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Apr/May 2018 Reviews & Interviews

The Letters of Sylvia Plath

The Letters of Sylvia Plath.
Peter K. Steinberg and Karen Kukil, editors.
Faber. 2017. 1,388 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 32899 4.

Review by Ann Skea


Buy now from Amazon! Although the main focus of my research and writing has always been on the work of Ted Hughes, inevitably I have become very familiar with Sylvia Plath's poetry, prose, journals and letters. My interest in this new unabridged edition of her letters, however, is personal rather than scholarly.

This is a hefty book in all senses of the word, and faced with such a thick book many readers, I know, will read only the sections of particular interest to them. Sylvia's earliest daily postcards and letters to her mother from summer camp, for example, are likely to interest only the most dedicated of Plath scholars, although they do show her increasing ability to capture her life in her words. They routinely catalogue her activities, her health, comments about her fellow campers ("The two new girls in my tent are not well brought up" (p.15)), what she has eaten and drunk, and her achievements. Already she is ambitious: "in swimming we have three classes starting with the lowest red, next white, highest blue. For three days I was a redcap but today I was promoted to a white cap!" (p.25); "I was chosen to make the cover of the camp newspaper. I was elected unanimously to write a report about Cove." (p.77).

The "Introduction," written by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil, admirably sums up the general biographical background to Plath's letters, the range of people to whom she wrote, and the huge variety of things which caught her attention and interest and made their way into her letters. They note that readers will see Plath's "empathic attention to her recipients and how, like writing a poem or short story for a specific market, she was able to craft a letter concentrating solely on her relationship to the addressee." Her letter writing was, as they say, "a serious art form" (p.xxv).

Plath learned this skill very early. In the earlier edition of Plath's letters, edited and abridged by her mother, Aurelia, Aurelia wrote that as a teenager Sylvia had already collected multiple rejection slips and, on one, the editor of the magazine Seventeen had commented that although Sylvia's writing had "promise and present merit," she still needed to learn to " "slant" her subject matter towards the requirements of the particular publication from which she hoped acceptance" (Sylvia Plath: Letters Home 1999. p.35). Throughout Sylvia's letters in this new volume, there are examples of teasing letters to boy-friends, carefully crafted business letters to interest and flatter editors, and wonderful flights of imaginative description. Not only is she intent on keeping Mother happy ("I can't cry on her shoulder any more when things go wrong" (p.255)) but she is knowingly adept at "writing to meet certain specifications" (p.862) and tailoring "for specifications" (p.879). Her habit of examining journals and magazines for their specific "slant"; of entering every possible competition; and of constantly submitting and resubmitting her work to as many potential publishers or judges as possible, was highly successful and is one which many writers who long to see their work in print should emulate. Not only did it work for Sylvia, it clearly also worked for Ted when she began to submit his work to various American and English magazines.

Sylvia's strategies worked, too, when, almost by accident, she learned of the Harper competition, open to "a poet who has not yet published a book." "the hitch, if such there be," she told Ted, "is that the judges are: wh auden, marianne moore and, o god, stephen spender" (1312-3) (Sylvia was "under the compulsion to type a la e.e.cummings" (p.659) and had foregone the use of capitals). A 60 page manuscript was required and Sylvia estimated that Ted had 55 pages: "let me do this typing," she urged, "I'm sure you'll win this." And he did. The result was the publication in both America and England of his first book, Hawk in the Rain.

The problem with this slanting of her letters to her various recipients and regarding her letters as an art form, is that it becomes hard to know when the feelings she expresses are genuine. Throughout this book, for example, it is clear that Sylvia relied on her mother for practical, psychological and, often, financial support. Aurelia unstintingly typed manuscripts for her, sent and received them, banked cheques, posted requested items, read and commented on Sylvia's work, and wrote regular news-filled, chatty letters to her, all whilst teaching, doing her own writing and coping with ill-health. It is a pity we don't have any of these letters, but Steinberg has said that very few exist. In her letters to Aurelia, Sylvia, with one or two rare exceptions, maintained the façade of an ever-happy, loving daughter. But to her friend Ann Davidow-Goodman, she wrote: "I've got to pretend to her that I am all right and doing what I've always wanted to do—and she'll feel her slaving at work has been worthwhile" (p.255). And writing to Gordon Lameyer in 1954, she offered as an analogy of her relationship with her mother the way in which the "new American colonies" once needed "close parental surveillance and direction from mother england; but as they gained maturity a tempestuous revolution was needed to break the umbilical cord" (p.793). This break is not apparent in her letters.

Steinberg and Kukil also note in their Introduction, that reading Plath's journals alongside the letters often helps to establish the dates of journal entries which, unlike the letters, Sylvia left largely undated. This will be of value to researchers but it also adds new dimensions to the letters, offers invaluable insight into Sylvia's true thoughts and emotions and, for me, it raises some puzzling questions.

Sylvia was mistress of flirting by letter and keeping her boy-friends dangling, as can be seen in her letters to Richard Norton, Myron Lotz, Gordon Lameyer and, especially, Richard Sassoon. She also, at times, copied her letters, or extracts from her letters, into her journal for later use in her writing. What are we to make, then, of the two impassioned, emotional and very personal letters she wrote to Richard Sassoon on March 6 and April 18, 1956? In these, she tells Richard of her struggles to free herself of her love for him and to regain her soul. She writes of "living now in a kind of hell" (p.1164) since he rejected her. Then she copied these letters into her journal, and on March 9th 1956, when contemplating writing a novel, she wrote: "use letters to Sassoon etc." (SP Journal p. 231).

Reading Sylvia's letters to Sassoon and those to Ted Hughes which almost immediately follow them is interesting. To each of them she declares her intention to "fight for you" (to Richard p.1091) and to "work for you, slave for you" (to Ted p.1293). Yet, as the letters as a whole show, Sylvia, whilst determined to find a strong, brilliant, healthy (and tall) husband, was fiercely independent. She knew, took to heart, and referred to W.E. Henley's poem "Invictus" in which he declares: "I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul." So, she drove herself relentlessly to be the best in everything and her letters show her continuous self-analysis, her ambitions, her successes and her failures.

At camp she strove to best at swimming, to be popular, and to write publishable poems and stories. At school she was a straight A student. At Smith College, to which she had won a scholarship, she was shocked and felt "slightly sick" (p.204) when she received only a B- for her first English assignment. After her second English assignment she wrote "If I get another B- I'll scream" (p.211); and she drove herself relentlessly until she eventually got an A. She set herself this standard in all her studies. She spent 2 hours a day six days a week writing for the College Press Board, was elected to various committees, and continuously wrote and submitted stories and poem to various magazines and journals. At the same time, dating and the search for a potential husband became important and consumed her leisure time. Such relentless pressure often exhausted her, she suffered frequent sinus infections, and she often felt vulnerable and "like a square peg in a round hole" (p.327-8).

There were "Too many Alphas," as Ted Hughes wrote in "Telos" and the "Furies of Alpha" drove her to the limit. Reading all this in her letters and journals, her breakdown and her suicide attempts (there were two) seem almost inevitable.

In a letter to Eddie Cohen she describes her second suicide attempt in detail and notes "I tried drowning, but that didn't work" (p.656). And in her journal she recalls feeling that she was "reduplicating" Virginia Woolf's suicide but "couldn't drown" (p.269). Whist at Cambridge University she wrote: "scholarly boys I know," (boys at Cambridge University who knew nothing of her suicide attempts), "think of me as a 2nd Virginia Woolf." It was a fatal identification.

It is now possible to dovetail Sylvia's letters to Ted Hughes, which are published here for the first time, with those he wrote to her which are published in Letters of Ted Hughes, edited by Christopher Reid (Faber, 2007). Their love for each other is very evident and very moving to read. They shared a passion for poetry, their criticism and comments on each other's work was constant, and it is easy to understand the joy of being able to write of "ten poor idiot fingers," as Sylvia did (p.1271), and know that the one reading this would understand Crowe Ransom's poem "Winter Remembered" and understand the pangs of absence which it expresses.

I was amused to read Sylvia's letters to her mother and her brother shortly after she met Ted. To Aurelia she wrote of him as "a violent Adam" (p.1165); and she told her brother that Ted "has done nothing but rave, work and desert women for 10 years" (p.1174) and that he has done an "unconcerned rip through every woman he has ever met". How different is this to what Sylvia had been doing with her many men friends? Her letters show her leading them on, writing passionate letters to them, letting them wine and dine her, then dropping them because they got TB or were too short or too immature. In April, she vows to reform Ted and "make him kind" (p.1174) and by October he is "the dearest, kindest, gentlest, most darling person alive!" (p. 1261). "To find such a man and make him into the best man the world has ever seen: such a life work!" she wrote to her mother in May (p.1192). And apparently she managed it in just six months. "I never dreamed that love could be so incredibly transforming," Sylvia wrote ecstatically to her mother (p.1300), although she was referring to her own altered personality not to her speedy success in changing Ted.

In spite of Sylvia's claim that "the class system is really nonexistent in America" (p.1148), she grew up in the prosperous American city of Wellesley, where parents had middle-class aspirations, were often college and/or university educated, and sent their children to summer camps, good schools and the best universities. Ted's background was very different. He grew up in an industrial area in post-war England where scarcity and rationing of food and clothing was in force until 1945 (clothing) and 1952 (meat and some other foods). His parents had little knowledge of higher education and Ted was as one of the many children who benefited from the Butler Education Act of 1944, which provided all children who passed the "11 Plus" exam with scholarship places at Grammar schools. Sylvia's defensive championing of Ted's good qualities and the way she promotes these to her mother show her acute awareness of these differences: "He may shock you at first," she tells her mother, but "all the social questions about money, family position, bank accounts, blow off like chittering irrelevancies in a cyclone before two people who depend solely on their native talent and love of honesty, frankness, and the beauty of this various world;" (p.1187-8). And a little later to her mother and brother: "If you will both just take him for what he is, in his whole self, without wealth or a slick guarantee for a secure job, or a house and car..." (p.1192).

Finding, transcribing, footnoting and indexing Plath's letters has been a monumental task and the editors note that there are still many additional letters to be discovered. So far, there are 1,402 letters to more than 140 recipients in the two volumes, the second of which will be published in 2018. The footnotes are meticulous and the index is comprehensive, but in addition to the chronology at the beginning of the book there were times when I wished for some editorial notes to put the letters in context. Sylvia's concerns about war, for example—her mother's tears and her own fear that her brother would be called on the carry a gun (p.171)—were fuelled by America's ongoing involvement in the conflict in Korea which is often called "the forgotten war." In 1950, President Harry Truman committed US troops to the United Nations forces, and in 1951 Congress approved compulsory military service for men from the age of 18.

Similarly, reading Sylvia's excited and detailed description of the supper-dance at the grand mansion, "The Elms," in Connecticut, made me want to know more about this. An extensive internet search eventually yielded the information that "The Elms" was the home of William Buckley, the prominent politician and millionaire oil-tycoon, and that Maureen (who was one of Sylvia's house-mates at Haven House and whose 18th birthday this supper-dance celebrated) was one of his ten children.

Overall, Plath's letters, especially those written to friends, boyfriends and her German pen-pal, vividly convey Sylvia's charismatic, ambitious, determined, yet vulnerable, character. They also show very clearly her compulsion to write, her anxiety when she felt unable to do so and her exhilaration when her work was accepted for publication. They show, too, that she was well aware of the "intense moods—which I can bounce in and out of with ease" (p.473); and that she drew all she wrote from her life. In 1952, she was striving to write stories "where the protagonist isn't always ME" (p.450); and in her journal in 1957 she wrote: "My health is making stories, poems, novels, of experience... My life, I feel, will not be lived until there are books and stories which relive it perpetually in time." (SP Journal, p. 286). These letters vividly demonstrate the achievement of that ambition.

 

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