In recent weeks a new collection of Plath material was advertised for sale, owned by Harriet Rosenstein, an early Plath biographer. The archive consists of Rosenstein’s research notes, recordings of people she interviewed for her book, and unseen photographs of Plath (provenance as yet unknown). However, other material included in the sale were the coroner’s report from Plath’s inquest, medical notes from Plath’s stay in McLean Hospital after her first suicide attempt in 1953, and letters written to her therapist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, between the years 1960 – 1963. The hospital notes were stolen by Beuscher from McLean who eventually handed them onto Rosenstein.
In recent days the British media have picked up on some of the content of these letters (which were previously thought destroyed), namely allegations of domestic abuse by Ted Hughes. Some articles link one instance of this happening to just two days before Plath miscarried their child in 1961. There are so many issues to consider here that it leaves one a little bewildered.
However, what this media attention has highlighted, yet again, is the extent to which Plath is a cultural figure who unnerves and challenges. There are issues about conflict, access, and privacy. Should somebody be allowed to sell hospital notes that were stolen? Should readers be able to access the private correspondence between a therapist and her patient? Do the dead have any rights at all? What consideration do we have to give to surviving family members and those drawn into Plath’s story? How soon is too soon to publish personal letters and journals? Should they even be published at all? These are ethical questions that constantly trouble scholars and readers of Plath, and there are no easy answers.
Perhaps first of all it may be helpful to unpack the media framing of this new material which has certainly inflamed the situation. Knowledge that there was physical violence in the Plath/Hughes marriage is not new at all. In fact it is already there in her published journals, mostly graphically when she describes a fight on her last day teaching at Smith College in 1958 (pages 386-392). But also prior to the marriage too after a night spent together in London in March 1956 (p. 552). For those of us who have been privileged enough to work in the archives there is more evidence. The University of Maryland holds the papers of Plath’s American editor Fran McCullough. In her notes she recounts a visit to Devon in the mid-1970s when she found herself showing Ted Hughes a manuscript of Letters Home and observing his reaction to reading it. According to McCullough, he left the room, upset, and then later drove her out for dinner and made the claim that Plath had a ‘demonic side’ like ‘black electricity’ that would explode. McCullough writes: “He said he used to try slapping her out of her rages but it was no good. And once she turned into his slap and got a black eye and went to Drs and told him that Ted beat her regularly. But then as it began to heal she decided it looked dramatic and began to mascara the other eye to match.” There is a lot of information to unravel here, but what we do have is a direct admission from Hughes that he hit Plath and then his subsequent justification and negotiation about how he dealt with that (for example, blaming Plath herself for ‘turning’ into his slap and apparently ‘liking’ the look of her black eye). While the ethical dimensions of domestic violence are straightforward (it’s wrong and unacceptable), the details of personal relationships are not. By this I do not mean to negate the power an abuser has over the person they abuse, or that the violence within the Plath/Hughes marriage did not cause Plath considerable distress. Of course it must have done. But in 1961, as today, women find themselves situated in a cultural and historical moment that does not care about them. They exist and struggle within a society and within institutions that make escaping such relationships difficult to say the least. That a man may physically abuse a woman is one demonstration of power, but it would be a lot less powerful if women found it easier to escape. Structurally nothing is on their side to walk away. In this sense testimony becomes important and women’s voices need to be heard. In 1961, Plath would have become a single parent living in a rented flat in London with no stable job or income. In 1962 when the marriage finally did break down and she was then left the single mother of two children, she was upset that the villagers in Devon speculated she had never been married in the first place because she received so much mail addressed to Sylvia Plath, not Mrs Hughes. Yet it was exactly these structures and attitudes that Plath attacked in her writing. Her journals are a long consideration of societal double standards. The Bell Jar depicts vividly and with razor-sharp commentary on what it was like to be a young woman negotiating life in 1950s America. Plath’s Ariel poems, a direct response to her disintegrating marriage, bristle with resistance to, and fury about, physical, psychological, and emotional abuse. Plath was not silent. She has never been silent, though at times she has been silenced.
This silencing has been justified in a number of ways – issues of privacy and taste, consideration for those who her words may affect. Female anger makes certain people uncomfortable. Critics refer to Plath as ‘shrill’ and ‘hysterical’ – gendered language to say the least. However, in my research, one of the overwhelming positive features that readers gain from Plath is her openness about her personal experiences. The genius of Plath is that she used this to universalise, so reading a Plath poem is not like reading a diary entry, but it is about emotions that at some stage may affect us all, situations that we may all experience. Plath is a source of strength for many of her readers. One response to this could well be, just because Plath gave us these poems, does it give us the right to read her personal correspondence? It’s a powerful question and raises many issues about access, privacy, and rights. First, the archive tells us that Plath certainly had an eye for publishing her own letters at some stage in the future. We can’t fully know which letters and how many, but the evidence is there. Second, once someone is dead, then that decision falls elsewhere. With Letters Home, it was Plath’s mother; with the first edited Journals it was Ted Hughes, and with the unabridged Journals, Plath’s children Frieda and Nicholas. The forthcoming complete Letters to be published in two volumes by Faber necessarily has the support of Frieda Hughes (she owns The Estate of Sylvia Plath, the letters could not be published without her sanction). So, as scholars and readers, can we be guided by this? If Plath’s daughter supports the publishing of her mother’s letters should we feel okay to read them? It is a slippery path to negotiate and I do not know what the answer is, or even if there is one. Readers may remain divided about this. As a researcher who has spent many weeks in Plath archives, there are times when I have felt very uncomfortable. It can feel invasive. I wonder what Plath would make of it all. I constantly unearth things that I would not dream of publishing. Some stories feel too soon, others too disruptive for people who are still alive. But they are my own ethical boundaries. Luckily, however, archives are permanent. The material is not going anywhere and so the stories can be told at any time.
As a female cultural figure, Plath troubles and agitates. This makes her powerful because she undermines those very structures that seek to put her down or silence her. When Plath is presented as just another ‘crazy woman’ she shows up societal stigma and disdain towards mental illness/health. When she is written off as a miserable, doomed, suicidal poet, she exposes all the ways in which structures, such as masculinity, patriarchy, and misogyny, try to depoliticise or write-off any female voice of resistance. That Plath ultimately killed herself does not negate any of her power. We cannot judge a life lived on a decision she made in her final day(s). That is unfair and does her a great disservice. But we can listen to her – and that is not always easy. What voice should we listen to? What voice of hers do we have a right to listen to? In some ways it feels like a mire of sticky ethical quicksand, but that is no reason to back away from it. For therein lies the beauty of Plath – she forces us to face up to these issues, unflinchingly. And in a world that badly needs female voices of resistance, that can be no bad thing.