along with Plath’s unabridged journals, previously published by Faber & Faber in 2000 with permission from Ted Hughes, these letters represent Plath as she chose to be seen, albeit without the intention of them being made available to the reading public.

According to Malcolm in The Silent Woman, it was after the publication of Letters Home that “the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularised realism”. Those film sets became a literal reality with the production of the 2003 biopic Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Plath’s daughter Frieda Hughes wrote a poem criticising the film; its purpose was to entertain “the peanut-eaters”, she said, alluding to her mother’s poem Lady Lazarus, in which she describes “The peanut-crunching crowd” going to “unwrap me hand and foot — / The big strip tease”.

Do the new Plath biographies shed light on her?

In light of the problems which biographers have faced in trying to gain a clear view on Plath, it is worth asking what new books about her life can have to offer. Given the widespread nature of the Plathian myth, it can be hard to distinguish books trying to cash in on revealing morbid details about her death, from those attempting to realign public focus to the importance of her literature. Rollyson’s The Last Days of Sylvia Plath announces in its title that it falls into the former camp, promising unprecedented detail in the events that led to her suicide. It’s the sort of book feminist writers like Malcolm deplore for reducing Plath’s life and character to the worst period of her depression. As long as this reductive approach persists, there will be need for scholars to counter it through other approaches.

Crowther, whose previous work on Plath, including the books The Haunted Reader (2017) and These Ghostly Archives (2017), has focused on how she is understood today, says that she first came across Plath aged 13 when she read her 1961 poem Mirror in the school library. As to why she has focused her study on Plath, Crowther cites Elizabeth Bowen’s claim that subjects find their researchers, not the other way round. In particular, she tells BBC Culture, she felt a sense of injustice in the way Plath has been portrayed by some biographers as “some sort of ‘doomed figure'” through “lazy and inaccurate stereotyping”. She has sought to combat that in her own work, in showing how “Plath’s lived experience as a woman was crucial to her writing” and dissecting the appeal she continues to have today.

The poet Anne Sexton was an acquaintance of Plath's, and Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther explores their friendship (Credit: Alamy)

The poet Anne Sexton was an acquaintance of Plath’s, and Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther explores their friendship (Credit: Alamy)

Crowther’s third and latest book on Plath, Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, focuses on Plath’s acquaintance with fellow poet Sexton to show how their meeting may have influenced their respective work. Sexton herself fuelled the Plathian mythos with her 1963 obituary poem Sylvia’s Death, in which she calls her friend a “Thief!” for crawling “into the death I wanted so badly”. She too died by suicide aged 45 in 1974, a fact that encouraged contemporaneous comparisons with Plath. Sexton is a more problematic subject, however. In the early 1990s, her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, revealed that her mother sexually abused her – a contrast to the happier relationship Frieda Hughes had with Plath.

If it is important to highlight the individualism of these women, then this dual biography suffers from its forced similarities – for example, Crowther repeatedly romanticises the image of cigarette burns on their respective papers without mentioning that Sexton was a life-long chainsmoker and Plath didn’t touch a cigarette until her split from Ted Hughes in 1962. Vague language is used to draw more similarities between the poets than there really were, countering the contrasts between Plath’s tidiness and Sexton’s lackadaisical appearance. This essential difference exists in their poetry, although the book does not engage with literary analysis. Reading their respective poems, it is only Sexton who writes explicitly of menstruation and masturbation, while Plath explored themes of female identity and motherhood through the lenses of literature and mythology. Plath preferred metaphor and allusion; Sexton said things as they were.

Her own books aside, Crowther hopes we are getting closer to a more rounded positioning of Plath in the cultural imagination. She says that the publication of the unabridged letters, in particular, have “tilted the lens back to allow us to appreciate the multiplicity of voices she used in her correspondence”, rather than just the “Sivvy” who wrote to her mother. Through these new collections, “we hear the voices she used to write to friends, lovers, colleagues, her business correspondence, and this all gives us a much fuller picture of her humour, her passions, her efficiency, and her skill for managing her own writing.” What’s more, Crowther says, having these various voices available to us demonstrates “how she seamlessly moved between these personas flitting across the personal to professional”, and her extraordinary emotional range in so doing. Perhaps conversely, though, the sheer number of “versions” of Sylvia Plath only serves to prevent us from knowing which were genuine.

The most expansive biography of Plath to date is Clark’s Red Comet. Asked about her aims in writing this book, Clark tells BBC Culture that she wanted to show that Plath’s “near-constant theme is not depression, but the holy quest to become a writer”. Her interest in Plath began while she was doing her doctorate at Oxford University on Northern Irish poets. Previously, she “had fallen prey to the reductive idea that Plath was an avatar of darkness and doom” as a result of the predominant portrayal of Plath in the media. However, through reading her work for a class she was teaching, Clark realised that she was “enormously sophisticated, witty, and yes, funny”, giving her a desire to overturn the “sexist bill of lies” sold to her.

The resulting book is the closest any writer has come to an exhaustive biography of Plath’s life and work. Clark also discusses the relationship Plath had with Sexton, elucidating their differences and the greater importance of Plath to Sexton than vice versa. The impression given by the book is of a rich and complex life beyond anything shown in the far shorter works that have preceded it. Occasionally she does make hints towards Plath’s fate which err on the side of foreshadowing, including with poetic flourishes about “the bell jar descending” which detract from the authenticity she otherwise strives for. It’s interesting that even in these books that are so aware of the dangerous impact that speculation and mythologising have had on perceptions of Plath, they too can slip into that vein from time-to-time.

Nonetheless, Clark is optimistic that the scholarship on Plath is evolving in enriching ways. Eschewing the traditional feminist focus on Plath as an author ahead of her time, which has dominated recent academic discourse, her PhD students are looking at Plath’s work from transnational and disability perspectives. These angles are important, in turn, for considering the impact that Plath’s travels, and the dissonance of identity she felt as an American in England, had on her writing; and for looking at how Plath’s mental illness was reflected in her life and work, while also considering the shame that was attached to that in an era when mental health was less understood than it is today.Plath's place in the cultural imagination has come to be defined by her death, in a way that has sometimes obscured her artistry (Credit: Alamy)

Plath’s place in the cultural imagination has come to be defined by her death, in a way that has sometimes obscured her artistry (Credit: Alamy)

These new approaches continue to have more source materials available to them as the Plath archive expands. In addition to the publication of the letters, Kukil, who is curator of the Plath archive at Smith College in the US, is now working with Amanda Golden, Associate Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology, on an expanded and corrected edition of the Collected Poems, previously edited by Ted Hughes, to be published by Faber & Faber. It is also possible that the incomplete manuscript for Plath’s lost novel, Double Take, and two other journals may one day surface.

Whatever is left to emerge, however, Plath is always likely to remain more of a puzzle than most cultural icons – in part because of her untimely death, which means she never got the chance to tell her story on her own terms. And in part, as has become increasingly apparent, because of the multiplicity of personae Plath was able to adopt in different settings and with different people, making it difficult to know when she was being sincere and when she was writing with a wry smile on her face. We may continue to think we are getting a clearer impression of who she was, but the “real” Sylvia Plath will remain elusive. 


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