Gordon Ames Lameyer/Courtesy The Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana

Book of the Week: The sweet, lovable, venomous and malevolent Sylvia Plath

Charlotte Grimshaw reviews a new collection of letters by Sylvia Plath – most written to her mother, whom she both loved and loathed. 

So much has been written about Sylvia Plath that reading her letters involves a continual reference beyond them, to all that’s known about her life. As I grappled with this enormous, hardcover book, a volume so heavy that it needs some kind of stand (or derrick – of which more later) to hold it up, I found myself continually cross-referencing with my own copy of Plath’s journals, in which a different version of her exists, the private Plath, whose voice sometimes rises to terrible rage, or sinks to a pitch of venom so intense it’s almost frightening.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1 is dauntingly vast, an exhaustive 1400-page archive containing every piece of correspondence Plath produced from the age of eight up until 1956. Most of the letters are addressed to her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath, to whom Plath wrote most often, confiding in minute detail her daily experiences, her emotions, her illnesses and her diet. The letters are open, affectionate, warm, chatty, and full of every possible disclosure.

Reading with Plath’s journals in mind, there’s a strong sense of separation between layers of Sylvia. We know from the outset that the happy, impulsive, affectionate young Sylvia of the letters, who writes, “Honestly, mum, I could just cry with happiness – I love this place so…”, and signs off “XXX your happy girl, Sivvy,” is also the author of the journals, and the writer who could produce her famous poem “Daddy”, the most baleful and intense piece of black rage anyone could write about a parent. (A recording of Plath reading “Daddy” can be found online and is worth listening to for anyone who hasn’t already: three minutes of hair-raising malevolence.)

Plath’s attitude to her mother was complex, to put it mildly, and awareness of the complexity colours the reading of these hundreds of mundane, cheery mother-daughter communications. It’s hard not to look for a fraying of the sunniness, some clue to tension. But there are no such clues, at least not at first, perhaps because Plath really did have different selves, discrete versions of herself.

When the brightness does fray and there’s a plunge into darkness, the anger is directed inward, and Plath damages only herself. Her loving tone, her desperate, focused eagerness, remains undimmed.

The young Sylvia reports conscientiously from school camp. “Dear Mum…” “Dearest Mummy…” “Dearest, Most Revered, Twice-Honoured Mater, Last night was a red-letter night because I got two postcards and two nice big fat letters from you…”

There’s screeds of detail about food, listing exactly what she’s eaten and how much. She’s trying to put on weight. She gorges on this and that. She writes, “Gosh I’m happy!” and in another letter, “Gosh, I felt lonely!”

She is sweet, keen, lovable. She has enthusiasms, is warm and demonstrative; she jokes and confides. Later, hundreds of pages later, she writes from Smith University in the same fervent, fond tone: newsy, breezy, intense, tireless, vulnerable.

There are letters to many different recipients, and the volume is so huge that it’s not possible to focus on all of them. Still, the most striking feature is what the letters reveal, not expressly but by implication – and only with reference to outside sources – about the bond with her mother.

There was something rotten in the relationship, completely masked in Plath’s letters and brooded over in her journals, in which she grapples with the terrible anger of the unloved. You could attribute Plath’s rage to an “unbalanced mind”, but the imbalance had to come from somewhere. People who are loved know that they are; when there’s doubt about love, it’s a reliable indication it wasn’t there.

Plath was explicit in her secret complaint: being unloved by her mother had a life-long, destructive effect. A secure self can’t develop on its own; it can only be formed by relating, and Aurelia had reflected a void back at her. In her journals, Plath accused her mother of “vampirism”, or effectively of what Henrik Ibsen called “soul murder”: a withholding of love that had deformed her.

Her fury at the fundamental wound is compounded by what she sees as the lying forces of the “powers-that-be”. What maddens her is her mother’s falseness. In the journals she rails against the familial charade that conceals her mother’s “deadliness”, even as she participates in it in the letters, and reinforces it herself. The more she conforms and behaves like a loved daughter, the angrier she becomes, until finally she takes out her rage – on herself.

In the letters, meanwhile, she goes on striving to connect. The affectionate communication continues, rising to a pitch of bright, brittle, almost hyperactive sunniness. Finally, in 1953, Plath mentions “cracking up”. In July and August 1953, she was treated by psychiatrists and given some out-patient shock treatments. On August 24, 1953, there was a terrible crash. The act of self-punishment, when it came, was highly symbolic.

Plath described her first suicide attempt in a letter to her friend Edward Cohen. Leaving a note saying she’d gone for a long walk, she descended to her mother’s basement and took an overdose of sleeping pills.

Her mother called the police and search parties were launched. She was only found on the second day, when she regained consciousness and began to cry out and bash her face against the ceiling of the crawl space. She was discovered and admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

If a house is a metaphor for the mind, the decision to die in her mother’s basement held a horrible and vengeful symbolism. Had she succeeded, the evidence would have permeated gradually upwards. What more powerful method could she have hit upon, consciously or otherwise, to convey her message?

After her suicide attempt, when her psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher gave her “permission to hate her mother”, Plath unleashed fury on Aurelia in a series of private journal entries:

“I don’t imagine time will make me love her. I can pity her: she’s had a lousy life; she doesn’t know she’s a walking vampire. But that is only pity, not love. On top she is all smarmy nice…”

“I feel her apprehension, her anger, her jealousy, her hatred. I feel no love, only the Idea of Love, and that she thinks she loves me like she should….”

“I feel cheated: I wasn’t loved but all the signs said I was loved: the world said I was loved: the powers-that-were said I was loved….”

“She’s a killer. Watch out. She’s deadly as a cobra under that shiny greengold hood…”

“Your breath stinks worse than the Undertaker’s Basement when it comes to trying to rear a soul in its perfect freedom…”

But in the letters, there’s no sign of discord. In March 1956, when her Fullbright scholarship was renewed,  she wrote, “Dearest darling beautiful saintly mother!!!” In another letter that same month, she gushed, “Dearest of mothers, if only you knew how I am forging a soul! … I am fighting, fighting, and I am making a self, in great pain, often, as for a birth, but it is right that it should be so, and I am being refined in the fires of pain and love… I hope that you understand that this is all very private, and I am sharing it with you as I would the deepest secrets of my soul, because I want you to understand that my battles are intricate and complex…”

Then she calms down: “More practically: please reassure me about the money which you said you sent.”

The letters continue until Volume 1 ends, on page 1330, in 1956: “Dearest Mummy…” “Dearest darling mother…” “Dearest lovely mother…”

But in 1958, Plath wrote in her journal, “I am experiencing a grief reaction for something I have only just begun to admit isn’t there: a mother’s love. Nothing I do (marrying, saying ‘I have a husband so I really didn’t want yours’, writing, ‘here is a book for you, it is yours, like my toidy [sic] products and you can praise and love me now’) can change her way of being with me, which I experience as a total absence of love.”

She found love – a great love – with Ted Hughes. Plath’s letters to her mother soon after she met Hughes are striking. In them she reaches such a pitch of grandiosity it’s almost possible to feel sorry for the sinister Aurelia. That Plath was brilliant, intense, wild and furious had been understood, but it’s a surprise to plough through this blast of trumpets, this pomp, this unbridled humourlessness. Could her love have involved a kind of mania?

“… I have fallen terribly in love, which can only lead to great hurt: I met the strongest man in the world, ex-Cambridge, brilliant poet whose work I loved before I met him, a large hulking healthy Adam, half French, half Irish, with a voice like the thunder of God; a singer, story-teller, lion and world wanderer and vagabond who will never stop. The times I am with him are a horror because I am then so strong & creative & happy, and his very power & brilliance & endless health & iron will to beat the world across is why I love him….”

The description is so grand (what does a voice like the thunder of God sound like?) that it’s almost consternating. She sure is head-over-heels. But the knowledge of what happened to the relationship, and to love-struck Sylvia, renders it deeply poignant too.

Trouble is in store, as she rightly notes, “The catch is that he has never thought about anything or anyone except himself and his will (but for a few men friends) and has done a kind of uncaring rip through every woman he’s ever met.”

In early 1956, Mother received this, on Ted Hughes: “He is 25 and from Yorkshire, and has done everything in the world: rose grafting, plowing, reading for movie studios, hunting, fishing, he reads horoscopes, knows Joyce, so much more than I, but all I love. He is a violent Adam, and his least gesture is like a derrick; unruly, yet creative as God speaking the world; he was a discus-thrower.”

Once he’s entered the scene in all his colossal power and manliness, Hughes doesn’t walk but “stalks” through the letters and poems; he frequently “breaks windows” with his voice, is a genius, lion, wanderer, great expert and, for some reason, keeps being mentioned in relation to “derricks.” He has hands like derricks, he gestures like a derrick…

In April 1956, Plath wrote to Aurelia, “Dearest most wonderful of mothers… Ted is incredible, Mother.” She enclosed a poem, “Complaint of the Crazed Queen”, which contains lines so rich and fruity it’s a guilty struggle not to be amused:

 

In ruck and quibble of courtfolk

this giant hulked, I tell you, on my scene

with hands like derricks,

looks fierce and black as rooks;

why, all the windows broke when he stalked in.

My dainty acres he ramped through

and used my gentle doves with manners rude;…

 

It’s hard not to pause at “my dainty acres”, at the whole poem in fact. She’s gone overboard, lost all sense of proportion. The intensity is characteristic though, and perhaps one’s mixed response is too. If you listen to Plath’s recording of the poem “Daddy”, for example, the reaction is one of thrill and horror at the menace of it, but it’s also possible, at moments, to feel a tiny quiver of hilarity, so furious and forceful and baleful is she, so utterly mordant. Perhaps the poem succeeds even more because of the ambiguity of the response it produces, and perhaps words in it that are potentially absurd, “black shoe”, “Achoo”, “gobbledygoo” are rendered terrifying and dark by the ferocity of Plath’s affect.

In many passages about Hughes especially, Plath goes madly over the top, but elsewhere her passion convinces with its sheer power, and with the poignancy of her desperation: this love must be real, this must the great thing, this Ted Hughes (giant, great poet, genius, human derrick) will meet her brilliance with an equal blazing strength. That she longed to find a person who was as intense as she was makes her an utterly sympathetic, as well as a tragic figure. She craved love, she burned and searched for it; in the end she lost it, and no one could fill the void.

She couldn’t summon the inner reserve, the one steadying, anchoring force that would have saved her. Aurelia, it seems – dearest Mother – had cheated her of that.


The Letters of Sylvia Plath: Volume 1, 1940 to 1956 edited by Karen Kukil and Peter K Steinberg (Faber, $79.99) is available at Unity Books.


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