Forensic Biography

Cynthia Zarin

Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, by Anne Stevenson, Harper and Row.

THERE CAN HARDLY BE a person in England or America interested in twentieth-century poetry who is not aware of at least the bare outlines of Sylvia Plath’s life and work. That the mention of her name is greeted in no corner with dispassion even now, more than twenty-five years after her suicide in London, is reason enough for a new consideration of her particular circumstances—the content of her work, and her personal genesis as a writer. And, because the general reaction to Plath has remained so curiously intemperate, with camps poised both for, and now, more fashionably, against her (Plath’s life, as the late Howard Moss once wrote, took on in the late sixties and early seventies the status of “an extra-literary event”), an objective inquiry into that phenomenon would be of interest as well. After all, Sylvia Plath died at the age of thirty with only one book, The Colossus, to her name; her short autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, was printed just a month before her death, under a pseudonym, “Victoria Lucas.” Her reputation as, in Robert Lowell’s words, “certainly not another poetess” is based on her electric, uneven collection, Ariel, which appeared posthumously, in 1966.

Unfortunately, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, by the American poet Anne Stevenson (who makes her home, as Plath did, in Britain) serves neither of these purposes. Instead it fulfills its own narrow, odd agenda: to refute the legend that Sylvia Plath was driven to her death by the cruelty of her husband, Ted Hughes, the present Poet Laureate of England. This fairy tale—which has always been nonsense—arose out of less than careful readings of Plath’s late work. In her most famous, but not her best poems, Ted Hughes and Plath’s father (who died when Plath was a child) are fused into one intractable, oppressive panzer-man. This fantasy was a correlative to the feelings some feminists were beginning to find and address in themselves at the time; that Plath’s portraits of women were also caustic in the extreme was generally ignored. Plath viewed most “literary” women as competitors (though, with the same judgment that allowed her to see the overarching talent of the young Ted Hughes in a fistful of poems printed in a fledgling review, she admired Elizabeth Bishop—who herself never allowed her work to appear in women-only anthologies); in all probability, she would have disassociated herself from those who after her death took up her plight as their own—a splinter sect of which has been responsible for defacing her grave by trying to hatchet the name “Hughes” out of the stone—very much in the way she had no patience with those girls at Smith College in the fifties who refused to observe the dress code. (She repeatedly tried to bring them up in front of the Honor Board!) The transformation of the powerful, self-destructive figure of “Lady Lazarus,” who eats men “like air,” into a passive victim is one of those sorry instances of shortsightedness that keeps real lessons from being learned.

We accept the idea that lucidity, not madness, is the ink of fluency when discussing the accomplishments of suicidal male poets.

If the strain of mental illness, integral to the cult of personality that grew up after her death, is separated out from Sylvia Plath’s life—after all, we accept the idea that lucidity, not madness, is the ink of fluency when discussing the accomplishments of suicidal male poets—the result could reveal the instruction that a generation might have gleaned from an unemotional examination of Plath’s career. But what is compelling and objectionable about this account is the lengths to which Stevenson, for reasons that to the end remain unclear, has gone simply to defame Plath’s character. Stevenson’s research and conclusions are original in no other respect. What motives Stevenson may have had in fastening on the issue of Hughes’s role in Plath’s death—which by now can hold only prurient interest for anyone not intimately connected with the Hughes family—are impossible to know, but equally peculiar is the question of why she needed to employ the simplistic logic of fairy tales: if one player is exonerated, another must be blamed. Rightly, many people feel they need to hear no more about this. But while Stevenson’s acid tale disposes of one legend, it resurrects other more dangerous ones: that industry, professionalism, and ambition (which Stevenson repeatedly caricatures as naïve, American, Emersonian ideals), even when they lead to achievement, are despicable in a woman; that womanly charm is the coin of the realm; and that to be young and artless is a crime. Since her suicide, assessments of Sylvia Plath have served as exemplars of what is currently acceptable to say about the lives of women (an exception is Linda Wagner-Martin’s unsensationalistic biography), and Bitter Fame is an especially revealing example of this revisionist genre.

Stevenson states in her preface that her goal was “to approach this extraordinary artist as I believe she herself would have asked to be approached—as a poet.” This may have been her intent, but it is surely not what she has done. For evidence of this, the reader need only examine the structure of the biography itself. At the start, in an odd author’s note, Stevenson in fact seems to disavow full responsibility for the contents of the book by stating that the cooperation of Olwyn Hughes (who by many accounts has been positively obstructive toward others interested in Plath) was so complete that the volume is practically a work “of dual authorship.” Plath’s relationship with her husband’s sister was not easy; nevertheless, Ms. Hughes has helped to administer Plath’s estate. (When the reader first encounters the author’s note, it seems a polite effort to share credit; by the end of the book, it comes off as another attempt to fix blame.) In addition, Stevenson was aided in her research by memoirs written by three persons: Lucas Myers, Dido Merwin, and Richard Murphy. These accounts, apparently unedited—and, one hesitates to say, unexpurgated—form a fifty-page appendix and are also quoted, redundantly and at length, in the text. There are scant references to Plath’s work in these essays, although Dido Merwin does reveal that she is the subject of the poem “Face Lift.” Dido Merwin’s cattiness, especially in her poison pen letter “Vessel of Wrath,” is extreme. (Merwin, who was once married to the poet W. S. Merwin, is the godmother of Plath’s first child, but this relationship does not seem to have restrained her.) The essays give the biography an amateurish feel and should not have been published. Ted Hughes obliged Stevenson only as far as checking her manuscript for factual errors and supplying an itinerary for a cross-country trip he took with Plath in 1959. He adds: “That leaves the main bulk of the book to other people’s reports, opinions, and interpretations, for which I take no responsibility.” Stevenson decided to leave Plath’s American family “in peace,” and to avoid “repetitious” interviews with those who have already published memoirs or spoken extensively about Plath to others. The result of this decorum on Stevenson’s part is that the biography is a work of questionable objectivity. Turning finally to the central text, one is startled to discover that in a volume of 358 pages, the purpose of which is to discuss Plath as a poet, only sixteen pages deal with the first seventeen years of Plath’s life, the period that must be considered seminal in her development as a writer. For throughout her life, Plath’s early experience exerted a gravitational pull, and the antetypes for the saturnine images and steady rhythms of her late poems can be found there.

Sylvia Plath was born in the autumn of 1932, in Winthrop, Massachusetts, to Otto and Aurelia Plath; he was an immigrant from the German-speaking Polish corridor (although he spoke English without an accent) and she a first-generation American of Austrian extraction. Otto Plath was a professor of biology and also taught German—he met his wife when she enrolled in one of his language courses—and his book, written with his wife’s assistance, was called Bumblebees and Their Ways. He died when Plath was just nine and her brother Warren six, of diabetes mellitus, which in its last stages necessitated the amputation of his gangrenous leg. (He had resisted medical treatment because he was sure he had cancer, a disease he considered a sign of character weakness.) During childhood, Sylvia Plath spent a good deal of time at the home of her maternal grandparents, the Schobers, who lived on Point Shirley in Winthrop on a street bordering the sea, first because of her father’s work, which demanded quiet, and then because of the exigencies of his illness. After Otto Plath’s death, the entire family moved to a modest house in Wellesley, a well-to-do suburb of Boston. Mrs. Plath supported her children by teaching secretarial courses at Boston University; her father, who had lost money in small business ventures, worked as a maître d’hôtel at a country club and came home only on the weekends. Plath’s late childhood and adolescence was thus spent in a house presided over by two women, neither of whom can have been wholly contented. And her earliest memories, of Winthrop and Point Shirley, were set off in what she later described—in a fine essay called “Ocean 1212-W” (her grandparents’ Point Shirley telephone number) that she wrote for the BBC just before her death—as a “high white flying myth.” Her exuberant recall—expressed in that porpoise phrase—is clear, but those years also held an upstairs room inhabited by a dying man with an amputated leg; a fluttering of nurses; nervousness; evening half-hours in which children showed off their accomplishments to win praise from a distant father; a whirring of bees; scholarly papers, which could on no account be moved, arranged on a table; and outside, the gray beating of the sea.

It would be interesting to explore this material in some depth: for example—since Plath tried again and again to learn German—to discuss the preponderance of Germanic and Anglo-Saxon words in her later, stronger poems, in which they predominate over the highly wrought latinates that were her earlier preference, as if she had taught herself her own brand of German. But here, in the book’s first pages, Stevenson cites the BBC essay seemingly for the purpose only of pointing out that certain facts in it are not true. It was Plath’s brother, not Plath herself, who as a baby crawled straight into the ocean when put down to play on the beach; it was a neighbor, not Plath, who found a wooden monkey thrown up by the tide. The emphasis is odd at first glance, and it is the first hint in the biography—on page seven—that one of the tasks Stevenson has really set herself is to prove that Plath was at best unreliable and at worst a liar. Later one is reminded of this overliteral reading when it becomes clear that only cursory attention will be paid to the work itself, a circumstance that has the effect of trivializing the poems and undermining further Stevenson’s stated intent to approach Plath “as a poet.” (It’s enlightening to have it pointed out that in the poem “Electra on the Azalea Path,” “Azalea Path”—the walk in the cemetery nearest Otto Plath’s grave—is a pun on “Aurelia Plath,” but this is simply clever close reading, a level of analysis Stevenson hardly ever goes beyond.)

The orchestration of Stevenson’s campaign is such that even in her scant consideration of Plath’s early years the poet does not escape her derision. A rhyme that Plath, then seven years old, wrote about missing her mother—it’s used as an epigraph for the book’s first chapter—is decorated, according to Stevenson, “with a carefully coy illustration.” In high school (I speed as the pages speed), Plath’s favorite English teacher praises a poem she has written for class, and she notes in her diary: “I was overjoyed, and although I am doubtful about poetry’s effect on the little strategy of ‘popularity’ that I have been slowly building up, I am confident of admiration from Mr. C.”

By the time Plath graduates from high school, Stevenson is blackening the sketchy outlines of her drawing.

This entry can be easily read where Stevenson found it, in Aurelia Plath’s introduction to Letters Home, a collection of her daughter’s letters, from which Stevenson mined most of her information about Plath’s childhood. But what is interesting is that Stevenson abridges the entry, in her book, by omitting the last phrase, where Plath lands firmly on her feelings of affirmation and pleasure, for part of her agenda is to establish Plath, even when a girl, as coy, anxious, and calculating. (The most casual reader, though, will not miss the sad prescience in the edited version.) Startling evidence of this sort of subjective editing can be found again in the skeleton of the book. The careful ant tracks of the index are more revealing of the author’s slant than is usual. Flipping to the single longest entry—Plath, Sylvia: personal characteristics and attitudes—the reader encounters the following list, reproduced here in full (excepting the page notations):

vulnerability; rage/fury; need for perfect success; feeling of isolation; existential anxiety; egotism; mood “ricochets”; perplexities of identity; sexual attitudes … (see also Sex); vs. outer appearance; aberration noted; and wealthy lifestyles; routine/structure as necessary; political views; purging through risk; unspontaneousness; psychological blindness; exclusiveness (possessions); hysteria; athleticism; nervous mannerisms; list of commandments on; as conversationalist; programmed concentration and impatience; [Ted Hughes] on immediate “face”; quandaries about future; longing for action; self-understanding of; psychological conflicts ... (see also Conflicts); aggression/animosity; criticism rejected; dislike of being alone at night; Dido Merwin on.

Turning to the most suggestive of these entries, “mood ‘ricochets,’” and to its first reference on page thirteen, one finds the sentence: “Sylvia had a rare, infectious capacity for exultation—as great a gift for rapture as she had for misery.” Her poems aside, Plath’s own private writings, now available in her abridged journals (The Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes), which certainly would not have been made public by Plath herself, adequately illustrate, in her own words, how she swung from high enthusiasm and gaiety to black despair with pendulum-like regularity. It is telling that Stevenson has decided that only the negative aspects of Plath’s character are worth citing in the index, as if the reader, too, might need to refer only to these. By the time Plath graduates from high school, Stevenson is blackening the sketchy outlines of her drawing, noting that “Sylvia’s depression, precipitating extreme self-deprecation, was made worse by her habit of rushing her mood—whatever it was—immediately into words, pinning it down forever.” Strange that the “habit” of writing, in a girl whom Stevenson herself calls “a born writer,” should be viewed as a vice. But in the course of a few pages, not only Plath’s passion for writing but her zeal for breaking into the literary marketplace—she wanted to be a professional, not a dreamy adolescent with poetic aspirations—garners Stevenson’s scorn. In the summer after her senior year, Plath worked as a farmhand, and her report of her experience, “Rewards of a New England Summer,” was accepted by the Christian Science Monitor that September (the editor also took a poem, “Bitter Strawberries,” in August). Stevenson comments: “Clearly Sylvia was addicted already to the sugary adjectives of advertising, where calendar-pad prose was a prerequisite for success. She was prepared to suffer any number of rejections, slave any number of hours over a story or poem, if only she could place it in one of the national ‘slicks.’” Instead, a reader might feel that it shows commendable, and remarkable, stick-to-itiveness for a teenager to submit over fifty stories to a magazine, as Plath did to Seventeen, before an acceptance was forthcoming. When switching her attention to work of Plath’s that is quite free from “sugary adjectives,” Stevenson shifts her attack: “Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Sylvia was trapped in her story, condemned to telling it again and again to whoever would listen. She was indeed cursed. Desperately she struggled in the bonds of selfhood; through her writing there must be a way out!” This is the style of a True Confessions magazine story and has no place in serious biography.

In the fall, Plath entered Smith College with a scholarship endowed by Olive Higgins Prouty, the author of Stella Dallas. (That same September, Stevenson joined the freshman class at the University of Michigan, most likely also with literary dreams. It would be inappropriate to compare the lives of the writer and her subject, except that Stevenson in intermittent notes points up the similarities herself; the jacket states that Stevenson “was born two months after Sylvia Plath,” and “Like her, she was raised in the United States” and now lives in Britain.) Plath excelled in her course work and enjoyed a growing reputation as a campus writer. By her sophomore year, she was sending off poems and zippy general-interest stories to magazines, and two stories had appeared in Seventeen; in her junior year, she won a guest editorship at Mademoiselle. Both her letters to her mother and her published journals show a young woman striving for success, who is easily thrown off balance but who bounces back, still confronted with the conundrum of her high-school days: how to succeed academically without scaring off young men. (Soon that problem includes the mystery of sexual mores.) While collating the information given by the letters and journals (including a few unpublished letters now in the Lilly Library), Stevenson stops once in a while to note this old riddle of adolescence but offers no further examination of it. (Plath was involved with a boy who became a medical student. Although the experience Plath had visiting the hospital operating rooms and laboratories with him one afternoon is duly recorded, Stevenson offers no insight into why this occasion affected Plath so profoundly; she makes no effort to connect it with Plath’s childhood experience of illness and death, and barely remarks about the relationship between Plath’s encounter with hospital waste and the surfeit of such imagery in her later work.) In the winter of 1953 Plath broke her leg skiing; in the late spring, she had a demoralizing month in New York at the Mademoiselle offices. (These events, and the following incident, were recorded ten years later in The Bell Jar.) Plath returned home to Wellesley to learn that she had not been accepted in Frank O’Connor’s writing class at the Harvard Summer School. “It was the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs,” reads the first sentence of The Bell Jar. She tried without success to learn shorthand from her mother. She couldn’t write, couldn’t sleep. After a week or two, she went to the beach and tried to drown herself, but her heart beat “I am, I am.” She gashed her leg with a razor blade. Her mother called in the family doctor, who recommended a psychiatrist whose manner Plath disliked; he sent her for a series of what turned out to be barbarically administered electroconvulsive shock treatments. Another psychiatrist prescribed sleeping pills. On 24 August she broke open the locked box where her mother kept the pills, crawled behind some rotting logs in the cellar and swallowed the contents of the bottle. She was found two days later by her brother, who heard moans coming from the basement. Recording this incident, Stevenson quotes from Plath’s account of taking the pills in The Bell Jar:

The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.

Stevenson finds herself moved to remark, “Not to be defeated, Sylvia had ‘drowned’ after all.” After her suicide attempt, Plath spent several months recuperating, first in the locked psychiatric ward in Framingham Hospital, then at Massachusetts General, and finally at McLean Hospital, the psychiatric hospital in Belmont to which Robert Lowell later made periodic visits. Her care was paid for by her benefactress, Mrs. Prouty. Her first series of shock treatments appears again and again in her work: a short list includes “Who,” “Elm,” “Poem for a Birthday,” and “Hanging Man.” Stevenson mentions the image of shock treatment in “Birthday”; her analysis of the “six stunning lines” of “Hanging Man” is simply to say that it “rehearsed . . . her old theme of suicide and electroconvulsive therapy.” Nowhere does Stevenson explore Plath’s identification with the Rosenbergs, except, on page 41, to note that Plath wrote nothing in her journal in June 1953 (seven weeks before her suicide attempt) besides “a significant entry” on their electrocution.

Plath returned to Smith for the spring semester of 1954, without a scholarship. (Mrs. Plath cashed in an insurance policy to pay the tuition, so that Plath, she writes, “would be free from any sense of obligation” to the college); nevertheless, in April Smith demonstrated its faith in Plath by voting her the largest scholarship award ever given to an undergraduate, to be used the following year. (Later, Smith showed similar confidence by inviting Plath to teach in the English department after she earned her Cambridge degree.) But Stevenson has caustic remarks ready about Plath’s senior-year achievements as well. On Plath’s honors thesis on the double in Dostoevsky, which was very well received, Stevenson comments: “Unfortunately, Sylvia adopted . . . the wooden, academic style approved by her supervisor.” One cannot help but wonder whether adopting a style not approved by her supervisor would have been appropriate for the task at hand.

In the preceding chapters, Plath’s enthusiasms were played down in favor of her dark moods; now she is chastised for her lack of affectation.

That year, in a class taught by Alfred Kazin, Plath wrote a number of stories; Stevenson chooses to discuss her prose output in the fall term in this manner: “Typically, she also turned out some sentimental popular fiction to submit for a Christopher Prize and went in for the Vogue Prix de Paris, a competition for college seniors” (my italics). In the spring, Plath wrote poems for her independent study with Alfred Fisher; Stevenson complains that Fisher “seems to have approved her tight, eclectic style: the contrived stanzas, the Dylan Thomas-like locution, the endless villanelles." The result of this—to Stevenson—unseemly output: Plath’s poems were published in the Atlantic, Harper’s, and Mademoiselle; she won the Academy of American Poets Prize; tied for first place in the Mount Holyoke Glascock Poetry contest (the judges were Marianne Moore, John Ciardi, and Wallace Fowlie); and won Smith’s Ethel Olin Corbin prize for a sonnet. In all, her remuneration for her prizes, awards, articles, and publications came to $470—”plus much joy!” Plath wrote to her mother—a prodigious amount in 1954. The sum included one hundred dollars for the Christopher Prize and twenty-five dollars from Vogue. In addition, Plath won a Fulbright award for a year of study at Cambridge. Stevenson cavils at the last honor, earned through hard work, and turns it into yet another instance of Plath’s heartless egotism: Mrs. Plath is in the hospital when Plath finds out about the Fulbright; Aurelia has to be wheeled to the telephone to hear the news “from Sivvy’s own lips.”

The scene switches to Cambridge, and the attacks on Plath’s industry and achievements—lashings that have far-reaching, insidious implications—enjamb: now Stevenson criticizes Plath simply for being an American. In the preceding chapters, Plath’s enthusiasms were played down in favor of her dark moods; now she is chastised for her lack of affectation. Her clothes are branded as “archetypal American college clothes”; she has a “twangy American accent”; a friend is surprised by “Sylvia’s bumptious insensitivity to the kind of behavior the British found ridiculous” (Stevenson is mocking Plath for asking a bobby for directions to a “picturesque and collegiate” restaurant). During a trip to the Continent she meets an Italian journalist; “in her naive American way” she borrows a map and accepts a dinner invitation from him. Worse still, she accepts his offer to lend her his typewriter. This sort of snobbishness might be barely excusable in a British author; one would expect more sympathy from a fellow American. (This lack of sympathy on Stevenson’s part raises questions as to her motives in choosing her subject, the answers to which are impossible to guess.) And it is hard to tell exactly who Stevenson imagined as her audience for Bitter Fame. In a biography of an American poet, by an American, published by an American firm, why should the expression “sophomore year’’ need to be explained? But if the English were so critical of Plath, it is perhaps not as surprising as Stevenson owlishly claims that Plath found few friends among the British girls she encountered (most of whom were three years younger than she), “although around the time Sylvia was at Cambridge, Hilary Bailey (whom she met), Margaret Drabble, A. S. Byatt, and Joan Bakewell were all there.” Unfortunately, this line of attack requires questionable elision. Ostensibly quoting a published letter, Stevenson states that Plath “took an instant dislike to ‘the ubiquitous, fair-skinned, rather hysterical and breathless . . . English girl[s].’” The letter to her mother actually describes a single girl (the occasion is an afternoon of music in a male friend’s rooms):

The other girl, Elizabeth somebody, was British and had just come in from “beagling” (hunting animals with beagles, I think) and was the kind of fair-skinned, rather hysterical and breathless type of English girl I’ve met so far.

Plath’s qualifiers, “kind of” and “met so far,” mute any “instant dislike” of the sort the author reports. A more sympathetic biographer might read in that parenthetical explanation of beagling the unease of a young woman who is not sure she’ll catch on or be accepted in a new culture (an insecurity that was well founded, as Stevenson inadvertently illustrates). Stevenson imagines that at the party at which Plath met Ted Hughes, Hughes “must have been taken aback by this energetic, extremely excited, very drunk American girl who could quote his poems verbatim.” (Taken aback he very well might have been, but he fell in love with and married her.) Lucas Myers remembers his fear, in 1956, that Plath might pull his good friend Ted Hughes into “a struggle for income, shoes, tableware, functioning appliances,” and, the litany of horrors spiraling, “perhaps into the American Literature Establishment, a shallow sea hostile to his happiness.” Later, according to Stevenson, even the cake Plath and her mother bake during a visit to Hepstonstall, the Hughes family house, is “a big American cream cake.”

What makes all this more confusing and peculiar is Stevenson’s recurring strain of apologia combined with ill-considered, unexamined collation. In the midst of the above citations, Stevenson notes that Myers also comments “perceptively” that “[Hughes] was not put off by the unselfconscious expression of qualities which made her well-disposed English friends uncomfortable and gave the ill-disposed an opportunity to condescend.” Stevenson has so clearly put herself in league with the latter group that one is left in the dark as to what the reader is to make of this. Myers is the source of another anecdote, also oddly interpreted. Plath visits Myers in his rooms in the late winter of 1955 (by invitation); Stevenson, referring to Myers’s description of this long-ago supper, which is given in full in the appendix, repeats that Myers disapproved of Plath’s “way of talking of Wallace Stevens in one breath and Mademoiselle in the next,” and that Plath, again according to Stevenson, was “sublimely unaware of his misgivings” about her. But then, in the next paragraph, Stevenson notes that at around this time Plath wrote in her unpublished journal (now in the Smith College library), that she’s afraid another young man may have been put off by her “emotional, irresponsible gushing.” In a footnote on the same page, again citing the unpublished journals, Stevenson writes that “elsewhere she speaks of ‘My absurd overflowing enthusiasms. They are absurd, and I am acting—because I feel peculiar.’” Judging from these entries, and many others in the published journals, I would venture to say that there were few instances in which Plath was “sublimely unaware” of her own behavior.

After she married, Plath returned to Cambridge to finish her degree, and then she and Hughes went to the United States, where Plath took up a teaching position at Smith College. She disliked teaching (Stevenson says that Plath was a “brilliant” teacher but regrettably gives no documentation whatsoever for her statement), as did Hughes, who taught at a boys’ school. They quickly decided to try to support themselves on their writing alone, and the following year they took an apartment in Boston, trying to meet that challenge. Plath set to work on some of the poems that were later collected in The Colossus. (The manuscript was finally accepted by Heinemann in 1960, “after countless weedings and reweedings,” she wrote to her mother from England when that good news came, during which she had become “hardened to rejection.”) She kept a steady flow of their work in the mail to editors of American and British magazines. Already her diligence on Hughes’s behalf had resulted in publication; his first book, The Hawk in the Rain, which Plath typed and submitted, won the Harper Contest in 1957—the judges were Marianne Moore, Stephen Spender, and W. H. Auden. On 25 June 1959 she tasted her own success, her first acceptance in the New Yorker, a publication she had described as “one of her unclimbed Annapurnas,” of not one but two poems, “Mussel Hunter at Rock Harbor” and “Hardcastle Crags.” She recorded her exultation in her journal: seeing the mailman go up the walk “of the millionairess next door,” Plath went to her own mailbox, found a New Yorker envelope, and tore it open “right there on the steps, over mammoth marshmallow Mrs. Whalen [a neighbor] sitting in the green yard, with her two pale artificially cute little boys in their swimsuits jumping in and out of the rubber circular portable swimming pool and bouncing a gaudy striped ball.”

Stevenson’s analysis here is that this entry is “characteristic” of Plath: “Transported with joy over her success, Sylvia could not resist a gratuitous dig at Mrs. Whalen . . . or forget that there was a millionairess next door.” Another reader would find that what is “characteristic” here is Plath’s agile talent for creating a psychologically evocative scene, rather than deciding, as Stevenson implies, that Plath is being a “bad girl” by not writing “I am so happy the New Yorker took two of my poems.” (Plath had a gift for the quick study. Later in that difficult Boston year—during which she worked at McLean Hospital, transcribing patients’ dreams; sat in on Robert Lowell’s poetry class at Boston University, where she met Anne Sexton; and resumed psychotherapy—she describes herself at a literary gathering as “feverish in lavender tweed.”) In 1958 Plath and Hughes decided to return to England to live. That summer they took a cross-country trip by car; returning east, they spent two months at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Plath wrote a third of The Colossus. By late November they were in London, searching for a flat and awaiting the birth of their first child. Frieda Rebecca Hughes was born in January 1959; her brother Nicholas two years later.

Here the published journals end. Ted Hughes writes in his introduction to the Dial Press edition that the published version represents a third of the whole bulk, now in the Neilson Library at Smith. Of the remainder, recounting the years from 1959 up to her death, one volume, he says, “disappeared,” and the other he destroyed, because he “did not want her children to read it.” What is strange, however, is how little original research Stevenson felt was necessary to advance her cause: in the notes to Bitter Fame, there are only fourteen references to the unpublished journals and over 250 to the published selection; just these numbers make clear that Stevenson’s history of Plath’s life up to late 1959 is ground already covered. The only justification for going over this territory once more is to establish her interpretation of those years, which she uses to back up her conclusions about the period for which the journals are unavailable. All that remains from that time are some prose sketches Plath made of her neighbors and the notes she jotted down while in the hospital for an appendectomy. (Strangely, since Stevenson is usually on the lookout for literary white lies, she later accepts without comment that a woman in Plath’s ward, in plaster from head to foot—one of Plath’s recurring images—is the wife of an entomologist.) But the letters have survived, and from them it is possible to put together the circumstances and even some of the tenor of that time. Stevenson is of little help, for it soon becomes obvious that her third criticism of Plath, which has been inching forward in the text and snagging every bit of pleasing debris as it goes along, is that Plath often wasn’t very nice. She blew up, for instance, at a girl who borrowed her books and underlined them—the same girl who locked her out of her own room in a Paris hotel, so that she had to sleep on a rug in the concierge’s office. She was impolite to a pen pal who, after a “traumatic breakup” with a girl in Chicago, drove without warning all the way to Wellesley, and who, when Plath spurned him, had the wit to drive all the way to New York, pick up a girl, and then drive back to Chicago. (I mention this last episode because this man, Ed Cohen, still rankling, wrote a letter to the New York Times Book Review, published on 8 October 1989, that commended Anne Stevenson for her “rehabilitation of Ted Hughes” and described Plath as a “borderline personality,” one of those people “who make those closest to them angry and uncomfortable.”) That Plath was not conventionally sociable and not adept at providing social gloss is easy enough to conclude from even a cursory reading of her published work (“Lesbos,” for example, or “Dame Kindness”). Stevenson nevertheless presents this as a rare insight, indeed making it the raison d’être of her study.

The facts of the years on which Stevenson expends most of her energy are as follows. Plath and Hughes lived first in a small apartment near Primrose Hill in London with Frieda; Hughes worked in a tiny vestibule, and Plath wrote in the bedroom. Later Hughes was given the use of W. S. Merwin’s study while Merwin was in France; he used it in the morning and Plath took it over in the afternoon. Heinemann published The Colossus; Hughes’s career galloped on apace. (When A. Alvarez, then poetry editor of the Observer, came to visit, he was unaware that Mrs. Hughes was Sylvia Plath, although he had accepted a poem of hers for publication.) Finding the city cramped, in August of 1962 the family moved to Court Green, a large house in Devon. Friends came to stay, including the couple to whom they had signed over the lease of their flat, David and Assia Wevill. Plath did not find friendships easy in the village. She wrote in the morning, Hughes wrote in the afternoon, and between them they took care of the baby. She found material for poems in the surrounding landscape. (Stevenson reveals that Ted Hughes suggested that Plath write a poem about the yew tree in their garden after they watched the moon set in its branches one early morning; this exercise may be her finest poem.) She wrote about her daughter. That there were tensions in the marriage is not surprising. They were young, they were isolated in the country, they had one, then two, children; they were both, at the least, visited by real jinns. It can’t have been easy for Hughes to be married to a woman with that much ambition and drive, who was so devoted to perfectionism, and given—as many male poets have certainly been—to voicing dogmatic opinions. She wanted to be a perfect mother and devoted herself zealously to domestic projects: painting enamel flowers and hearts on the furniture; planning, if not preparing, elaborate meals. She felt dowdy in the country and feared she was becoming a hausfrau. She felt that the neighbors disliked her, and she took ordinary village inquisitiveness for spying. The Devon landscape became a stage for her psychodrama. During this last period, Hughes went down to London often to record for the BBC, always returning home, because Plath was afraid to be alone at night. It was a four-hour train trip each way. On one of these visits, Stevenson says—and there is no reason to doubt her—Hughes met up with Assia Wevill and at some point began an affair with her. On one of these daylong absences, while Plath’s mother, who was visiting, watched, “appalled,” Plath burned some papers she found in her husband’s study. On a remaining bit of uncharred paper was written “Assia,” and thus she divined the name of her rival. (This description is in Bitter Fame.)

Ted Hughes was not Plath’s hangman, but neither was language her noose.

After what must have been a stormy interlude, Hughes packed up and went to London. They agreed on a six-month trial separation (which Plath did not survive), during which Hughes went to Spain. They quarreled over money. In an apparent effort at reconciliation, they made an unsuccessful journey to Ireland, where Plath, as we can read in the appendix by Richard Murphy, “A Memoir of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on a Visit to the West of Ireland in 1962,” pressed her knee against her host’s under the table. Things were easy enough between Plath and Hughes by autumn that when Plath decided to move back to London with the children, Hughes went house-hunting with her. In Devon, alone, she wrote most of the poems that were later included in Ariel (Stevenson should be commended for correcting the impression, with the help of Olwyn Hughes, that Plath wrote those last poems in London). In London, she came upon a flat to rent at 23 Fitzroy Road: “And guess what,” she wrote to her mother, “it is W. B. Yeats’ house—with a blue plaque over the door, saying he lived there!” In the same October letter, she mentions her “complete lack of jealousy or sorrow,” but even a casual reader would find that claim belied when, a few paragraphs later, she comments that “[Ted’s girlfriend] has only her high-paid ad agency job, her vanity . . . and everybody wants to be a writer.” She moved into the flat, which had no telephone, and did not get one while she lived there. Hughes came three times or more each week and saw the children. All this is straightforward. It was an extremely cold winter. The children, aged one and three, had colds. Plath became more and more distraught at her predicament; what she had imagined as a glamorous new life in London wasn’t working out that way. Hughes was living in a flat belonging to Dido Merwin’s mother, and Plath imagined that their mutual friends had gone over to his side. She felt humiliated and betrayed. Whether or not she brought it on herself is open to question; no matter what the genesis of her predicament, she was now extraordinarily unhappy. On the last weekend of her life, after her doctor, to whom she had finally told the story of her suicide attempt ten years earlier, could not find her a hospital bed, she went to stay with her friends the Beckers, who were worried about her. When Plath sent Jillian Becker back to her flat with a list of necessities for her and the children, she wistfully included her new cocktail dress. Sunday night or early Monday morning, back in Yeats’s house, to which she had insisted on going, she gassed herself in the kitchen.

What is a writer—a woman and an American—to make of this biography? Stevenson has fleshed out the last two years of Plath’s life with juicy stories about Plath’s obstreperousness, her social misdemeanors, and her intolerance. Lucas Myers comes to dinner when Plath is eight months pregnant with Frieda; he and Hughes go out for beer and don’t return for forty-five minutes, although supper is nearly ready, and find Plath angry when they return. Stevenson asks, “Was Ted to be confined to quarters indefinitely?” Olwyn Hughes contributes tales of Plath’s antics at Hepstonstall; Stevenson makes hay out of Ms. Hughes’s story that Plath appropriated her bathrobe; once, after Olwyn Hughes chastised Plath for being so critical of others in conversation, Plath stomped upstairs and convinced her husband, Olwyn’s brother, to leave the next morning. (Ms. Hughes states that she had forgotten that one “never criticized Sylvia’’ and tempers her stories with a tone of regret; the venom is Stevenson’s). Dido Merwin recalls that Plath took “my godchild, Frieda Rebecca Hughes” (my italics) to a ban-the-bomb march when the baby was just two weeks old, and that when the Hugheses visited the Merwins in France, Plath sulked, didn’t want her husband out of her sight, and ate a lunch Mrs. Merwin had intended for three people. We learn that Plath was possessive about her belongings and preternaturally tidy (her reaction to the underlining of her books is treated as outrageous). Stevenson describes W. S. Merwin as being “indignant that a poet of Ted’s quality” work in a vestibule—although he says he liked it—and so Merwin loaned him his study (her account is based on Dido Merwin’s “Vessel of Wrath”). Dido Merwin implies, and Stevenson does not offer any other view, that it was pretentious for Plath to imagine, even with her husband’s support, that she might also benefit from the use of a private work place for part of the day. What else does Stevenson tell us about Plath’s last months? Plath was rude to one of her sister-in-law’s friends but was able to be pleasant to her own; when her marriage broke up, she wrote letters in which she blamed her husband’s family for her troubles in unpleasant language; she “angled” for her mother to come live near her in Devon; her telephone calls to Dido Merwin were so abusive of Ted Hughes and so tirelessly devoted to her martyrdom that Merwin lost her temper and told her housekeeper to field Plath’s calls; and she let a cut on her finger fester. During these same months she wrote to her mother, “I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name,” and whatever one thinks of them, on both scores she was right.

This brand of tattling does not cease until the very end—in fact, Stevenson’s last word, in a footnote on the last page, points out that in a letter written to a friend of Richard Murphy two months before her death, Plath invented an eye ailment for Nicholas as part of her doomed campaign for sympathy. But for those with no personal interest in these matters, the only possible reason that the legend that Plath was driven to her death by Ted Hughes needs to be rectified is that Plath became, and for all I know still is, a romantic figure to young persons, especially women, who are trying to become writers themselves—and they should know that one does not become the kind of writer Plath “flayed” herself into being by taking on any trappings of the passive victim. If there are lessons to be learned from a study of Plath’s life, they are to be found in her successes, not her failures. The latter were brought on by mental illness, but it is her hard-won achievements and her commendable professionalism that young writers ought to emulate, and it is just those virtues that Stevenson mocks. Plath’s sense of self-worth was tied not only to conventional social success but—remarkably, for an adolescent in the 1940s—to work. It is reprehensible that Stevenson jeers at Plath’s youthful commitment to achievement, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone who racked up so many prizes at Yale or Harvard (men’s colleges, of course, in the fifties) would ever come in for similar disparagement. That very industriousness—the “endless villanelles,” the hundreds of verse exercises, the early thesaurus reading—served Plath much better than if those years had been devoted to bouts of dreamy “inspiration”: her technical ability was equal to the subject matter that, in early 1961, began to present itself to her. It has always been absurd to go on, as even serious critics have, about how Plath’s last poems made it impossible for her to continue living, as if they recorded in blood the date of her assignation with Death; what made it hard at one certain moment to face the next was illness fueled by despair. Ted Hughes was not Plath’s hangman, but neither was language her noose. On the contrary, her work, and the achievement of those last poems, held her illness—which had peaked again during a time of stress and self-doubt—at bay.

The secondary indictment of Stevenson’s volume is paradoxical and obtuse. On the one hand, Plath is taken to task for not representing her “real self” authentically but instead hiding, especially for her mother’s benefit, behind masks: first, that of the bright, nice college girl, and then that of the upbeat mother married to a genius. (As Mrs. Plath had already been around for one suicide attempt, it seems naïve to think she was taken in.) On the other hand, Stevenson has gone to great lengths to protest that Plath wasn’t that nice happy girl, as she should have been. There are numerous testimonies elsewhere to Plath’s gift for friendship and her love for her children (the subject of some of her finest lyrics), enough so that I find it possible to suggest that her hostility to those who almost thirty years later have busied themselves by remembering her with fantastic malice may have been due to a presentiment that they were not to be trusted as judges of her character and work. Was Plath’s place in the limelight so threatening, even then? What is ultimately most saddening about this portrayal is its lack of sympathy, primarily on the part of women now in their late fifties and early sixties, for a young person so profoundly desperate, in ways that it is impossible to imagine, as to have spent the early hours of a February morning in her kitchen stuffing towels around the edges of the door so that the gas would not reach her sleeping children.

While we certainly cannot know what Plath would have written if she had lived, one of her last works was a long poem written for performance on the radio. Stevenson allows that it may be “the first great poem about childbirth in the language.” I disagree, if only because I have trouble calling anything by Plath “great” rather than compelling and deeply interesting, but considering how few poems about childbirth there are, she may well be right. In any case, I would venture to say that Plath might have gone on to write plays. In a number of her last and, I think, most mature poems—”The Moon and the Yew Tree,” for example, and the bee poem sequence—her most fluent phrase is not the foot or the stanza but poetry’s sentence, the end-stopped line. Imagine the lines she might have written for those whose voices predominate in this biography.

Cynthia Zarin is the author of, most recently, Two Cities: Essays on Venice and Rome. Next Day, New and Selected Poems will be published next year.
Originally published:
November 1, 1990


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