Magazine article The Spectator

'The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956', by Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-1956', by Edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil - Review

Article excerpt

In May 1956, three months after meeting Ted Hughes, one before they will marry, Sylvia Plath writes to her mother Aurelia about the talented man she has fallen in love with: 'He will start some portraits of me! A combination of both witch and ghost, perhaps.' Because of Hughes's editing and writing of her work, a combination of witch and ghost is precisely how we know her, and he strongly encouraged the idea that the version of Plath he offered was the 'real one', a core of personality born in an inevitably fatal struggle narrated through the Ariel poems. Ariel, in his view, was her only true work. 'All her other writings, except these journals, are the waste products of its gestation,' he wrote in the introduction to his 1985 edition of her diaries, a strange classification that consigned to the slag heap both the brilliant Bell Jar and all her other diaries (conveniently including the ones he destroyed).

But before Plath killed herself and Hughes got his hands on the manuscript, Ariel was a very different collection: one of personal rebirth, yes, but specifically rebirth after the agonising dissolution of her marriage. 'My mother had described her Ariel manuscript as beginning with the word 'Love' and ending with the word 'Spring'," wrote Frieda Hughes in the introduction to the Restored Edition of Ariel, published in 2005. Gradually, as the volume of her writings available to the public has become near-exhaustive, another Plath has become visible. Neither the magnificent harpy of Ariel, nor the haunting Dido figure of Birthday Letters, and not a cypher for female suffering under male brutality or a model of madness either; but a woman entire: funny, ambitious, paradoxical, wildly clever and alive.

From her first letter, written to her father when she was seven, this volume contains much that's new. There's also repetition: Plath often related the same events multiple times to various intimates, with minimal variation. And there's a lot that builds up the texture of young female life in the mid-20th-century American middle class, but is less than fascinating in every particular: the importance of dating to her social life at Smith college is interesting in a Mass-Observation-Project way, but the detail on every boy she goes out with is legitimately skippable. (Some may feel the same about her attention to clothing styles and make-up; I don't, and wish the editors had added to their burdens by glossing some of the brands she mentions.)

She's a generous, expansive correspondent. She's also very witty. When a summer job as a live-in mother's helper turns out to involve drudging for three appalling children, the 19-year-old Plath writes to her friend Marcia B. Stern with a faux-news report about a babysitter driven to murder:

When asked what she had done to the eldest, she cried, 'I fed him down the chromium-plated disposal unit in the kitchen sink.'

Even when she mangles her leg in a skiing accident, she telegrams the news to her mother in a sharp Tennyson parody: 'BREAK BREAK BREAK ON THE COLD WHITE SLOPES OH KNEE.'

The skiing accident is one of many events here that eventually made it into The Bell Jar, along with her first suicide attempt, and an obscurely alluded-to gynaecological haemorrhage which may have been caused by a rape. …

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