Why we can't let go of Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Sylvia Plath, the writing of the Ariel poems and the release of The Bell Jar. It also marks 50 years of standoff between Plath supporters and those who seek to defend her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, from the allegation that he drove his brilliant wife to suicide. What is astonishing is not just that the standoff continues but that its vitriol has barely diminished over half a century. In a recent Guardian article Camp Plath (represented by Plath's friend and dedicatee of The Bell Jar Elizabeth Sigmund) squared off against Camp Hughes (represented by Ted's sister and former literary executor Olwyn Hughes). The contempt and bitterness on both sides is palpable though, if the comments are anything to go by, Camp Plath continues to win the posthumous public relations war.

The "victory" of Camp Plath derives partly from Plath's status as a feminist poster-girl. Plath's writing is eloquent on the absurd sexual double standards between men and women and the patronising attitude of men in the arts. (An early review sneered at her "quaint and electric artfulness" but forbore further criticism because "who am I to know how beautiful she may be?"). In poems such as Daddy she kills off the father/husband and tells him “I'm through”.

Plath died on the cusp of feminism's second wave in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was released. Although she was politically engaged, participating in anti-nuclear protests and famously opening The Bell Jar with reference to the execution of the Rosenbergs, it's questionable that Plath would have identified as a feminist. Plath was self-fascinated, even self-obsessed. Could she have transcended this sense of her own specialness to see her struggles as less particular and more symptomatic of a gendered predicament?

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Our continued investment in the Plath/Hughes myth derives not just from what it says about feminism. It also speaks to our yearning for the concrete, the black and white. We live in a postmodern world where all truth is subjective and contestable. The Plath story tantalises us with the promise that if we just dig a little deeper we will uncover the irrefutable fact That Settles It. Were, as Hughes claimed, Plath and Hughes on the verge of a reconciliation when she died? Was her death caused by a botch-up with a prescription medication that worsened Plath's symptoms and that she didn't recognise under its English brand name? Did Sylvia, as the critic Al Alvarez claims, believe she would be rescued in time? Was Sylvia the monster of Olwyn Hughes' assertions or the sweet creature of Elizabeth Sigmund's?

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There are calls on this anniversary for both sides to disarm and for the poetry to speak for itself. Yet I suspect some of us come to the poems through the Plath/Hughes story rather than the other way round. My first encounter with Plath came when a friend pressed Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman on me. The book isn't about Plath and Hughes per se, but about the pitched battle fought between Team Plath and Team Hughes after Anne Stevenson's biography Bitter Fame was released. I'm generally wary of poetry, often finding it obtuse and pretentious. But Plath and Hughes as Malcolm refracted them weren't chill and remote intellectuals. Instead they were messy and imperfect and utterly human. This made them accessible and gave me the confidence to attempt their poetry. I am richer for it.

In their brilliance the Ariel poems grieve us for what else Plath might have achieved had she lived beyond 30. Like Marilyn Monroe, who died at 36, we see in Plath our own unrealised potential. The things we could've, should've, would've done are writ large on this woman who had just found her singular poetic voice. Unlike Monroe who died childless, Plath left two small children behind. It is impossible to read poems such as Edge without aching for Frieda and Nicholas Hughes (who were three and one respectively when their mother died).

Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath.

There is great pathos in the idea that in a different time Plath's trajectory could have been so different. Were she writing now when, as Lena Dunham suggests "psycho-pharmacologists are no more shameful to visit than hairdressers", she might have surmounted her torment. Yet the comforting thought that modern medicine and psychoanalysis could have relieved Plath's agony sits uneasily with the notion that the agony and the poetry are indivisible. It's a cliche that happy and well adjusted people don't (can't?) write poetry. In Birthday Letters Hughes fears that in accessing her poetic brilliance, Plath also released the noxious gas that killed her. In the poem The Table he equates the writing desk he built for her with a grave through which she would fall towards her deceased father. In Kindness, Plath equates poetry with an unstemmable jet of blood.

But Plath is so much more than the archetypal figure of the tortured artist. She prefigures a particularly modern consciousness – one untroubled by distinctions between high and low culture. She wrote brilliant and difficult poems and studied German and tuned into the opera on the BBC. Yet she also wrote short stories for Seventeen magazine and interned at Mademoiselle and was a baking and knitting enthusiast. Her journals show her to have been, frankly, bitchy.

Beyond questions of culture, artistry, post-modernism and feminism there is in the Plath/Hughes story the profound sadness of the lost idyll. I've written elsewhere about the psychic intimacy between Plath and Hughes. Theirs, at least for a time, seems to have been a union that did not require one to subjugate their artistic ambitions to the other. For all the criticism directed at Hughes, he never doubted Plath's genius and does not appear to have been threatened by it. He and Plath divided up the childcare between them so both could write – no small thing for a man in the 1950s! Their myth resonates because it speaks to what we want for ourselves. For our other to recognise our potential, to value it and to nurture it. To believe in us as they believe in themselves.

Our fury at Hughes is our fury at our own shortcomings. Our adulation of Plath our grief for our own unrealised selves.

S.A. Jones is a writer and regulatory analyst. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking.