Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

Courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers

November 12, 2018

YANDAVA | The Last Letters of Sylvia Plath

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I grew up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the same town where, in the summer of 1953, Sylvia Plath tunneled down into the crawl space of her white Colonial house on quiet, tree-lined Elmwood Road and tried to kill herself. As a teenage girl interested in writing, the legacy of Plath haunted me. A plaque in her memory hung outside the library of my high school, inscribed with a portrait of Plath and the quotation, “I write only because / There is a voice within me / That will not be still.”

Nevertheless, both Plath’s writing and life were — and still are — overshadowed by her own death. It is an aspect that simultaneously attracts and repels readers. Until the recent publication of the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, however, the only window we had into the torment of the last few months of Plath’s life were the sharp, brilliant, chilling poems of Ariel. Because this period has been endlessly picked apart by biographers, feminists and fans, it is immediately refreshing to hear it narrated in Plath’s own voice, in plain, unadorned language.

These letters express the raw desperation and hardships of a woman dealing with the heartbreaking infidelity of her husband (British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes), raising two young children alone in a strange country and struggling to put food on the table, all the while striving for literary freedom. During this period, Plath would wake every morning at 4:00 a.m. to write before her children were up.

In one letter to her former psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher, she writes, “We lived off my $2,000 nanny-grant-to-write-a-novel all this year: as soon as the last payment stopped, Ted ‘got courage’ and left me. So, no second novel, no nanny, no money. And no Ted.” To quote that famous maxim of Virginia Woolf’s, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Or anything for that matter, it seems.

Indeed, Plath’s last year demonstrates a tragic affirmation of the practical constraints on artistic creation, especially for women. In separating legally from Hughes, Plath found the law was often against her regarding finances. To her mother, she writes, “I threw everything of mine into our life without question, all my earnings, & now he is well-off, with great potential earning power, I shall be penalized for earning, or don’t earn, have to beg.” To Beuscher, “I am an unpaid nanny.”

While much has been made of separating art from artist, Plath’s last letters show just how intertwined the two are. In one letter, she writes, “I love my children, but want my own life,” while in “Ariel,” she describes the usual interruption to her daily morning writing sessions: “The child’s cry / Melts in the wall.” Just as the letters are concerned with the minutiae of childcare, bill-paying and snowstorms while showing Plath’s wonderful observational powers as a writer, her poems, too, take inspiration from the everyday: babies, “my wellingtons,” winter trees. As she sums up years earlier in a 1955 letter to her mother, “I could never be a narrow introvert writer, the way many are, for my writing depends so much on my life.”

However, these missives also suggest that people’s lives are hardly ever as simple as we want them to be, and that as much as we think we might know someone’s life from their work, this is rarely the case. In the 1970s, feminists took Plath up as a martyr for their cause, villainizing Hughes in the process. Feminists repeatedly chiseled out the name “Hughes” from Plath’s gravestone, and yet Plath herself wrote to Beuscher, “My marriage is the center of my being.”

Perhaps the real failure, then, lies with the society that acknowledges and treats the creativity of women, especially women with mental illnesses, differently than that of men, while subsequently romanticizing the struggles and tragedies they suffered. What I like most about these letters is how they strip away the myth of the scorned woman, the creative genius, and show her just as she was — a person, with fears and hopes and dreams and observations that are endearing not despite, but because of, their mundanity.

 

Ramya Yandava is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ry86@cornell.eduRamy’s Rambles runs alternating Tuesdays this semester.