The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963
by Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil
reviewed by Emily Van Duyne
When a 1,078-page advance review copy of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. 2: 1956–1963 arrived in my inbox as a PDF, I resisted the temptation to scroll straight to the fourteen explosive, previously unpublished letters that Plath wrote to her therapist-turned-confidante, Dr. Ruth Tiffany Beuscher, between 1961 and 1963. Instead, I started with the introduction and read through to the end: a feat of restraint rivaling the summer I spent twelve days as a vegan.
Plath would not have approved of those twelve days. The Letters brim with lines like the following, written to her mother, Aurelia, in February 1960 during Plath’s first pregnancy, while she and Ted Hughes were living in a flat in London: “I’m eating ravenously: lamb chops yesterday, new potatoes, escarole & lettuce salad with cheese & hardboiled eggs chopped in it.” Two years later, she regaled multiple correspondents with a story of her horror at Hughes telling her she “could economize by not [ … ] eating expensive meat.” This was shortly after Hughes had bolted from their marriage to pursue affairs with three other women and a boho life in London, and Plath was trying to figure how she would manage to live as a single mother.
Note that the preceding sentence doesn’t read “how she would manage to live without Hughes,” a crucial distinction in a world that still spends so much time inserting his name and narrative into Plath’s life and work. By the time their marriage dissolved, the couple had already led an unconventional life for six and a half years, working for most of that time as freelance writers and foregoing the academic careers they viewed as death to their writing lives. Plath spends much of her correspondence after Hughes leaves as she spent it before: She plots, and describes the writing of, her novel-in-progress, the still-“missing” Doubletake; she plots her finances, figuring out what Hughes will have to give her and their two children for maintenance; and she plots how to charm a nanny from the city to come to their country house in Devon, England (“out here in the middle of nowhere, without Tv, or amusement”). And she puzzles over the question that still consumes so many writers: “How I would like to be self-supporting in my writing!” she tells Aurelia in January 1963. “But I need time.”
Aurelia Plath published heavily edited versions of some of her daughter’s letters to her in Letters Home (1975); one of them, written in 1962, contains the often-quoted declaration that “I am a genius of a writer, I have it in me.” But this line ill-represents her feelings about her work throughout that fall and winter, which ended with her suicide on February 11, 1963. During this period and in the years preceding it, we see her worrying obsessively about her work and the money it earned her. Over and again Plath writes that she needs to be financially independent, seeming not to realize that, for the most part, she was. She laments her lack of writing time and success at the same time she is developing, through letters, a series of ironclad relationships with the editors of the New Yorker, the Nation, and Poetry. In February 1960, as William Heinemann is about to publish her first book, The Colossus, she sends a list of the poems she has previously published in magazines to her editor, W. Roger Smith; it spans three pages and includes all the best journals in America and Britain, then and now. “That about does it, I think,” she writes at the end. She was twenty-seven years old.
“Frieda is my answer to the H-Bomb,” Plath writes to poet and friend Lynne Lawner in September 1960 about the birth of her first child. This line marks the birth of the Ariel voice: if the poems are the myth, the letters after she discovers Hughes’s infidelity are the backstory, the liner notes to Plath’s poetic Back to Black. She is crudely hilarious—Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes leaves her for, is referred to as “this Weavy Asshole”—and not self-pitying: “[Ted] says now he dimly thought this would either kill me or make me, and I think it might make me. And him too.” These lines stand in stark contrast to characterizations of a Hughes-less Plath—common in the 1980s and 1990s and still seen today—as hysterical and raving.
The Plath we see in her letters defies this caricature. In addition to staring down the dragon of her failed marriage, she rediscovers her sensuality. Writing to Dr. Beuscher in July 1962, newly apprised of Hughes’s infidelity, she says that she doesn’t want to be “an unfucked wife.” A few months later, she writes to her mother, “I am going to get a new black leather bag & gloves & shoes & just take my new things to London,” and “My haircut gives me such new confidence, truck drivers whistle & so on, it’s amazing.” This is not to say that she blithely ignores her new reality. She is alternately bewildered at Hughes’s behavior—“I loved the man I have lived with [ … ] but there is nothing of this left, there is only a cruel & indifferent stranger”—and wry about her new single life: “Dartmoor convicts keep escaping on these black nights & I keep an apple parer ready & the door bolted.”
Writing about Plath without the long shadow of her suicide has often seemed impossible. The scholar and Hughes biographer Jonathan Bate noted in his review of this collection that we have a tendency to “read [Plath’s] life backwards,” as though it began with her death. I couldn’t help blanching at the slew of references in her letters to turning thirty, the age at which she killed herself: “Life begins at 30!” she writes her mother in 1962. And to W. Roger Smith: “After I have reached the ripe age of 30, I shall never mention it again.” But Plath was not plotting her suicide here, or begging us to cluck our tongues at the irony. She was acting like so many women as they approach thirty—cracking jokes, wondering when her youth and looks might run off (“I am, by the way, not fat!!” she writes to Beuscher in 1962, taking frank stock of her appearance after giving birth to two children in approximately the same number of years).
The controversy surrounding Plath’s letters to Beuscher stems from their claims that Plath miscarried her second pregnancy after Hughes “beat [her] up physically” (claims that Frieda Hughes, in her introduction to this volume, more or less dismisses, a moment that depressed me greatly—Plath cannot speak unimpeded, it seems, even in a book made up of nearly 1000 pages of her own words). But disturbing as these claims are, they are actually the least interesting thing about the Beuscher letters, serving mainly to further existing tropes of Plath as a martyr-victim of powerful men. Rather, these letters are valuable because in them Plath is her unguarded self, throwing off the constraints she places on herself while writing the letters to her mother that make up the bulk of both volumes.
The continued mythologizing of Plath’s life is difficult to reconcile with the funny, crabby, practical woman who writes to Beuscher and other friends. Where the Journals gave us Plath’s moody, internal voice, and her poems are high art, the letters she wrote in adulthood allow us to see her developing her external, conversational voice. She writes that she wants to dye her hair purple. She describes herself mowing the lawn and doing her taxes, and in the same sentence calls herself a “feeling & imaginative lay.” She is constantly fighting friends and family who can’t believe she wants a divorce from her philandering husband; she hones these arguments in a manner that anticipates feminist theory such as Hélène Cixous’s l’ecriture feminine, which calls for the body’s “unheard-of-songs,” as in this July 1962 letter to Beuscher: “I have a feeling, when I try to look at what is I am sure my unique predicament [ … ] that [ … ] you [ … ] would say—let him go, let him get It out of his system. Well, what about my system? How do I get this other It out? This jealous retch, this body that comes, laughing, between my body & his body.” In books like Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, published nearly thirty years after Plath’s death, Hughes and other contemporaries were still describing her decision to divorce Hughes as “madness,” contributing to the notion that she was deranged in person and deed. These letters are Plath making her case for her sanity in real time and in a way that reinforces her continued relevance to feminism and to literature.
Published on July 9, 2019