I’m not ashamed to admit that, having met and been beguiled by the poetry of both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath whilst studying for that English Literature degree, I joined the ranks of the Lady Lazarus ‘peanut crunching crowd’ who read all there was to read, by and about each of them and both of them. In fact I have so many books I am a 'peanut crunching crowd' of one, the Ted & Sylvia shelves bulging with the evidence; every biography, every expose of yet another aspect of their private lives made public, every new book, until suddenly I felt sated, over-fed and slightly guilty, maybe even a little obsessed.
Dragged Bookhound along on the pilgrimage to the grave in Heptonstall (2004)...
Collected the borage seeds which have since colonised in our garden...
But I finally closed the glass doors on the cabinet and haven’t looked at the books for several years, and I doubt I will ever read those books again. Every so often I think I'll ring The Poetry Bookshop in Hay and ask if they want to buy the lot, or stack them up on eBay to go to someone else embarking on the pathway, because I doubt the public interest will ever die, but mine, in all the commentaries by others, has certainly been laid to rest. I will keep everything I have written by them, the rest can go.
So when I heard about the publication of a new volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters I wasn’t sure how enamoured I might be. Did I really want to revive the interest because I certainly didn't want to revive the obsession. Nevertheless I asked Faber very nicely if they would send a copy which they did.
In excess of 1000 pages (Sylvia was a prolific letter-writer) this is a weighty tome, and after a busy week it was Sunday morning before I had a chance to open the book.
I hadn’t really been following the news about the discovery of Sylvia Plath’s final letters to her psychologist in the months before her suicide, or the fact that documents which should have remained bound by patient confidentiality had suddenly come onto the open auction market and caused quite a furore, because the one person who deserved to read them, Sylvia and Ted’s daughter Frieda Hughes, was, for a long time, denied access to them.
It is Frieda’s courageous and very moving foreword to this volume that has somehow finally set all those years of obsessive reading and wondering into what feels like the right and best context in my mind. I have always been of the opinion (usually against the tide of public opinion) that this was a six-of-one-half-a-dozen-of the-other situations, both parties having their flaws but doing they best they could at any given time given what they had to deal with, and Frieda Hughes shares her own feelings on this...
'Whilst my father does not come out of these letters as a saint, neither does my mother; in my view, they are both flawed, impassioned human beings and I love them more for this. They both suffered, they both made mistakes, they were going through the hell that literally thousands of other couples go through every day...'
The book is huge and I will be many many months dipping in and out of these letters. I am only a few pages in and there is joy and excitement about the forthcoming wedding and setting up home. Sylvia fancies 'pale blue-gray walls and bright red & white accents in curtains, pillows, etc' to match the faded old couch they have just bought.
Browsing ahead I can see that the letters do, as Frieda elaborates, share much of the...
'goodness and generosity, and the kind of love that some of us never find in our lifetimes... There was nothing they would not do for one another; they existed to be together, and their mutual work ethic bound them even more tightly.'
I would certainly be interested to know your thoughts too, and did anyone else see the recent TV documentary, Life Inside the Bell Jar, it was on back in August
Sylvia Plath’s iconic novel The Bell Jar exploded the myth that women were content and life was sweet. It shone a light on 1950s gender politics, sexual identity and mental health at a time when women struggled to find a voice.
Life Inside The Bell Jar is the first documentary about Plath’s classic semi-autobiographical novel. In it Frieda Hughes talks about her mother in depth for the first time on camera, and has unprecedented access to people who knew Sylvia Plath, many of whom are talking publicly for the first time.
Blending beautifully shot interviews, impressionistic reconstruction, unpublished letters and photographs and a wealth of period archive that takes us back to the summer of 1953. This film is the story of an age, a person and a novel like no other.
I have decided that the Rest of the World can carry on picking over the traces but to my mind I am very happy to let Frieda Hughes have the definitive final say, the last word on all this, and I am so pleased (and grateful from my own point of view) that she has finally had the opportunity to do so. These letters made it into this volume at the very last minute and, from what I can gather, it was Frieda's decision to allow this in order to let people make up their own minds...
'...and hopefully find the kind of understanding that my mother was working towards near the end, despite the return of the 'madness' that took her away.'