Row over Sylvia Plath’s ‘explosive’ letters

Unheard: The private letters from 1960–63 have been “completely off the radar” until now.

The writer’s marriage to the poet Ted Hughes has always fascinated her readers. Now, letters have surfaced in which she accuses him of domestic violence. Do we have a right to read them?

When the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath met Ted Hughes at Cambridge University in 1956, she bit his cheek until it bled. They married 16 weeks later, had two children, one miscarriage, and a bitter separation in 1962 after she discovered that he was having an affair. She committed suicide in February 1963.

They are two of the most famous poets of the 20th century; their relationship one the most infamous.

Now, nine unseen letters from the final years of her life have emerged. They were written to her former therapist and friend, Ruth Barnhouse, between February 18th 1960 and February 4th 1963 — a week before she died. They have not yet been published, and form part of an archive which also includes medical records and interviews with Barnhouse.

It was put up for sale for £695,000 by an “antiquarian bookseller” — and headlines were made around the world when it was revealed that the letters contain descriptions of domestic abuse. In one, Plath says that Hughes beat her two days before her miscarriage. She also says that he wanted her dead.

Peter K. Steinberg, who is editing a collection of her letters, called them a “tantalising” window into an unseen part of her life. But it may be a long time before he reads them; the sale has been postponed due to a lawsuit over their ownership.

There are other objections too. Yesterday Hughes’ widow said that Plath’s accusations were as “absurd as they are shocking”, adding: “Private correspondence between patient and psychiatrist is surely one of the most confidential imaginable.”

In the past, the couple’s daughter Frieda has spoken out against people’s obsession with her parents’ private lives. She feels as though they have been “a bit stolen” from her by outsiders dissecting their relationship.

But academics say that the letters will “shed new light” on Plath’s life and poetry. Should they be published?

“I am. I am. I am.”

Of course, say some. It has been over 50 years since Plath died, and it is normal to publish the private letters of famous writers once they are gone. They offer a context to the work which academics and fans find extremely helpful. Where would we be without the correspondence of writers like Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen? Plath’s words are in the public domain; they should not be silenced.

That is horribly invasive, others protest. There is a difference between the words Plath intended for publication, and the words she wrote to a therapist at one of the darkest periods of her life. Why should strangers have the right to peer into her struggles with mental illness? If we want to understand her life, we should read the beautiful poetry she wrote about it. Anything else does not belong to us.

You Decide

  1. Would you be happy for a stranger to read your diaries and private messages to friends after you died?
  2. Should Sylvia Plath’s letters be published?

Activities

  1. Class debate: “A writer’s life is irrelevant to the literature they produce.”
  2. Listen to Plath reading her poem “Lady Lazarus” (found under Become An Expert). Write your own poem which begins with the same opening line: “I have done it again.”

Some People Say...

“Dying is an art, like everything else.”

Sylvia Plath

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath separated in September 1962. She and their two children moved to London in December, where they lived until she killed herself on February 11th 1963.
What do we not know?
A lot — including why Plath decided to end her own life. Nor do we know if the allegations against Hughes are true, although both often included violent imagery in their poetry.
What do people believe?
Many of Plath’s fans have accused Hughes of being responsible for her death; his poetry readings were often interrupted by cries of “murderer”. In one of his final poetry collections, Birthday Letters, Hughes blamed the death on her place in the public eye. “Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes / You will have paid for it with your happiness / Your husband and your life.”

Word Watch

Sylvia Plath
Born in Boston, Mass. (USA), in 1932, Plath began writing poetry aged eight. She struggled with depression for most of her life.
Ted Hughes
Britain’s poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998. Speculation about his role in Plath’s death has always caused controversy.
Ruth Barnhouse
Plath’s therapist after her first suicide attempt in 1953, aged 20. The incident inspired Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar.
Archive
The collection was put together by the scholar Harriet Rosenstein, who was writing a biography of Plath after her death. (It was never published.)
Unseen
Although Plath kept journals throughout her life, Hughes said the final volumes were lost after her death. He admitted destroying the last journal to protect their children.
Lawsuit
Smith College, where Plath went to university, claims that it was bequeathed the letters by Barnhouse. Rosenstein (see above) says that Barnhouse gave them to her.
Correspondence
The letters of both writers now form an important part of their work, and shed light on their attitudes to writing as well as their personal lives.