The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

Janet Malcolm writes in this 1995 book:

* Strangers who Hughes feels know nothing about his marriage to Plath write about it with proprietary authority. “I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life,” Hughes wrote in a letter to the Independent in April, 1989, when he had been goaded by a particularly intrusive article. But, of course, as everyone knows who has ever heard a piece of gossip, we do not “own” the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed. The organs of publicity that have proliferated in our time are only an extension and a magnification of society’s fundamental and incorrigible nosiness. Our business is everybody’s business, should anybody wish to make it so. The concept of privacy is a sort of screen to hide the fact that almost none is possible in a social universe. In any struggle between the public’s inviolable right to be diverted and an individual’s wish to be left alone, the public almost always prevails. After we are dead, the pretense that we may somehow be protected against the world’s careless malice is abandoned. The branch of the law that putatively protects our good name against libel and slander withdraws from us indifferently. The dead cannot be libelled or slandered. They are without legal recourse.

Biography is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Every now and then, a biography comes along that strangely displeases the public. Something causes the reader to back away from the writer and refuse to accompany him down the corridor. What the reader has usually heard in the text—what has alerted him to danger—is the sound of doubt, the sound of a crack opening in the wall of the biographer’s self-assurance. As a burglar should not pause to discuss with his accomplice the rights and wrongs of burglary while he is jimmying a lock, so a biographer ought not to introduce doubts about the legitimacy of the biographical enterprise. The biography-loving public does not want to hear that biography is a flawed genre. It prefers to believe that certain biographers are bad guys.

* Bitter Fame was brutally attacked, and Anne Stevenson herself was pilloried; the book became known and continues to be known in the Plath world as a “bad” book. The misdeed for which Stevenson could not be forgiven was to hesitate before the keyhole. “Any biography of Sylvia Plath written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration, even if completeness suffers from it,” she wrote in her preface. This is a most remarkable—in fact, a thoroughly subversive—statement for a biographer to make. To take vulnerability into consideration! To show compunction! To spare feelings! To not push as far as one can! What is the woman thinking of? The biographer’s business, like the journalist’s, is to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, not to place limits on it. He is supposed to go out and bring back the goods—the malevolent secrets that have been quietly burning in archives and libraries and in the minds of contemporaries who have been biding their time, waiting for the biographer’s knock on their doors. Some of the secrets are difficult to bring away, and some, jealously guarded by relatives, are even impossible. Relatives are the biographer’s natural enemies; they are like the hostile tribes an explorer encounters and must ruthlessly subdue to claim his territory. If the relatives behave like friendly tribes, as they occasionally do—if they propose to cooperate with the biographer, even to the point of making him “official” or “authorized”—he still has to assert his authority and strut about to show that he is the big white man and they are just the naked savages. Thus, for example, when Bernard Crick agreed to be George Orwell’s authorized biographer he first had to ritually bring Orwell’s widow to her knees. “She agreed to my firm condition that as well as complete access to the papers, I should have an absolute and prior waiver of copyright so that I could quote what I liked and write what I liked. These were hard terms, even if the only terms on which, I think, a scholar should and can take on a contemporary biography,” Crick writes with weary pride in an essay entitled “On the Difficulties of Writing Biography in General and of Orwell’s in Particular.” When Sonia Orwell read excerpts from Crick’s manuscript and realized the worthlessness of the trinkets she had traded her territory for (her fantasy that Crick saw Orwell exactly as she saw him, and viewed her marriage to Orwell exactly as she viewed it), she tried to rescind the agreement. She could not do so, of course. Crick’s statement is a model of biographical rectitude. His “hard terms” are the reader’s guarantee of quality, like the standards set by the Food and Drug Administration. They assure the reader that he is getting something pure and wholesome, not something that has been tampered with.
When Anne Stevenson’s biography arrived, it looked like damaged goods. The wrapping was coming undone, the label looked funny, there was no nice piece of cotton at the top of the bottle. Along with the odd statement about the book’s intentional incompleteness, there was a most suspicious-looking Author’s Note on the opening page. “In writing this biography, I have received a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes,” Stevenson said. (Olwyn Hughes is Ted Hughes’s older sister and the former literary agent to the Plath estate.) “Ms. Hughes’s contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship. I am particularly grateful for the work she did on the last four chapters and on the Ariel poems of the autumn of 1962.”

* Once the plot of the suicidal poetess and her abandonment by the man with the witty mouth was released into the world, there would be no end to the variations played on it, or to Hughes’s burial alive in each of its retellings. When Bitter Fame appeared, declaring that it would “dispel the posthumous miasma of fantasy, rumor, politics, and ghoulish gossip” that was feeding Plath’s “perverse legend,” it was hardly surprising that the book was not greeted with open arms. The world likes to hold on to its fantasy, rumor, politics, and ghoulish gossip, not dispel them, and nobody wanted to hear that it was Hughes who was good and Plath who was bad. The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead is not a negligible one, but it pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living. Given the task of reviewing a book whose declared object was to dismantle the narrative that he himself had set in motion, Alvarez could hardly have been expected to look upon it favorably. He raked over Bitter Fame , and when he was finished there were three bad guys where previously only one had stood: to Ted Hughes were now added Anne Stevenson and Olwyn Hughes. An ancillary narrative was born of Alvarez’s review—the narrative of the corrupt biographer and the evil sister.

* IN 1971, in The New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Plath that “she has the rarity of being, in her work at least, never a ‘nice person.’” Hardwick put her finger on the quality that so arrested readers of Ariel when it first came out (in England in 1965, and in America in 1966), and continues to arrest us today. Plath’s not-niceness is the outstanding characteristic of the Ariel poems, it is what sets her apart from the other so-called confessional poets of the fifties and sixties, it is the note of the “true self” that Hughes celebrates. Her status as a feminist heroine has in large part derived from this tone. Women honor her for her courage to be unpleasant. “Every woman adores a Fascist,” Plath wrote in “Daddy”—meaning a male Fascist. But women have adored Plath for the Fascist in her, for the “boot in the face” that, even as she writes of male oppression, she herself viciously administers to readers of both sexes. Though The Bell Jar hasn’t the art of the late poems, its tone is still bracingly not-nice.

* Mrs. Plath didn’t end matters there. In 1975, to make good her claim that the not-nice persona of Ariel and The Bell Jar was Plath’s sick “false self,” and that her healthy “real self” was a kindly, “service-oriented” good girl, she asked for and received permission from Ted Hughes, Plath’s literary executor, to publish a book of Plath’s letters to her written between 1950 and 1963. The idea was to show that Plath was not the hateful, hating ingrate, the changeling of Ariel and The Bell Jar , but a loving, obedient daughter. The shade’s smile of satisfaction must have faded when the letters appeared, in a volume called Letters Home. “Mother, how could you? ” would be any daughter’s anguished response to an act of treachery like the publication of these letters: letters sloppily written, effusive, regressive; letters written habitually, compulsively, sometimes more than one a day; letters sent in the secure knowledge that they were for a mother’s uncritical eyes alone. It is one thing when some “publishing scoundrel” somehow gets hold of a cache of your most private and unpremeditated letters after your death and prints them, and another when your own mother hands you over to posterity in your stained bathrobe and unwashed face; it is quite beyond endurance, in fact. It seems simply never to have occurred to Mrs. Plath that the persona of Ariel and The Bell Jar was the persona by which Plath wished to be represented and remembered—that she wrote this way for publication because this was the way she wished to be perceived, and that the face she showed her mother was not the face she wished to show the reading public. One cannot blame the poor woman for her innocence. When a child commits suicide, the parents may be forgiven anything they do to dull their pain, even (or perhaps especially) acts of unconscious aggression.
The publication of Letters Home had a different effect from the one Mrs. Plath had intended, however. Instead of showing that Sylvia wasn’t “like that,” the letters caused the reader to consider for the first time the possibility that her sick relationship with her mother was the reason she was like that.

* But something even more momentous than her painful miscalculation—her utter failure to convince the world of how wonderful everything was with Sylvia and between her and Sylvia—resulted from the publication of Letters Home. This was the release into the world of a flood of information about Plath and the people in her life, most notably Ted Hughes—a flood that could be likened to an oil spill in the devastation it wreaked among Plath’s survivors, who to this day are like birds covered with black ooze. Before the publication of Letters Home , the Plath legend was brief and contained, a taut, austere stage drama set in a few bleak, sparsely furnished rooms. Alvarez’s artful memoir established its anxious tone and adumbrated its potential as a feminist parable. Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who “wrote”) and a Laurence Olivier-Heathcliffish Hughes. In exposing her daughter’s letters to the world’s scrutiny, Mrs. Plath not only violated Plath’s writer’s privacy but also handed Plath herself over to the world as an object to be familiarly passed from hand to hand. Now everyone could feel that he “knew” Plath—and, of course, Hughes as well. Hughes had retained the right of final approval of the book, and he was criticized for its editing; it was felt that he had taken out too much, that there were too many ellipses. But in fact Letters Home is remarkable not for what it leaves out about Hughes but for what it leaves in.

* In the letter, dated March 24, 1970, Hughes tells Mrs. Plath of a house that he wants to buy on the North Coast of Devon—“an unbelievably beautiful place”—for which, however, he hasn’t the money. He doesn’t want to sell a house he bought recently in Yorkshire (“a first class investment”), nor does he want (“for sentimental as they say reasons”) to sell Court Green, which he moved back into with the children after Plath’s death (and where he lives now, with his second wife, Carol). “Therefore,” he tells Mrs. Plath, “I am trying to cash all my other assets and one that comes up is The Bell Jar. ” He asks Mrs. Plath how she would “feel about U.S. publication of this now,” adding that in a few years the book will “hardly be saleable,” a mere “curiosity for students.” Mrs. Plath, of course, hated the book, and she wrote Hughes a strong letter of protest: she does not want The Bell Jar published in America. But at the end of the letter, “like one intelligent mature person with another,” she defers to Hughes. “As the right to publish is yours, so too must be the decision,” she says, with lame primness. So in 1971 The Bell Jar was published in America. Mrs. Plath endured it, and presently she exacted her pound of flesh: she asked Hughes’s permission to publish Plath’s letters to her. Hughes could hardly refuse.
One of the unpleasant but necessary conditions imposed on anyone writing about Sylvia Plath is a hardening of the heart against Ted Hughes. In one way or another, for this reason or that, the writer must put aside pity and sympathy for Hughes, the feeling that the man is a victim and a martyr, and resist any impulse to withdraw from the field and not add further to Hughes’s torment. A number of writers have, in fact, left unfinished manuscripts. In a letter to Andrew Motion, Linda Wagner-Martin’s British editor, Hughes speaks of these fallen aspirants with a kind of bitter triumph:
“[Wagner-Martin is] so insensitive that she’s evidently escaped the usual effects of undertaking this particular job—i.e. mental breakdown, neurotic collapse, domestic catastrophe—which in the past have saved us from several travesties of this kind being completed.”

Hughes’s letter to Mrs. Plath about cashing in on The Bell Jar allowed me to see Hughes for the first time with the requisite coldness: he had evidently exchanged his right to privacy for a piece of real estate. For if he had not published The Bell Jar against Mrs. Plath’s wishes she would surely not have felt impelled to publish Letters Home , and Hughes, in his turn, might not have felt impelled to administer a corrective to her corrective corrective by publishing The Journals.
In a letter that appeared in The New York Review of Books on September 30, 1976, written in response to a review of three books about Plath, Olwyn Hughes complains that the reviewer, Karl Miller, “treat[s] Sylvia Plath’s family as though they are characters in some work of fiction.” She says, further, “It is almost as though, writing about Sylvia, some of whose work seems to take cruel and poetically licensed aim at those nearest to her, journalists feel free to do the same.” Of course they do. The freedom to be cruel is one of journalism’s uncontested privileges, and the rendering of subjects as if they were characters in bad novels is one of its widely accepted conventions. In Mrs. Plath, Ted Hughes, and Olwyn Hughes journalism found, and continues to find, three exceptionally alluring targets for its sadism and reductionism.

* Now, twenty-eight years later, the English were still stubbornly clinging to their notion that severe winter weather comes so infrequently to their green and pleasant land that preparing for it is not worthwhile, and I was thus able to experience at first hand some of Plath’s frustration and feeling of stuckness during the winter of her suicide. I had sat for hours in an unheated train—grounded at a local station because the doors had frozen shut—and observed my fellow passengers, who sat docile and expressionless, incurious about their fate, in a kind of exaltation of uncomplaining discomfort. I had walked through the city covered with treacherous hard-frozen snow and recalled Plath’s “humorous” essay “Snow Blitz,” written shortly before her death, in which her American impatience with English passivity and its attendant moral superiority kept breaking through the surface tone of amused detachment.

* Ted Hughes: “Critics established the right to say whatever they pleased about the dead. It is an absolute power, and the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination. They move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between the living and the dead. They extend over the living that licence to say whatever they please, to ransack their psyche and reinvent them however they please. They stand in front of classes and present this performance as exemplary civilised activity—this utter insensitivity towards other living human beings. Students see the easy power and are enthralled, and begin to outdo their teachers. For a person to be corrupted in that way is to be genuinely corrupted.”

* Reporting ill of another is one of the most difficult and delicate of rhetorical operations; to be persuasive, to leave the reader with an impression of X’s badness and of one’s own disinterestedness and goodness, requires great skill. One cannot just blurt out—as Dido and Olwyn blurt out—how awful X is. All this achieves is to arouse the reader’s sympathy for X.

* I feel closer to the center of the mystery of why the weight of public opinion has fallen so squarely on the Plath side and against the Hugheses—why the dead have been chosen over the living. We choose the dead because of our tie to them, our identification with them. Their helplessness, passivity, vulnerability is our own. We all yearn toward the state of inanition, the condition of harmlessness, where we are perforce lovable and fragile. It is only by a great effort that we rouse ourselves to act, to fight, to struggle, to be heard above the wind, to crush flowers as we walk. To behave like live people.

* Life, of course, never gets anyone’s entire attention. Death always remains interesting, pulls us, draws us. As sleep is necessary to our physiology, so depression seems necessary to our psychic economy. In some secret way, Thanatos nourishes Eros as well as opposes it. The two principles work in covert concert; though in most of us Eros dominates, in none of us is Thanatos completely subdued. However—and this is the paradox of suicide—to take one’s life is to behave in a more active, assertive, “erotic” way than to helplessly watch as one’s life is taken away from one by inevitable mortality. Suicide thus engages with both the death-hating and the death-loving parts of us: on some level, perhaps, we may envy the suicide even as we pity him. It has frequently been asked whether the poetry of Plath would have so aroused the attention of the world if Plath had not killed herself. I would agree with those who say no. The death-ridden poems move us and electrify us because of our knowledge of what happened.

* A FAST train was bearing me to Durham, in the North of England, where Anne Stevenson lived. I had met Anne earlier, a year after the publication of Bitter Fame , and the meeting had been depressing. I spent two hours with her at the University Women’s Club, in London, where she was staying—she had come to town to give a lecture—and although the serene literary figure I had imagined for so many years occasionally came into view, it was mostly obscured by an upset, beset, wound-up woman pouring out her grievances. Public hostility toward Anne had not abated. She was still being pilloried—and she was still under the delusion that she could persuade the press that her punishment was unjust. She had been telling journalists—I was only the latest in a series—of the intolerable pressure Olwyn Hughes had put on her during the writing of the biography, how a gun had been held to her head, how she had been forced to produce and publish a book that was not her own. But the press had used Anne’s complaints about Olwyn only to embellish its original narrative; to have done otherwise would have been to disobey a fundamental rule of journalism, which is to tell a story and stick to it. The narratives of journalism (significantly called “stories”), like those of mythology and folklore, derive their power from their firm, undeviating sympathies and antipathies. Cinderella must remain good and the stepsisters bad. “Second stepsister not so bad after all” is not a good story. Anne Stevenson had to remain bad in the scandal of Bitter Fame. Her fight with Olwyn had to be shrugged off as a falling-out among thieves—a distasteful spectacle, and nothing more.
Anne appeared defeated and ground down, and there seemed to me to be something peculiarly English in the atmosphere of her abjection.

* There were moments, too, when the torrent of defensive words would abate and flashes of irony would lighten the tense, heavy atmosphere of the interview. After telling me of her sense of the deep injury and injustice done her by a very unpleasant review in the TLS of her new book of poems, The Other House —a review that accused her of being envious of Sylvia Plath, and that wounded her more than all the reviews of Bitter Fame —Anne smiled and said, “But it doesn’t kill anyone to be bitterly hurt from time to time. It’s not as if I were being tortured and my nails pulled out.” She added, “But it does make me very touchy and very vulnerable,” and this touchiness and vulnerability dominated her discourse, giving it its weak and unpersuasive character. As it happened, she did not need to persuade me. I was already on her side. My narrative would be revisionist—not only because of my idealization of her as a literary artist but because of an experience of my own that paralleled hers. A short time earlier, I, too, had written an unpopular book, The Journalist and the Murderer , and I, too, had been attacked in the press. I had been there—on the helpless side of the journalist-subject equation. Now my journalist’s “objectivity” was impaired. I arranged to see Anne again, and I was pretty sure that further meetings would restore her image to the privileged place it had occupied in my imagination for so many years. But I took careful note of the bad impression she made on me at our first encounter. I felt there was something here that illustrated a problem of biography—the problem of how to write about people who can no longer change their contemporaries’ perception of them, who are discovered frozen in certain unnatural or unpleasant attitudes, like characters in tableaux vivants or people in snapshots with their mouths open. As a journalist dealing with a live subject, I had an advantage over the biographer dealing with a dead one: I could go back to Anne again (and again and again and again, if necessary) to draw my portrait of her. I could get her to move, to let her arm drop, to close her mouth. I could actually ask her the questions the biographer only wishes he could ask his subject. The journalist’s subject, for his part, is aware of the advantage of not being dead, and glad of the opportunity for further sittings.

* At the end of Borges’s story “The Aleph,” the narrator goes to the cellar of a house, where he has the experience of encountering everything in the world. He all at once sees all places from all angles: “I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet…. I saw the circulation of my own dark blood.” Writer’s block derives from the mad ambition to enter that cellar; the fluent writer is content to stay in the close attic of partial expression, to say what is “running through his mind,” and to accept that it may not—cannot—be wholly true, to risk that it will be misunderstood. I, too, have spent days fruitlessly hanging around the door to that forbidden cellar. I have looked at my revisionist narrative and found it wanting. I have found every other narrative wanting. How can one see all the ants on the planet when one is wearing the blinders of narrative?

* Anne then told the horrifying story of Assia Wevill’s death. Wevill was the preternaturally beautiful and sexually magnetic woman who precipitated the Plath-Hughes breakup. In 1967, she had a child by Hughes, a girl named Shura, and, in 1969, in a bizarre gesture of imitation, she, too, gassed herself—adding the new twist of gassing the little girl as well.

* “Facts as such are relatively easy to come by in a society where growing complexity has spawned a growing network of official institutions,” he wrote in the introduction to his anthology. “Schools, libraries, newspaper files, governmental agencies, and the like are there for the plundering, as every credit house and FBI investigator well knows, and the laziest of biographers can still construct a reasonable collage from the bits and pieces resurrected from these bureaucratic mausoleums.” Butscher was anything but lazy, and his collage of Plath’s short life is a dense and detailed one. In fact, it bears a striking resemblance to the collages produced by later biographers, who could consult the published and unpublished letters and journals and, in the case of Anne Stevenson, had the cooperation of the Plath estate. The traces we leave of ourselves are evidently so deep that every investigator will stumble upon them. If the door to one room of secrets is closed, others are open and beckoning. There is a law of human nature—let us call it the Confidant’s Law—that dictates that no secret is ever told to only one person; there is always at least one other person to whom we feel compelled to spill the beans. Thus, Butscher, who did not have access to Plath’s letter telling her mother of her quarrel with Olwyn in Yorkshire, was able to get “the grim details” (as he calls them) from another source—Elizabeth Sigmund, to whom Plath had also told the story. But it isn’t only our secrets that survive us; evidently, every cup of coffee we ever drank, every hamburger we ever ate, every boy we ever kissed has been inscribed on someone’s memory and lies in impatient readiness for the biographer’s retrieval. In an almost uncanny way, Butscher’s diligent soundings of Plath’s teachers, friends, lovers, and colleagues in America and England brought forth a world that paralleled the world reflected in Letters Home and The Journals. The dates, the college weekends, the scenes of necking and petting, and the rows that were recorded by Plath are here recorded from the other side, but in the same intimate detail and with the same authority; the witness, as he blabs to the biographer, is himself like a person writing in his journal or to his mother, without shame, without inhibition, sometimes almost without thought.

* During our meeting, her manner was engaging—neither too friendly nor too distant—and on a scale of how people should conduct themselves with journalists I would give her a score of 99. She understood the nature of the transaction—that it was a transaction—and had carefully worked out for herself exactly how much she had to give in order to receive the benefit of the interview. In most interviews, both subject and interviewer give more than is necessary. They are always being seduced and distracted by the encounter’s outward resemblance to an ordinary friendly meeting. The meal that is often thrown around it like a cloth, to soften the edges; the habits of chat and banter; the conversational reflexes, whereby questions are obediently answered and silences too quickly filled—all these inexorably pull the interlocutors away from their respective desires and goals. However, Rose never—or almost never—forgot, or let me forget, that we were not two women having a friendly conversation over a cup of tea and a box of biscuits but participants in a special, artificial exercise of subtle influence and counterinfluence, with an implicit antagonistic tendency.

* The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which (in the name of “uncertainty” and “anxiety”) she presents her case against the Hugheses. In the “Archive” chapter, her accusations against Hughes for his “editing, controlling, and censoring” reach an apogee of harshness. If it had truly been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fair-mindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

Rose is the libber in whom the Hugheses finally met their match, who could not be contemptuously dismissed, who was a serious and worthy opponent. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath she speaks for the dead poet and against Hughes in a way no other writer has done. She objects not only to Hughes’s suppressions in the journals and letters but to his presentation of Plath as a high-art poet and of Ariel as the tiny nugget of gold extracted from the ore of a painfully misdirected writing life. Rose rejects the distinction between high and low art, good and bad writing, “true” and “false” selves on which the Hughes view is posited. To Rose, the stories written for the “slicks” (as Plath described them to her mother) are no less worthy of examination than the Ariel poems. For Rose, there are no “waste products.” All Plath’s writings are precious to her; all the genres she wrote in, all the voices she assumed—and all the voices buzzing around her since her death—are welcomed into Rose’s bazaar of postmodernist consciousness.
The Haunting of Sylvia Plath is a brilliant achievement. The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes. One is dazzled, excited, somewhat intimidated.

* IN her memoir of Plath at Cambridge, Jane Baltzell Kopp (the girl who made fan of Plath’s Samsonite luggage) reported an incident that falls rather short of its intended effect. Kopp writes of being astonished by Plath’s white fury on discovering that five books she had lent Kopp had been returned to her with Kopp’s pencilled marks added to Plath’s inked underlinings. Kopp seems oblivious of the offense she committed in writing in a borrowed book; she quotes Plath’s “Jane, how could you?” as if it were a peculiar reaction. Plath, on the other hand, thought Kopp’s act outrageous enough to mention in a letter to her mother and in a subsequent journal entry: “I was furious, feeling my children had been raped, or beaten, by an alien.” Biography can be likened to a book that has been scribbled in by an alien. After we die, our story passes into the hands of strangers. The biographer feels himself to be not a borrower but a new owner, who can mark and underline as he pleases. Kopp makes the point that it was Plath’s own dark underlinings that “emboldened” her to make her “few pencil marks.” (In Plath’s version, Kopp wrote “all over” the five books.) Writers on Plath have felt (consciously or unconsciously) something of the same sense of permission, as if they had been given the right to act boldly, even wildly, where ordinarily they would be cautious and tread delicately. In Plath’s “cathartic blowup” (as she described it in her journal), she brought Kopp to her knees, shaming her into cleaning up the pencil marks. Hughes’s distress over the mess the various new owners have made of the book that he once jointly owned with Plath—but which her death and fame, and his own fame, have ruthlessly taken from him—is understandable, but his efforts to get them to clean up their marks have brought him only grief; he is no longer in possession, he has no say in the matter.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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