Sylvia Plath Forum

Sylvia Plath Forum: messages July - November 2007

Discuss Sylvia, the film

With great sadness we have to tell the Sylvia Plath Forum that Elaine Connell died at home early Monday morning, 1st October. She had had cancer for three years and died peacefully in no pain from liver failure. We have started a memorial page on the Hebden Bridge Web which she co-founded. We will try and keep this Forum going, as David Hall has suggested (8th October)


poppies, ambulance poppies
caught in unseasonable warmth
stragglers of the stubble

an untimely October showing
buttoned black unseeing
breathe out their reminder

a present of such enormity
where bones or a button would suffice
becomes a birthday gift *

this eyeless blood flap of memory
soaks through the stopped pages
in the back-drip of the years


* See Poppies in October (27 October 1962), SP Collected Poems


SP would be 75 today. In October 1962 she turned 30 and this was a very productive time when she wrote some of her most memorable poems. I commend new readers to these poems that include Wintering, The Applicant, Daddy, Ariel and Lady Lazarus.

Little wonder that the poems of the Autumn of 1962 should be intense. SP was still living at Court Green, Devon while adjusting to the TH-Assia betrayal. She was in a state of unforgiving anger. Daddy (12 October 1932) is testimony of extreme emotion relating to both the unresolved childhood death of her father coupled with the death by adultery of TH.

At the same time her new found single life gave opportunity to develop her own poetry ambitions outside the shadow of TH, all be it in such difficult circumstances.

She came to London for a break to stay with Suzette Macebo leaving the two children with Elizabeth Compton Sigmund. Commenting on her separation from TH she emphasised her intention for a divorce. SP is quoted as saying "He's become a tailor's dummy to me". She bought new clothes, had her hair cut more fashionably and spoke excitedly to Suzette of a new life. But when SP went to bed that night she sobbed repeatedly. (Reference: Ted Hughes / The Life of a Poet, by Elaine Feinstein p135)

Any brave new front would have to deal with the relationship residue evident in poems such as A Birthday Present (30 September 1962) where SP sought a clean cut from TH - where split lives congeal and stiffen to history / let it not come by the mail, finger by finger.

It was at this time that she decided to write to David Wevill to inform him of the affair. David put his fists through the door of his flat and slashed an Italian handbag that Assia loved. TH and Assia went to Spain for 2 weeks but on their return Assia went back to patch up her marriage. David and Assia were back together by Christmas, although Assia continued to see TH. There was no such attempt at any SP-TH reconciliation. However, the relationship was not dead and there is evidence that the finger by finger was a needed finger. For example, it was only with the help of TH that SP was able to procure the flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, SP moving in permanently by 12 December (again refer to Elaine Feinstein's book).

In a post to this forum on 27 October 2001 I gave a personal perspective on the problems that SP must have faced in dealing with mental instability. Her confessional poetry is often an articulation of this on-going itch that underscored her exceptional skill with words.

Tribute to Elaine Connell

I have not contributed to the forum for some time. A recent scan alerted me to the passing of Elaine Connell. I give thanks to her years of devotion to the SP legacy. Like many who have received benefit from this forum I hope that it can continue. Thanks to those currently working to this end.

Richard Scutter
Canberra , Australia
Saturday, 27 October 2007

David -- I've already done some checking...all you have to do is Google Dr. William Brooks Rice to confirm that he was indeed a pastor in Wellesley during the relevant period and was involved in the Unitatian-Universalist merger, as Mr. Dey describes. So, I trust that much of what Mr. Dey says about knowing Sylvia in Wellesley in the early and mid-1950s is substantially true. It also seems, from his tone, that Sylvia made a strong impression on the young Richard with a sexual aggressiveness that was unusual for the place and time, and which he seems to have found off-putting and yet quite seductive. The fact that she may have been quite assertive sexually is not news to's apparent from any reading of her journals for the period.

But it seems to me that he goes on to make further claims that are harder to credit, such as I have mentioned before concerning his acquaintance with Anne Sexton and so on. I am willing to believe that he may have attended lectures by Robert Lowell in Boston in '58 or '59 but I question the extent of any acquaintance beyond that. I think he's simply mistaken about things like Sylvia having known Anne Sextion before. Other than that, there is nothing in his comments that couldn't have been gleaned from reading the biographical literature.

I think what is off-putting for most of us is his tone more than anything else, which seems to harbor some animus toward Plath and her work. Perhaps that can be traced back to the earlier period, when he was both attracted by her burgeoning sexuality and repelled by what he perceived as her unseemly aggressiveness.

Frankly, I was excited to see this first-person account from someone who was personally acquainted with Plath during her early years, even if it seems exaggerated. I wish more of her old friends, school chums and such, would offer their accounts of her. One thing that piqued my interest was his claim that she may have named her "Bell Jar" persona Esther after a young Jewish woman she had met at this Unitarian-Universalist conference. The fact that Sylvia may have been involved at all in such an undertaking is new information that adds to our fund of knowledge about her. But Mr. Dey is not very specific with his dates, which contributes to our scepticism, I think. I would be interested in knowing when Sylvia participated in this conference. I don't recall anything about this from her journals of the period.

So, I don't want to give the impression that I think Mr. Dey is making up his story out of whole cloth. We should welcome these first-person accounts, to the extent that they are true. I just wish he could be more careful with his chronology and, rather than simply venting his spleen, use the opportunity to present the community of Plath scholars and interested parties with real biographical background that may be known to him that has not been available before, or at least has not been uncovered by previous biographers.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
Saturday, 20 October 2007

I just re-read Richard Dey's long entry to The Forum and have to conclude that either (1) he really did know Sylvia, back in the day, but somehow no one who knows anything about her ever heard of him before, or (2) he's making it all up. He is impressive in his detailing of people and events -- his grandmother, for God's sake! -- so it's tempting to believe him. But something about his self-serving tone raises flags for me. My apologies if I'm being too protective of Sylvia's legacy here, and I don't mean to insult Mr. Dey, but I think his story needs more investigation. Any volunteers?

(I'm out on a limb here, so any help/support is appreciated.)

David Hall
Fort Collins, Colorado , USA
19 October 2007

I don't feel that the appellation 'bitch' need necessarily be derogatory, especially for someone with Plath's delightfully caustic eye. There are, after all, some wonderful bitches in history (Dorothy Parker, Djuna Barnes) in film (the below mentioned Margot Channing) and in literature (Ignatius J. Riley). People tend to forget what a fabulous satirist Plath was; her 'bitchiness" (if that's indeed what anyone wants to call it) is essential to this. Wonderful pieces like "Face Lift" "Lady Lazarus" and and "Gulliver" would not have been possible without it.

On a similar note, many of Plath's journal entires have been unfairly, and simplistically, branded as 'malicious." On the contrary, her observations about other people are almost always marked by a clinical and even disinterested aspect ("I am not cruel, only truthful.") She analyzed things exactly as they were, and she was rarely unfair (I say rarely.....not never.) As someone once said, politeness never won a portrait painter critical accolades (though it probably did get him clients.)

And let's not forget the roles played by other characters in this story. Dido Merwin's memoir was far more unjust and mean spirited than anything Plath ever penned, as far as I'm concerned. She, Assia, and Olwyn weren't exactly epitomes of grace and restraint, themselves: for every action, there's a reaction. Frankly, I don't know how Plath could have withstood that kind of mutiny (and that's essentially what it was) WITHOUT being "unpleasant." She was in a devastating position, and she bore up under it with remarkable wit and humor.

As a bartender once told me, "Dylan Thomas may have been be a drunk, but not every drunk is Dylan Thomas." In turn, we can say (warmly, and with the deepest admiration and respect) that Sylvia Plath may have been a bitch, but not every bitch is Sylvia Plath. Plath certainly had a greater sense of humor and constructive self deprecation than Hemingway, who was so self absorbed he didn't even know when he was parodying himself. Plath never fell into this trap.....she turned exactly the same critical/satirical eye on herself as she did on everyone else. We need only look at the way she mocked herself...sometimes gleefully, sometimes sorrowfully... in poems like "Lady Lazarus," "The Applicant," and, to a more sobering extent, "A Birthday Present" to see this. Even in "attack poems" like "Lesbos" Plath was caricaturing herself along with her subject, right up to the end.

What was it that someone said re: being on the set of "Deliverance"? "I'd rather have a row with James Dickey than a polite conversation with with most people." I think we can agree that's so of Plath, yes? :-)

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
15 October 2007

I have to say that I share Jim Long's skepticism about Richard Dey's recent entry to The Forum. Jim has much more command of specifics than I do - dates, etc. - but I was uneasy from the first time I read Mr. Dey's lengthy account of his relationship with Sylvia. Something about it didn't ring true. If I am indeed wrong about Mr. Dey, I certainly apologize, but The Forum is all about truth - as Sylvia was and still is - and we who post here are responsible for what we write. I will be watching with great interest to see if anything more comes of this.

David Hall
Fort Collins, Colorado , USA
11 October 2007

Richard: what Plath and Sexton attended at BU were not merely Lowell's "lectures", which he no doubt gave and which you may well have attended along with them (even at the tender age of 18). Apart from that, what they participated in, and where they met, was Lowell's poetry writing workshop/seminar, attendance at which would not have been open to just anyone. And there has never been any evidence that they knew each other prior to that.

It is simply absurd to say of Plath that "the poetry [sic] and the person are two different people"; Sylvia was, first and foremost, and above and before everything else, a poet -- "the blood-jet is poetry, / There is no stopping it." (Kindness) This is probably true of Plath more than of any other poet I can think of. It seems clear to me that, while you may have known Sylvia Plath, the girl, and that superficially, you didn't know Plath, the poet. To dismiss her 1953 suicide attempt as "amateur theatrics" is the height of insensitivity. There is no reason to doubt her seriousness on that occasion: "I would have killed myself gladly that time any possible way" (The Birthday Present).

As for your concern about "young ladies imitating Plath's poetry"....and "young ladies" are not the only readers to become intensely involved in Plath's poetry....I realize your concern is really with young people imitating, not the poetry, but the life, and ultimately the self-immolation. But this is not a sound reason not to teach the poetry along with the biography. Biographers are not in the business of "creating a persona out of her poetry"...their task is to examine the life apart from the poetry, both for its own sake and for the light it sheds on the work, which is ultimately the most important aspect of the life of an artist such as Plath; without the work, there would be no interest in the life. And what is to be learned from the study of Plath's life and work is more important than the simple fact of her tragic end.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
11 October 2007

Hi, Richard Dey - I just wanted to clarify some of your points.

First of all, what is your personal definition of despair vs imitation of despair? John Berryman committed suicide at 57, Vachel Lindsay at 52. Having killed themselves at comparatively advanced ages, had they 'earned' the right (according to your terms) to have their actions deemed 'professional', rather than 'amateur' theatrics? Sexton was 45 when she ended her life. Was she prey to the same fallacy as Plath, or had that respectably ripened/desiccated fruit earned its right to fall? (or to ascend from community theater to Broadway?)

Also...if Ariel is "halfway," I surely don't know what "full throttle" is. Shakespeare? Emily Dickinson? What about Hart Crane, who was only three years older than Plath when he jumped ship?

Let's say for the sake of debate that The Fitzroy Road Incident was not intended to succeed, as Alvarez believed (a theory I personally have never bought into). Even if that's so, Plath's previous attempt (crawling under a house in absolute secrecy and swallowing pill after pill) can hardly be classified as the stunt of an aspiring tragedienne.

If you're lamenting a "role model" or imitative phenomenon....well, that's the fallout of any celebrity or legend...whether it concerns genius or someone biting the head off a bat because Ozzy Osbourne did.

Re: biographers creating personas....well, that's another inevitable side effect of making history. Finding an honest biographer without an agenda is nearly impossible, especially in the much abused 'biopic' genre. We must not let historical (or contemporary) figures be held accountable for the embellishments of those who would seek to represent their do so only exacerbates the dishonesty. I know in a sense that's exactly what you're saying, but at the same time you also seem to be claiming (unless I misread you) that Plath is essentially in cahoots with the aggrandizement that has sprung up around her own posthumous legend. In all fairness, Jillian Becker said the same thing in her memoir "Giving Up"....but by the time Plath did what she did, she was so far from theoretical considerations she may as well have been on the moon she wrote so beautifully about.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
10th October 2007

Richard Dey, I also have some trouble with your 'recollections' of Sylvia Plath. Jim Long summed up some of the less credible parts of your post very well, and I won't add to them. But it seems pretty transparent to me. I believe your main object in posting was to have the opportunity of calling Sylvia Plath a "b***h." Yes, there is a world of difference between calling Hemingway a "bastard" and referring to this astonishingly gifted poet as a female dog. How cheap. How very, very cheap of you.

Trish Saunders
Seattle , USA
9 October 2007

Hello. I am desperate to find out whether or not this is a Sylvia Plath quote. "Kiss me and you will see how important I am." I did find it attributed to her on many quote sites,but I can not find a source. I am hoping it is something she said so that I can reprint it in a book I am writing without having to get permission. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Please email me. Many, many thanks. Tonya

Tonya Hurley
New York , USA
October 9, 2007

Well, that's interesting, Jim Long, because I also attended some of Lowell's lectures at BU, and they already knew each other by that time. Now that could have been an earlier lecture that I didn't attend, but I thought I'd attended them all. I knew of Sexton long before I was introduced to her. Lowell was offensive, even to Sylvia. George Starbuck (a stellar poet) was also a member of this clique. The act was to have drinks at the Ritz Carlton, then sup at the local cafeteria (just askew on Boyston Street if I remember so long ago).

My concern about young ladies imitating Plath's poetry is that that was not who Plath was. The poetry and the person are two different people. The poetry reflects Plath's ambition to become a poet -- not the poet but the ambition to act like one; to the degree that she succeeded, that might be Plath. She had the talent; I just don't think she'd got halfway yet. She had not chosen a projection. I don't think she'd chosen a projection when she accidentally committed suicide (if that's exactly what I said).

Suicide was part of the 'image'; her 'successful' attempt was one of many attempts that were I think rightfully dismissed as amateur theatrics. Girls attempt suicide far more often than boys commit suicide or attempt suicide put together -- BUT -- boys actually commit suicide 6 X more often than girls do. The fact that she did such a horrible thing (to her children) is nothing that girls should be swept up in - especially where there was so much falderol involved in it.

But that's my point, that biographers are creating a persona out of her poetry that provides us with a might-have-been Sylvia. It's like Richard le Gallienne's Sylvia, with whom she was quite taken up:

"But who is Sylvia, who is she? and likewise where is Sylvia, where is she? Obviously they were questions not to be answered off-hand. Was not my future -- at all events my immediate future -- to be spent in answering them?"

Richard Dey
Charlotte Amalie , USA
Wednesday, 10 October 2007

I know that we are all saddened by the passing of Elaine, a special person beyond my ability to acknowledge her worth, but I know, too, that she would want us all to keep contributing to The Forum, so I hope - in her memory - that we will all continue discussing Sylvia and her poetry. It's the best way to honor her, don't you think? What Elaine would want, I think, is for all of us to jump right back in and talk about Plath and her complicated life and important poetry. If Sylvia were alive, I suspect she would agree. So let the discussion continue!

David Hall
Fort Collins, Colorado , USA
Monday, 8 October 2007

I have been away for a long time, but hearing this sad news, I would like to address the passing of Elaine Connell here, where I first encountered her, on the Sylvia Plath Forum. Godspeed, Elaine. We of this online community have always taken for granted its assessing, answering, clarifying, provoking moderator without a face. I am only seeing that face now, in photographs posted elsewhere, engaged in ordinary things. I imagine we all felt we knew you, a testament to your online presence, a testament to Sylvia Plath, who drew us all, from faraway, faceless places, to the terrain of language and of life. Dear Elaine, I thank you for your genius in originating this forum upon the publication of Ted Hughes's "Birthday Letters" . . . because as much as we may have ranted and raved against it, and continue to (though for how long now, one wonders?), we were always dealing with two people, two artists, two agons, here on this forum: Plath and Hughes. It was their conversation, after all, that initiated, and has sustained, our own. Beloved hippie chick, you have our thanks; you will be missed.

Melissa Dobson
Farnham, VA , USA
Monday, 8 October 2007

Richard Dey, this is all very interesting stuff, but I have a problem with parts of this story. The most obvious is the following: "But I was not of her confessional ilk -- though she did introduce me to Ann Sexton..."

Now, Plath didn't meet Anne Sexton until sometime in 1958 or'59 while sitting in on Robert Lowell's writing class, after moving to Boston following her stint teaching at Smith. But in your "story" you specifically say that, after the incident on Maugus Hill in Wellesley "I never saw her again". And that incident occurred at a time when Sylvia was, as you put it, "back from college". Presumably, this would have been after her return from Cambridge, while she's married to Hughes and teaching at Smith. Which would mean that she didn't meet Anne Sexton until after this incident, which was the last time you ever saw her. So how did she introduce you to Sexton, whom she hadn't met yet? And let's see...In the same paragraph where she introduces you to Sexton, you say "I was much too young, but she addressed me in very adult terms." Now, assuming Sylvia brought Sexton back to Wellesley in 1958 or '59 to introduce her to you, Sylvia would have been 25 or 26 yrs old...which means, being 8 yrs younger, you were 17 or 18. No wonder she spoke to you in "adult terms"...much too young for what?

If I have any of this wrong, please let me know.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
Posted Monday, 8 October 2007

First off, thank you for sharing the rather lengthy recounting of your relationship to Sylvia Plath. It was read with great interest by me. However, (and I can't imagine you are unaware that this was coming), "She accidentally died when she attempted to attempt suicide"? This assumption is quite unproven. Then again, it doesn't seem like you much care for the facts, since you think "identifying with Plath" or "pursuing [her] life is not healthy". You also suggest that we should read her poetry instead. The prime reason one would care to learn about her life is because of the impact her poetry delivers. The reason I write and read poetry at all is because I identify deeply somehow with the author; I relate to them; on one plain or another. Of course this causes me to take interest in who they were/are as people. One of the reasons I was so reluctant to share anything I had written for so many years was I was afraid others wouldn't "get it". Finally I realized, they never entirely will. Just like we will never know Sylvia; through her poetry, through what we know of her life; I don't expect to ever really comprehend her; but I won't stop pursuing the kind of elation I felt when I first read her work.

As far as it being dangerous for one to delve so deeply into the dark parts of someone's life, it could certainly be mood altering; in a negative way perhaps; but it can also be enlightening and exhilarating. It's what keeps some of us alive.

LC Roberts
Herriman , USA
Posted Monday, 8 October 2007

Just wandering through the forum again, I am still taken by the gender differentiation of responses not only to Plath's poetry, but to her, and to responses of those evaluating her and her work. There's a subjective/objective disjuncture I think.

Women, it seems to me, tend to identify, comfortably or uncomfortably, with her emotional difficulties (and she certainly had them). Men who look upon emotions as unthoughts, would be squeamish about them if they did not find her expressions of them cutting, occasionally bitchy, and not inoften threatening. As a male, I readily understand men's responses to her (and those here as well).

I knew Sylvia a bit more than slightly. Same church, same pew -- same minister whom she slashes after he saved her life. Let me deal with that issue first. Dr William Brooks Rice, our minister, served as chairman of the Unitarian-Universalist merger which had originally included Liberal Jews in the unification, a conference ultimately held at Syracuse. I say that because the preparatory negotiations (which had begun right after WWII) did not go smoothly. "Esther" was young woman Plath had met at one such preliminary conference who made Sylvia very uncomfortable; she called her pushy, and claimed that the whole meeting boded ill for the unification because of "attitudes like that". Wellesley has been falselyl accused of being "anti-semitic", i.e., anti-Jewish. It wasn't. Sylvia wasn't, but she toyed with it.

To jump ahead, in 1956 I had run away from home, and Dr Bill (as Rice was called) had leapt to my defence, and I think really saved my own sanity by arranging for me to get out of Wellesley High School (which, like Sylvia, I loathed -- except for Mr Crockett, under whom we both studied). My grandmother lived right between Dr Bill's manse and the Unitarian Society. I only mention that to fit the scene. I never really went home again but came to visit my grandmother.

In 1963, as I came out of the house, I saw Dr Bill chugging down the sidewalk towards the church, his wattles swaying wildly, and his basso profundo in a fury. "You don't have to love your parents!" he yelled at me. "You didn't pick your parents!" I thought it a very appropriate thing to say to me, but to me -- not the whole of Wellesley Hills Square. I didn't find out until that evening that, of course, he wasn't just talking to me; he had just been told that Sylvia Plath had killed herself. What he was saying to me just happened to coincide with what he was thinking about Sylvia. It applied to both of us. I despised my father, the town bully whom Sylvia found "horribly attractive", and was indifferent towards my mother, the town beauty whom I hardly knew and knew too much of. I was oddly embarrassed by Sylvia's detestation of her mother, and it was nothing less, and even more embarrassed by her language in regards to my father -- and men in general. She was much too honest for a town so hypocritical.

I was far younger than Sylvia. She was, for a time, my babysitter! but I will say that, being a wannabe poet from an early age, and very adult for my age I suspect, I had my own passion for her with nothing but epithumeia to show for it. She was not only oddly attractive, but she was what we used to call in those post-Victorian days 'available'. I was much too young, but she addressed me in very adult terms. It was awkward to say the least. But I was not of her confessional ilk -- though she did introduce me to Ann Sexton who saw right through me; Sexton and I had an instant and lasting relationship of mutual disgust. The innate poet, I suspect, doesn't like transparency in people; they want transluscence at best.

Back in the breach, my grandmother house-sat for Mrs Plath when she was away from school, and she adored Aurelia; Aurelia adored Dr Bill, and my grandmother didn't much care for him. My grandmother was also one of Sylvia's dancing teachers, and on that issue I might be of some little help in translating some of Sylvia's poetic allusions because Wellesleyans are a very class-crotched crowd, jealously guarding their inner sancta, and not likely to discuss them in their living memoirs. Dancing school was a social centrum in the town, and one went either to Mr Baptiste (very nouveau) or to Mrs Ferguson's Dancing Classes and Evening Cotillions. My grandmother was the aide who wandered about checking for gum-chewers -- who were summarily ejected as socially unfit.

Juliet Ferguson was a frightening character, and had all the demeanor and profile of George Washington's horse observing a losing battle. She wore the same coffee lace-over mocha taffeta dress I think for a full generation (and I'm not sure that, when I first saw it, it wasn't already an antique). These socially obligatory events were held at The Maugus Club, a very grand but grim shingle-style edifice in Wellesley Hills built in 1897 which I'm certain hadn't been dusted since it had been built. The spotlights, everywhere, caused the swirling dust to sparkle and as many to wheeze. Girls spent a fortune in those days on their ball gowns and dancing slippers, boys wore expensive dark blue suits that doubled for funerals, and, in the North, it was the boys who wore the white gloves. There were grand promenades, exhibition dancers like Alicia Langford and her favorite of the moment, helium balloons tied to clothespins on the stage, spumoni refreshments laced with marsalla or malmsey, cups of golden ginger ale for the girls and ginger beer for the boys, boxed cookies celebrating whatever holiday, and what saved these evenings, for everybody, was Larry Greene on the imperial Steinway -- who jazzed up anything and everything. Sylvia liked Bubbles, Bangles, and Beads or some such, and Noel Coward tunes.

My task was to avoid being baby-sat by accompanying my grandmother to such events, dancing with my would-have-been babysitter on occasion, and dancing with girls who were 10 feet tall. When possible, I would sit next to Larry Greene and add notes, only to have Mrs Ferguson's fingers snap to point out some wallflower 11 feet tall who needed to be saved from social embarrassment. Sylvia, who was only about 8 feet tall, liked to dance with me, actually. I let her lead, and whenever Larry Greene saw us together, he'd up the tempo and even let us charleston and jitterbug and cause Mrs Ferguson to snort in disapproval.

One has to understand that Sylvia was 8 years older than I was in a class-conscious school system (and I mean class as in the preparatory term 'form'); but dancing classes cut through much of that ageist divisionism, and Sylvia was nonplussed about the idea of dancing with a little boy into the night. She had a very social way of turning awkward moments into triumphs. Reading some of her poems about this era, I bumped into images from The Maugus Club over and over again -- they faded only as her fantasies turned to harsher social climes.

My grandmother found Sylvia "a difficult child" -- and my grandmother was not the type to allow difficult children to get away with it; Sylvia thought her too strict by half but easier to get around than her mother. My grandmother thought Warren (who was at least 5 years old than I) "a very adult and promising young man. He teaches me lots of things." Sylvia was indeed difficult, and boys were often afraid of her. "Too hot to handle", is the nicest thing I ever heard about her dancing, for example. "She's poison," I heard one guy say (and I know who he was). By today's standards, I suppose, she was quite normal; but by the standards of her place and time, she was sexually aggressive -- and suburban boys of that era were not used to that, were discomforted by it, and, frankly, didn't approve of it. We were very proper prudes who liked to get away with sex. It wasn't Sylvia who was parverted, it was the roles that we were forced into that were perverted -- a short way of saying that society was about to get its sexual and genderal comeuppance.

Wellesley, according to its dayhelp (it never had 'maids'), was a gynocracy. I happened on my bike behind a pair of them late one afternoon, marching to the station, and one of them pointed out the women coming out of the hairdressers' in Wellesley Hills Square. "Here come the women who run the men who own the town," says one to the other. It burnt my ears; it was a humiliating truth. There's a problem as women become increasingly aggressive; it means have to be more aggressive than they are. Well, under the terms of the sexual division of labor that was Wellesley at mid-century. Sylvia faced this problem.

Sylvia didn't like 'just men' but macho men, as we might call them today, what she called "brutes". She wanted to be taken, like those women who don't want to take responsibility for their sexuality, who want it taken care of for them, who want to be "overwhelmed" as she longed of her dreamboats. Many young men found that intimidating, many found it irritating, many found it a challenge, and a few found it attractive but nothing about which they wanted to do. Sylvia made her work more difficult for herself; but, then, she was in training for something very big -- like a Nazi invasion or something. Sylvia was a sexually frustrated young woman however much sex she had, and she had more than most girls of her day and place. It was we who were sexually suppressed, homosexuals oppressed, and we were all about to join in on a sexual revolution that would I think have made Sylvia herself a bit uncomfortable. My generation didn't want to dominate women -- and were finding the guts to say no to it. I think that would have saved her life. All that Nazi-daddy stuff had to be loved out of her.

One day she explained herself to me. I happened to be walking the dog over Maugus Hill, which rose above the old Maugus Club (now burnt to the ground), and I took a rest stop on something called The Throne -- just a comfortable rock to sit on with a stone foot, looking out to Great Blue Hill some miles away. And up the other path comes Sylvia, back from college, self-assured, and tells me to get off. She wants to sit down. No hellos, no nothing. I stood up, we had a chat about how I was growing up and my grandmother and Star Island and things we had in common and she finds it all passe', old-fashioned, behind the times, 'so yesterday', as we might say today. Then we didn't have anything to say. She was looking out at Blue Hill, and said suddenly, "I am an antibody." Perhaps it was "I'm an antibody."

I hadn't a clue what she was talking about, but I had the almost sexual urge to escape. I threw a stick for the dog down what was called Pine Tree Field, and followed it. I didn't look back, and I never saw her again.

I never had any difficulty comprehending where her poetry was coming from, but it was quite a while before my mind grew up to comprehend where she herself was coming from because I wasn't quite sure where she was going. And in the perspective of Wellesley at mid-century (a town of 2500 when I was born and 25,000 when I went away to school), I can see where males were intimidated by her. It wasn't just her brains, and she was well read and cosmopolitan in ways we males were not; it was her pent-up aggression that discomforted us. She was bitchy. She used any weakness in men to cut them down, out of her way. It's not an uncommon female trait, but she was very obvious about it. Frontal. Men in that time and place wanted girls sugar-coated, petticoated, the least-bit demoted.

I'm not saying she was 'castrator', as boys used to say of such women in those days; but perhaps a 'circumcizer'. This 'informed', as deconstructionists used to say, her projections in her work. Knowing her 'signifiers', I have to disagree with all the unnecessary apologias for her sexual aggressiveness and her madness. Somebody on this thread said that Sylvia wasn't mad at all. No, she wasn't. She was self-indulgent, seeking attention, and, like Christ, didn't expect to die but fully expected to be saved (it being the Sabbath in Christ's case) and, thus, resurrected (this despite the fact that she was not an agnostic but a atheistic humanist, ethicist, Unitarian). It was one of the sacrifices that poets must make to commit suicide (at least symbollically). Sexton was another case and a half. She, IMHO, did not have that saving grace.

My grandmother used to cut through her melodramatic acts. She had no patience with that nonsense. She was herself an amateur actress and had the temerity to interupt one of her tantrums and show her how to make it more effective by being less affected. My grandmother was what used to be called a 'tartar'. But not even my cut-the-act grandmother could intimidate Sylvia. She had every intention of being Eve, as in All About, and would never have allowed Carol Channing a come-back.

Really, the rest of what I know of her is in the realm of hearsay and isn't my position to confess. But in reading quite a bit about her, including some really ghastly interpolations of her verse, I honestly felt obliged to weigh in on the side of the men who knew her and the men who have come to know her through her work. It isn't misogyny to say that Sylvia was a bitch any more than it is misandry to call Hemingway a bastard. That was her act. Who she really-really was, or wanted to be become, is another matter -- but she didn't live to fulfill that. She accidentally died when she attempted to attempt suicide.

Generally, I agree with the men writing here, not the women. Ultimately, it is not Sylvia Plath who is to be judged here. Even Ted Hughes wouldn't that. It is the poetry that, perchance, was compose by Sylvia Plath. I don't even think it's a good idea to identify with Plath or to put oneself in the mood to identify with Plath. She was a dangerous woman -- to others and herself. The key, I think, is to look upon Sylvia's personal drama as amateur theatrics, and to read her poetry as possibly, quite possibly professional reality. I think that's what she was trying to get to. Whether she actually created a reality in her verse that she couldn't accomplish in her life, I don't know. But I know one thing, to pursue Plath's life is not healthy; to pursue Plath's poetry, on the other hand, might be very healthy indeed. But I think stirring such cauldrons requires some objective distance. That's why I think women who become involved in her work ought to pay attention to what the men are saying. Her way of life isn't dead. It's just unfashionable, but like Juliet Ferguson's dress, if she wears it long enough it comes right back into fashion. Having thrown my own life into overthrowing that way of life, I find that inevitable return to enforced chivalry unnerving. There is little I disapprove of more roundly, in my old age, and little I've thought out more soundly. It was not healthy, and Sylvia paid a price for it.

Richard Dey
Charlotte Amalie , USA
Thursday, 27 September 2007

Hallo, my name is Deborah and I knew about this web-site yesterday night while I was reading an Italian edition of Sylvia's poems. I "met" Sylvia many years ago and I stil have a strong interest on her works. I have a degree in foreign literatures and I wrote a thesis on Anne Hébert. Unfortunately I'm no more in literature because after the university I started working as an employee but I still read a lot.

While I was preparing my thesis I kept thinking that there was a subtle but evident link between Sylvia Plath and Anne Hébert. I was wondering if it is just a personal feeling due to the huge admiration I have for the two writers or if there's anyone who's ever considered the connection.

Maybe you might consider it a stupid question, if so, please ignore it and please accept my sincere compliments for your so interesting forum

my kindest regards

Deborah Giuranna
Milano , Italy
Tuesday, 25 September 2007

I just finished reading A Lover of Unreason and was depressed by it...will join others in saying that there was little that was redeeming about it. I was amazed that Wevill corresponded with Aurelia Plath toward the end of Wevill's life. And again I wonder, what has become of Olwyn Hughes?

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
23 September 2007

I just want to clarify, regarding a statement I made in my last post, that I'm aware that the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had nothing to do with the Holocaust. They were convicted of spying for, and passing secrets to, the Soviet Union. My statement was meant to suggest that her feelings of complicity in, and identification with, the fate of the European Jews contributed to her fixing on the persecution of the Rosenbergs (as Jews) as the intro to her account of her own victimization (and electrocution?), which is essentially what "The Bell Jar" is ... an account of Esther's victimization at the hands of...what? who?...the world? her mother?

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
20 September 2007

Hi Esther, I want to say that at some point I knew or read why Plath chose the name Esther for her protagonist in The Bell Jar, but I'm not very sure. The one thing I do know about Plath's choice in names is that Greenwood was her maternal grandmother's maiden name. Esther may also have been named for someone in her family; I don't recall.

I don't know how accurate this was in Plath's choosing a name for Esther, but if you remember the scene in the breezeway where Esther decides to write a novel she names her character Elaine. In it Esther realizes that she's chosen a name that is six letters long, like her own. I'd imagine that Plath enjoyed the significance of having a protagonist who resembled herself down to sharing the same number of letters in her first name.

While none are quite as moving, there are some short pieces in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams that also feature Esther Greenwood.

Littleton, CO, USA
17 September 2007

Esther, welcome to the Forum. "Greenwood" was the maiden name of Sylvia's maternal grandmother, Aurelia Greenwood (yes, Aurelia Schober Plath was named after her mother) (the original German form would have been "Grunewald"). Plath may also have meant it to be a metaphor for an immature person, a young person between the onset of puberty and maturity, what is sometimes called a "stripling", a young tree that is too young and slender to withstand the elements, and which is also a common term for an immature youth.

"Esther" is a biblical name from the Hebrew. In the biblical book of Esther she is a hero, credited with saving many Jews from the evil counsellor Haman. It is also the Hebrew form of the name of the Persian goddess Ishtar, who was associated with the planet Venus, the consort of Mars.

The question of why she chose a Jewish name for her protagonist is open to discussion. The issue of Sylvia's feelings of identification with Jews, and the question of possible mixed German and Jewish ancestry, and internalized guilt over what happened to the European Jews in the Holocaust, surfaces a number of times in Plath's work, both poetry and prose. And, interestingly, it is the point on which she opens her book, with the passage on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in the summer of 1953.

A "bell jar" in chemistry is a bell-shaped jar of glass that is placed over something to keep gasses, air, moisture out, or to create a vacuum within the jar. For Sylvia, it was a metaphor for a psychological state of alienation from the world that was seen as both protective and smothering (much like her relationship to her mother). It's also analogous to the image in the autobiographical essay "Ocean 1212-W" of her past shut off, isolated, like a ship in a bottle.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
Friday, 14 September 2007

Firstly, I'd just like to say how great this forum is - reading the comments has inspired me to read as much of Plath's work as I can lay my hands on.

My question is quite simple, but first I'll just explain why I'm asking the question I am (bear with me on this!):

I was in Paris just this last weekend. I'd been really looking forward to it and had a whole itinerary planned to explore the city. But something came over me on the Saturday night and I went into one of my 'depressions' (nothing major, but I do have a tendancy to dwell in my own misery for days) I couldn't snap out of it and was acting miserably around my boyfriend, hardly talking or looking at anything. I just seemed to disappear within myself. I'd also been having dreams where something would be coming towards me, like a bus, and I would jolt awake. I'd also been thinking about death alot, and just had a horrible feeling, or fear, that I was going to die in Paris. It sounds crazy, but that's how I felt. On the Sunday, we were looking in a book shop, I was after Shakespeare, and I happened upon The Bell Jar, so picked it up. I was intrigued from the moment I read the back and learnt Plath had committed suicide, so started reading. Right from the beginning, I related to this girl. I loved her honesty and the fact she couldn't explain the way she was feeling. She was going through changes, but seemed so numb to everything happening around her. She over analysed everything, and called herself neurotic - she just seemed to be describing me! Well, later on that Sunday, I very nearly got run over by a bus. I don't mean a simple 'that was close', this bus flew by inches from my face. My white skirt had dirt on it from the bus being that close. The driver even pulled over to stop and check he hadn't hit me. Very scary stuff, and it heightened the brooding, contemplative mood I was already in. Well, now to my question - if you havn't noticed, my name is Esther. You don't learn that this girl is called Esther until some way in, so when I came across her name, I had such a shock. The mood I was in, how much I related to her, when I saw my name on the page it spooked me a little!

So my question is, why did Sylvia use the name Esther? Its an unusual name, did she know anyone called Esther? Does anybody have any clue as to where she plucked it from? And more so, does the name she chose for her autobiographal novel actually hold any meaning?

This obviously mainly relates to myself and not many other people will learn much from any answer, but I would really like to know.

Esther Clark
Oxford , England
Friday, 14 September 2007

For those who live in the Seattle area (or who would be willing to travel here), I would like to announce a two-day course on Plath's poetry to be held at the Richard Hugo House, Seattle's center for literature, literacy, and the arts. The class will take place from 1 to 5 p.m. on consecutive Saturdays, October 27 and November 3. The class is open to the public, but please note there is a registration fee of $160 (or $140 for Hugo House members).

The title of the course is "Beyond the Bell Jar: Rediscovering the Poetry of Sylvia Plath." You can get more information by going to our website and scrolling down. Or you can feel free to email me with any questions you might have. I am, by the way, the "teacher" of the class--though I hope I will be more of a discussion leader and moderator, for I envision this as a workshop rather than a class in the traditional sense. Also, I expect many of my "students" will have a more thorough knowledge of Plath than I myself do, judging by the quality and depth of discussion on this forum. (My area of expertise is British Romanticism.) In any case, this will be an excellent opportunity to meet others in the area who are interested in Plath's poetry.

Thanks for letting me use the Plath Forum for this announcement.

Christopher Hitt
Seattle , USA
Wednesday, 5 September 2007

This forum is exloding with thought-provoking posts. There are a number I'd like to respond to in-depth, but so many little time...

Morney - I hope you've recovered from the flu. If I was ill, I don't think one of my posts would be half as coherent.

I'm in your camp (with Amy) on the "Bitter Fame" issue. I read it when first published - lapped up and swallowed every word. It appeared to be a grand work. I subsequently read every piece of Plath related material I could get my hands or eyeballs (internet) on. I recently, during the long wait for the Anita Heile book, picked up, "Bitter Fame" again and found it painfully hard to read. I could barely see the words through the vindictive Olwyn overlay on nearly page.

I've come full circle in my opinion of Plath. I believe, despite all the vitriol written and said about her from numerous sources, that she was essentially a sweet, polite, and generally cheerful person [per opinion of Ted, employers, teachers, classmates and friends - I'm thinking particulary of Dan & Helga Huws right now.] At least outwardly so. Inwardly I feel she was inordinately insecure and painfully shy. She seems to have suffered from an anxiety disorder of some nature. I'm wonder if the anxiety did not in fact cause her depression? i.e. anxiety = writer's block (for example) = depression.

Regarding her 1953 suicide attempt...does the condensed timeline, actually whole event, seem very odd to anyone else? She came home from New York around June 1. Within a six week period she was psychotic, suicidal, immune to sleeping pills, and receiving shock therapy. But perhaps the slide wasn't so rapid or inexplicable. Could she have been addicted to or overly-using sleeping pills beforehand? After her depressive episode in the fall/early winter a Smith doctor prescribed sleeping pills. Around Feb. or March, Plath wrote in a letter (I believe to her mother) that Mrs. Norton (Dick's mother) was concerned about her use of sleeping pills. It makes sense that Sylvia would bring along a supply of them to New York, as she probably realized her schedule would be hectic and interfere with her need for ten hours of sleep to function well. By the time she came home, or shortly thereafter (about 3 weeks), the standard dosage no longer had an effect. She went days without sleep. This no doubt affected her ability to write, hold a pen, read Joyce, enjoy life, have a sense of perspective and equilibrium. I think in later years Plath was puzzled about her suicide attempt, despite her effort to explain it in "The Bell Jar". She probably was all too happy, with the encouragement of Dr. Beuscher, to attach her parents to the cause.

It seems as though a lot of Plath's problems were exacerbated by drugs of one sort or another. In the last weeks and months of her life, she apparently was mixing uppers, downers and later had Parnate thrown into the mix. Parnate is an MAO inhibitor. For MAOI takers (due to a potentially harmful interaction) red wine is taboo. According to Jillian Becker in her memoir, "Giving Up, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath", she served a Sunday lunch of roast and wine while Sylvia was a guest at her house. (Day before Sylvia's 1963 suicide). "...the wine we had drunk made us sleepy too so we all went to lie down. At teatime Sylvia told us she'd slept deeply." Good grief. Did Sylvia drink the wine? Not red I hope.

Peter - make that 3. I read your book! It had some interesting material I hadn't seen before.

Well, somehow I found time to fill up quite a bit of space.

Nancy Howell
Sacramento , USA
September 3, 2007

I can't resist weighing in on the matter of "Bitter Fame". It's been quite a long time since I read it, but I recall that, while I was aware from the beginning of the deep-seated prejudice built into the biographer's perspective by the collaboration with Olwyn Hughes, at the same time, I was grateful (if that's the right word) for the alternative point of view, to the extent that it broadened my own perspective on Sylvia, her emotional volatility, her self-dramatizing personality, her occasional vindictiveness... all the things that normally get left out of bios that strive for what they like to think is an 'objective' point of view. Objectivity, per se, doesn't get us inside the subject, which is what "Bitter Fame" did; it inserted us into the middle of the whole complex dynamic among the circle of family and friends that surrounded the Ted and Sylvia, both positive and negative, that no doubt influenced to some extent the course of their relationship while she was still alive. This is an invaluable perspective to have, it throws light on so much about the situation that Plath was facing in her life, but particularly in her marriage. As long as the reader is aware of the built-in bias and is able to weigh it against the other points of view out there, I feel like "Bitter Fame" is an essential piece of the puzzle that is Plath's biography.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
August 30, 2007

I am new to contributing this forum, although I have been avidly following it for years now. I am not a writer or critic, just a very ardent fan of Sylvia's.

As a person with manic-depression I seem to be naturally drawn to others with this mood disorder, and I happened across Sylvia's work quite suddenly. I stress that manic-dpression is a mood disorder, and not necessarily one with lessened intellectual capacities or hallucinations ( although in its severe forms some thought distortion/psychosis is present.) Any reading of the Journals clearly shows a pattern of ups and downs, sometimes not in relation to any external situations. That is the nature of the beast.

I didn't really care for "Bitter Fame". Before I really knew that Olwyn and Sylvia had a difficult relationship, I could see that this book seemed biased and at times unfair. I think this so particularly when Sylvia was approaching the end of her pregnancy with Frieda, and wanted nothing more than peace and quiet and a rest, and yet Olwyn and Lucas Meyer took it personally and used her behavior as yet another indicator of Sylvia's 'bitchery'. As Americans say...DUH! She'd endured a trans-Atlantic journey, had moved to a new country and was trying to set up housekeeping in just a very short time. Anyone not pregnant would find this exhausting. Sylvia was only human.

Let me conclude with this: I like Sylvia Plath's writing, and I am glad to have 'met' her.

Amy Watson
Bangor , UK
August 30, 2007

There are some excellent biographical books on Sylvia, not least the one by Elaine Connell whose work in this field and in keeping this forum and ongoing for so many impressive years deserves special commendation in bringing a sobre side of Plath to the internet world at large. Bitter Fame remains my favourite book because it is written as a biography that takes the whole of Plath's life as a life, rather than a thematic biography which most of the others are and yet it also touches upon the themes that are relevant to her poetry.

Rehan Qayoom
London , UK
August 27, 2007

I'm writing with 'flu and a raging fever so I hope you can forgive any spelling mistakes or inaccuracies, but I would like to reply to Laurie's post, lower down the board.

I generally disagree with what you appear to be saying, but I am also quite surprised at some of the statements you make. Where did you get this information from? Most of the factual statements in your post are simply not true and they also seem to me be far too black and white for most situations, particuarly one as complex as the whole Sylvia Plath one.

It is true that she had a tendency to become depressed when she felt she wasn't reaching her goals or being successful. It is not the case that when she attempted suicide the first time, she had been jobless and turned down from Harvard (and later accepted). At the time of her suicide attempt she had just had what was supposed to be a very successful guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine in New York. She had actually done very well during this assignment, although with hindsight she was clearly beginning to spiral downwards. When she went back home, she found out that she had not got into a writing summer school (run by another writer - I'm sorry, I would check, but I can't at the moment - I think it may have been Frank O'Connor). She had been sure she would be accepted and this made her more depressed. It was not a case of being turned down from Harvard. She was in the middle of her summer holidays, before going back to Smith at the end of the summer and became increasingly depressed.

I think most people recognise this and other stages as depression and not merely a lack of ambition and a bit of listlessness. She couldn't eat or sleep or make herself wash etc. Eventually she attempted suicide and spent time at hospital afterwards.

She was extremely ambitious and a perfectionist - she was also sick and mentally ill/unstable/whatever your preferred word is. I don't understand your conclusion that she killed herself in London because she was a perfectionist. This is missing out vast areas that are well known to have contributed to her suicide and a few others that have been speculated upon. Apart from that, she was not actually unsuccessful at the time that she killed herself. Her one book of published poetry, 'The Colossus,' was well received and had good reviews, though few. She was not known as a poet yet. 'The Bell Jar' had just been published, also to good reviews, but of course at that point it was not published under her real name. She knew she had written an incredible series of poems in the 'Ariel' poems. There are many contributing factors to her suicide and possible contributing factors that are well documented in most books - I have never heard the theory that she was simply feeling listless because she was being unsuccessful and that was 'misinterpreted' as depression.

I don't understand your statements about the British not being accomodating to her and being ignorant of her. I am not saying this because I am British. When she came to Britain, she was not known as a poet at all. What were British people ignorant of about her? You say they (we) catered to Ted's poetry more - however, Ted Hughes was already living in Britain - he was already involved in some poetry circles. It takes time to build up a reputation as a poet. Aside from anything else, are you aware that when they were married, it was actually Sylvia who entered Ted's poetry into competitions without his knowledge, as a result of which he won a major prize that immediately got him a lot of recognition? It was SYLVIA who entered 'The Hawk In The Rain' by TH into a major competition, without his knowledge. He won that competition without knowing that he had even entered it. It immediately made him known as a poet and introduced him into already-known circles of poets, such as TS Eliot, WH Auden and Stephen Spender.

You say that she hated London. I don't know where you have got this from but it is simply not true. She loved London, particularly Primrose Hill in North London, the area that she and Ted lived in when they were first married and the area she moved back to towards the end of her life. She and Ted spent a year of their married life working in America. Sylvia was the one of the two of them who most wanted to come back to London. I have interviews with her on tape where she talks and talks about how much she prefers living in London. Ted had wanted to live in Yorkshire, as that was where he came from originally. Sylvia hated Yorkshire. Yorkshire and London are at the two opposite ends of this country. When he took her to Yorkshire and she hated it so much, there was no question of them living there. They lived in London because she wanted to. They moved to Devon because they needed more space and she liked the country life for a while, but after the marriage break up, it was London she chose to move back to. Yes, this was partly because Ted was there and there was talk of a reunion (on both sides - he wanted a reunion too - it wasn't just her hoping for it) but also because she found the Yeats flat free in her favourite part of London, on the same road as her Doctor, who she was very attached to.

You mention the anti-depressants that she was on and that they may have contributed to her death. I believe this may be true, as do others. She was on an anti-depressant, Parnate, which she had previously been on in America and been allergic to - it had a different name in Britain and so she was taking it. She was put on it because it was meant to work within 10 days or so. Unfortunately, the 10 days is also a 'danger' point in that it can give a depressed person more motivation but they are not yet feeling less depressed - there has been speculation that this can sometimes result in a person killing themselves. It is part of the conclusion that Diane Middlebrook reaches in her book 'Her Husband' and it is also said to be what Ted Hughes and possibly Aurelia Plath believed had happened with Sylvia. However, I really don't know how it can be claimed that she didn't suffer from depression or sickness or any mental illness and was simply ambitious - this seems, forgive me, an absolutely crazy conclusion.

I would also like to say about 'Bitter Fame' - although I am aware there has been so much said about it already: I don't know how it can be described as the 'best most 'straight' biography' of SP there is. Isn't it mostly known by now that that book is the worst, most biased, inaccurate biography there is? Olwyn Hughes may as well have half-written it herself and she despised Sylvia. She wanted Anne Stevenson to write it because Anne was Olwyn's friend and she felt she could influence her. It worked until Anne did hours of research on her own. Then she began to fall out with Olwyn about it. Anne has a box of letters between herself and Olwyn which are sealed in a library in London, not to be opened until Anne dies. Anne Stevenson has since distanced herself from this book slightly. Among the letters is one from TH to Anne expressing his complete disagreement with the way that Olwyn was trying to represent Sylvia (and yes, you could criticise him for not doing anything about that, but it is my belief that he was quite seriously mentally unstable at that time considering everything that had happened, including the death of Assia and Shura, and he simply couldn't cope). This book is THE ONLY official biography of SP, allowed by her Estate - it was half written by someone who disliked her. It ends with 3 memoirs by people that knew SP. Each memoir is by someone who also disliked her, particularly the Dido Merwin one. 'Bitter Fame' is indeed a 'bitter' book - with bad intentions and how anyone who likes SP can think it is the most 'straight' book is beyond me.

Morney Wilson
London, UK
August 27, 2007

Despite my despise for Anne Stevenson and Olywyn Hughes and their joint potrayal (and extreme jealousy!) of Plath, Bitter Fame is by far the most gossipy, entertaining, and sheer fun of all the Plath biographies. It is also, frankly, the smartest, though not perhaps the most scholarly or intellectual. It is certainly the most well-written. The book is almost novel-like in its complexity and willingness to go to the dark, ugly places of its subject's pysche. I couldn't stop reading it, and that says a lot.

While I think that while it was wrong in its one-sided portrayal of Plath as a heinous bitch, it also captures the more vindictive and feisty side of her personality (good god, she was a complex human being after all!) with much candor and wit. I'd read it again, and happily, though with the kind of love-hate that will cause me to throw it against the wall with some element of secret glee afterwards.

Biography will never be truth - we should come to accept this.

Kate Durbin
Whittier, CA , USA
Saturday, 25 August 2007

Eva, I quite like Bitter Fame. I read it in the late 90s and probably hated it; but since then, I've grown to see that the portrayal of Plath is quite human. Negev and Koren's recent biography of Assia Wevill. A Lover of Unreason reminded me very much of Bitter Fame. Both are quite intelligently written and researched, and both do not completely dote on their subject. When you look at the other biographies and biographers of Plath, each has a specific agenda or slant. But, each has its merits as well. Butcher, Hayman and Alexander leaving me wanting for much, much more. I thoroughly enjoy Wagner-Martin's books about Plath, from her biography to the more critical Sylvia Plath: A Literary Life. My own biography of Plath, which I think about 2 people have read (it makes a great coaster), is geared towards high school and early undergraduate students. It is much shorter than the other biographies of Plath, and that space limitation does not allow for cat-fighting or other forms bitchiness. What is important in biography is facts. What are the facts and how are they presented. The narrative must be cohesive and intelligent, and the research must be based on evidence and must be sound. And, ultimately, it must be a good story. I do think Bitter Fame, no matter the story behind the story, is successful.

Peter K Steinberg
Winthrop , USA
Friday, 24 August 2007

Eva you're quite right there has been something of a prolonged hostility towards Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame on this Forum. There was a prolonged discussion of the book in April 1999 which you might be interested in reading in the archives. My own contribution to that discussion can be found here. (19th April 1999)

Elaine Connell
Hebden Bridge , UK
Thursday, 23 August 2007

May I add my two cents worth to the Aurelia Plath discussion? I think it's useful to consider the historical context of the time when the Plath children were growing up. In the first half of the 20th century, mothers were routinely blamed for troubled children, climbing divorce rates, or nearly any kind of family dysfunction. When children struggled with mental illness, the mother was almost universally blamed, far more frequently than fathers.

When I was an undergrad, I spent much time reading and researching 'advice' from the earlier part of the century. Even the most respected experts regularly dished out advice that would be considered shockingly misogynistic today. "Smother" love was an epithet frequently hurled at mothers who "cuddled their babies too much" (!) or who failed to keep the children quiet when the fathers were at home, etc.

I'm not suggesting for one minute that Aurelia Plath was counseled in those baby-rearing techniques, or that she believed them or followed them. But they may well have influenced Sylvia's doctors and caregivers, who seemed to have advocated some kind of radical surgery to separate mother from daughter. I've always been intrigued by SP's assertion that her doctor "gave her permission to hate her mother."

Trish Saunders
Seattle , USA
20 August 2007

I am new to this forum, though a longtime reader of Plath, and also interested in literary biography. What brought me here was happening to read in a cluster, as I do from time to time, Plath's journals, Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame and Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman, with its analysis of the Plath/Hughes biography industry, particularly Stevenson's contribution. I've skimmed though much of the recent discussion on the forum, and was struck by what seemed to me the assumption of a blanket hostility to, or disapproval of, Bitter Fame. I'm well aware of the issues surrounding its writing, the pressure from Olwyn Hughes in particular, and the result certainly is an odd artefact, which feels inhibited, sometimes strained and double-authored. But I think it, with all its problems, by far the best and most intelligent 'straight' biography of Plath available, in a fairly undistinguished field. I'd be very interested in hearing whether my impression that many of you on this forum don't agree is correct, and, if so, why you dislike Bitter Fame.

Eva Longley
London , UK
Monday, 20 August 2007

The Guardian has just printed a very interested article about a new book on Sylvia Plath's early art work. It is called Eye Rhymes: Sylvia Plath's Art of the Visual, and the editor is Kathleen Connors.

P. Viktor
Oxford , UK
15 August 2007

Sylvia had a tendency to become very depressed when she felt she was not reaching her goals or being successful. When she attempted suicide the first time, she had been jobless, and had been denied entrance into the summer writing program at Harvard. (She was later accepted). I would definitely not call her "sick" or "mentally ill." She was just extremely ambitious, as well as a perfectionist. This is why she finally killed herself in London.

The British were not very accommodating of her poetry, and catered to Ted's poetry more so. They were actually quite ignorant to Sylvia. Ted was having an affair, and she hated London, but felt that if she stayed on she may be able to rekindle her relationship with Ted, as well as to publish her poetry in England. She was also on antidepressants, which I believe worsened her condition.

Also, she was such a genius, that her mind went faster than she could actually handle, which often made her seem listless and unambitious at times. This was often mistaken for depression, when in reality she was just overwhelmed by everything, and then not able to do anything. She would always bring herself out of it and resume back to her ambitious self. It is very tragic that she died. She would be an excellent teacher and role model, had she lived on.

Boston, MA , USA
18 August 2007

Mary Jane, I too have long been curious about Aurelia Plath and her life. I have read her book, Letters Home, three times, cover to cover, not only to read Sylvia's story again, but to also get some sense of the woman to whom Sylvia's letters were written. One gets many bits and pieces of Aurelia, actually, from a number of Plath biographies; but there's just never enough material all in one place about the woman to come away with a sense of really, really knowing what she was like.

In my searching for Aurelia, one fact that helps me a lot is placing her against the backdrop of the '40's and '50's, and what it had to be like to be a parent in those times. Throw in raising Sylvia and her brother Warren without husband Otto. Also, remembering the stigma "mental illness" must have carried in the 1950's--(although I describe that decade as the "sick 50's", myself)--and what it must have been like to have the brilliant Smith daughter go missing, then turn up in a crawlspace of the family home, close to death by her own hand. What on earth could it have been like, in that community of Wellesley in 1953, to live with a daughter's brush with suicide?

Thank you for bringing Aurelia Plath back to the Forum! Otto and Aurelia hold so many keys - I just wish I could find them!

Jane Hanudel
Roanoke Rapids, NC, USA
August 5, 2007

Does any one else feel empathy for Aurelia Plath? It doesn't seem as though Sylvia felt any sorrow for what her mother went through at Sylvia's first attempt at suicide. Granted, Sylvia suffered terribly in the prior weeks leading up to the first attempt but so did her mother. Only Sylvia got help but how did Mrs. Plath get through the years of being painted as the bad mother. It always had to be about Sylvia. Even the psychiatrist encouraged the estrangement between mother and daughter. Nobody seems to have cut Mrs. Plath any slack. She seemed to try her best even though Sylvia never seemed too concerned with how her mother fared. Sylvia never seemed too concerned with how anyone else ever fared, including her own babies. Part of that can be blamed on her mental illness but not all of it.

Mary Jane Graff
Naperville , USA
30 July 2007

Re: "The Fearful" discussion....Diane Middlebrook spent a considerable amount of time exploring "the obsessive game of tag {Hughes and Plath were playing} with each other's images" in "Her Husband." She mentions the particularly ghastly way in which the end of Hughes's "Road To Easington" links to the end of Plath's "The Bee Meeting," among others; but there are many examples not touched list them would be an exhaustive project (I think someone once said that every biographer was to an extent 50 percent detective.)

I have always thought "The Other" to be one of Plath's most enigmatic and difficult pieces...indeed, it is to some extent impenetrable....but there are certain adjoining mazes/passages there. I can link its final line "You smile/No, it is not fatal" to Hughes's "Cleopatra To The Asp" from "Lupercal":"Now that I seek myself in a serpent/My smile is fatal."

Not all of Plath's work is so steeped in mystery (and is no less beautiful for its clarity.) "The Moon And The Yew Tree", for example, is as straightforward as they come. "A Secret," on the other hand, reads as if Plath had sprung all sorts of ingenious traps to keep the reader from accessing the true meaning of her work. It could be that she was herself loathe to confront the meaning of her poem, and was therefore evading herself in dense allusions....or as if she had donned the uniform of Allusion to get past her own guards. TS Eliot once said that poetry was never an expression of emotion, but always a way to evade it. That's an easy statement to dismiss/disagree with, initially, but once the truth of it settles, it is undeniable. Not as a given, of course....Sexton's poetry is as poignant an example of pure, unapologetic expression as we have.

I like the Plath painting. Deliberately garish and exaggerated. A jack-in-the-boxish directness, running and seeping with alarming color. Effective.

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Thanks Nancy and Jim - it's good to know I'm not completely mad! I would have liked to have been there when Assia related her dream of the pike - it must have been a pivotal moment for the three of them, certainly enough to spark a poem by Hughes and perhaps a line or two from Plath.

Welcome Sara, no need to apologize for your English - which is much better than most English speaker's Italian! And thanks P. Viktor for the info - I've enjoyed checking out your blog and Stella Vine's site.

Hoping all our friends in the UK are ok after the flooding and that you stay safe and dry.

Detroit , USA
July 24, 2007

Kim, I read your response with interest as well. Right after I posted I coincidentally stumbled across those same lines in, "The Fearful", (re child swimming in the eye.) I believe they are connected to Ted's poem, "Dreamers". But...I think Sylvia's poem came first. It appears as if a sizeable portion of "Birthday Letters" inspiration came from dipping (sometimes incessantly, e.g. "Daddy") into her work...journals, letters, poems, etc. Ted's penchant for folklore and fibbery also comes to mind.

Something doesn't ring true in his "The Rabbit Catcher" version either. Actually, a few things don't. The tone, for one. He writes from the viewpoint of being an eager-to-please husband, baffled by his wife's behavior. He takes great pains to read her mood. But, according to Sylvia's poems, Ted for a number of months had been doing the opposite -- neglecting her, tuning her out. And the poem took place during the month he fell in love with Assia. It also seems unlikely that Sylvia and Ted would have been scrambling around in the cliff-top gorse. What happened to the two babies with them? Did they (2 yr old, 4 mth old baby) get left in the car down by the roadside? Plus, at this point in her life, Sylvia probably stuffed a fair number of rabbits in her pot and was no longer moved to tears by the dissapointing English beach. It appears as if Ted took events from earlier portions of their marriage, comingled them and moved all forward to May 1962 - to coincide with her poem "Rabbit Catcher" poem from that month. It doesn't work for me. (I don't think Plath's poem is literally about rabbits - but I'll save for a future post.)

Nancy Howell
Sacramento , USA
Monday, 23 July 2007

Finally I've found this forum! Introduce myself (and I'm very sorry for my english but I'm a self-taught): I study modern filology at the Florence University and I'm writhing a short anthology about poets (female poems); The anthology's theme could be "Body as material, Body as memory", I'll start from Plath and Anne Sexton. Do you know other poets they speak about body or theirs body experience? The anthology's basic concept is that body has memory. Thanks a lot

Florence , Italy
Monday, 23 July 2007

Kim - I don't see that it's such a stretch of the imagination at all that the lines you point out in "The Fearful" refer to the incident of Assia's 'pike dream'. I think you intuitively hit the nail on the head. And I don't think the dream Hughes relates in his poem is a figment of his imagination; it seems perfectly reasonable to me that Assia, a sensitive and creative person herself, having read Hughes' poem, and sleeping in his house, would have such a dream. I don't buy the theory that the dream was generated by her seeing Sylvia's pike recipe on the wall; it seems to me that Assia wasn't that keen on the domestic chores that she would home in on a recipe on the wall. But I can certainly imagine that Sylvia, as possessive as she was regarding Hughes, would be, if not envious, at least jealous of Assia's claim to the dream. I also think it's interesting that, while Hughes describes the pike's eye as a "globed, golden eye", Sylvia describes it as "silver", as if to stake her own claim on it by associating it with her own name.

Jim Long
Honolulu , USA
July 20, 2007

Having recently attended a private view of Stella Vine's new exhibition in Oxford, some of you may be interested to know that the artist is a huge fan of Plath's work, and has painted several portraits of both Sylvia and Ted Hughes. I have written a short article about the exhibition on my website which includes one of the paintings of Sylvia to accompany it. It is a fascinating exhibition from one of the UK's most important new talents. I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in Plath and the various issues surrounding her life.

I would also like to know if anyone has been able to track down a copy of The Unraveling Archive edited by Anita Helle - it seems almost impossible to buy, having had my Amazon purchase pushed back several times.

P. Viktor
Oxford , UK
July 19, 2007

In passing, I discovered some rather baffling inconsistencies last night. If you google Plath's "Letter In November," virtually all the first sites that come up have "wall of ODD corpses" listed against the correct "wall of OLD corpses." This includes heavily-trafficked, long-running, & generally well regarded repositories like and There is another site, linkable through Anja Beckmann's Sylvia Plath Page, that lists 230 of Plath's poems in alphabetical order (by far the largest collection of her verse I've yet been able to find online.) This site, too, has the line as "odd corpses."

In the end, I was finally able to access the correct version by typing the actual line, "the wall of old corpses...I love them like history" into google...but it took some digging to get there. Things like this reinforce P. Viktor's recent assertion that the Plath estate really could be doing more toward making Plath's work available in an accurate and readily accessible format (not to imply that invaluable resources like this forum haven't been tremendously instrumental in doing just that :-)

Lisa Flowers
Norfolk, Virginia , USA
Wednesday, 18 July 2007

I still have not been able to locate Jillian Becker's book 'Giving Up' but am hoping to soon. Thank you, both Trish and Lisa, for the information. Regarding Plath's last few days, I thought I had read somewhere that her doctor had secured a hospital bed for her but it was not available for occupation until that Monday, February 11. He knew how depressed she was but took the risk of allowing her to visit friends over the weekend prior to her death because he thought that the children would sustain her. I would imagine that her manic cycles over that weekend might have deceived those around her as to her true state of mind. If it's true that she had Bipolar I--obviously not able to be diagnosed then--it is understandable that her friends were mislead. I'm hoping to obtain more insight from Becker's book.

Melinda M
Glendora , USA
July 16, 2007

Nancy I read your post with interest because of a line in Sylvia's poem 'The Fearful', written in November 1962. The subject of the poem appears to be Assia. Plath writes, in part:

She would rather be dead than fat,
Dead and perfect like Nefertit,

Hearing the fierce mask magnify
The silver limbo of each eye

Where the child can never swim,
Where there is only him and him.

Perhaps it's a stretch, but I've been wondering if that penultimate line refers to Assia and her dream about the foetus and the eye of the fish. Perhaps I am reading too much into things, with hindsight! Certainly there are other interpretations, but I would welcome others opinions on this.

If the line does refer to that dream incident, it may verify Hughes'recollection. In any case, Assia could have made the dream up and 'recounted' it to Hughes and Plath, knowing it was just the kind of thing that would appeal to Ted. It doesn't necessarily follow that Ted stretched the truth about the incident in Birthday Letters, although I'm sure there is creative license in all of the poems. If he was bored & stifled in his marriage and drawn to Assia he might well have wanted to believe that she had dreamt about a pike, one of his totem 'animals', so as to justify his eventual affair with her. And I'm sure Sylvia would have been aware of this, too.

Detroit , USA
July 15, 2007

Although I find Edward Butscher generally indigestible [note here to Melinda - I also have the faulty Aurelia attribution] there are some tasty morsels amidst the gristle including this surprising piece of information from, Sylvia Plath, Method and Madness (1977, 2nd edition paperback). If true, it certainly sucks some of the air out of Ted Hughes' poem 'Dreamers' from "Birthday Letters". In this poem Hughes writes re Assia Wevill,

After a single night under our roof
She told her dream. A giant fish, a pike
Had a globed, golden eye, and in that eye
A throbbing human fetus -
You were astonished, maybe envious.

In describing the kitchen decor of the Hughes, new Devon home, Butscher writes:

She (Sylvia) also did the cooking, and transformed her large kitchen into a typical peasant one, decorated with hanging onions and garlic bulbs and, in honor of Ted's famous poem, an old-fashioned recipe for pike from the middle ages. (Chapter 17, p. 305 - source appears to be Elizabeth Compton)

If correct, it seems highly unlikely that Assia would have had the pike dream - or rather, if she had it, it would have caused any astonishment. Most likely, the reaction would have been a laugh. "Ha, ha. You had a dream about Sylvia's fish recipe. See, its right over there on our wall." The only source on Assia's pike dream is Ted's poem. David Wevill voiced doubts about its occurrence in Lover of Unreason. I personally am puzzled when Birthday Letters is used as an autobiographical source - as it's a creative production by a highly imaginative individual.

Nancy Howell
Sacramento , USA
July 11, 2007

Claudette - you emailed me a few weeks ago and asked if I knew whether or not Plath had read The Painted Caravan. She did read it, and it's actually mentioned in a note to my own book, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath! Note 46 to section III (The Central Symbol of the Moon):

"This phrase is from a Tarot book owned by Plath (Basil Ivan Rakoczi, The Painted Caravan [The Hague: J.C. Boucher. 1954], p. 64)."

(The phrase from The Painted Caravan that is referred to is: "the intuition which is beyond" (body or mind).)

Judith Kroll
Austin, TX, USA
Monday, 9 July 2007

Hello Janet, the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City holds what they title the "Autograph transcript of 40 juvenile poems" by Sylvia Plath. Their note about the holding fits perfectly your description, "In a notebook with brown paper covers and with margins decorated with drawings in color in ink and crayon. Together with early transcripts of 29 poems, mostly in pencil and mostly notebook duplicates. Presumably 27 of the poems are available in no other text than the notebook transcripts."

The Morgan Library is online at

Peter K Steinberg
Winthrop , USA
July 4, 2007

Hey Janet, I'm not sure because I don't have access to my notes at the moment, but I'd imagine the notebook that you are looking for is in the Lily Library at Indiana University. It's where most of her juvenalia is housed. I believe the Plath archive catalogue is online and that you could find it somwhere through their website. Good luck with finding what you are looking for.

Was anyone else aware of the Eye Rhymes catalogue being published? It's coming out 26 October. I don't know, I'm feeling a general excitement.

Littleton, CO , USA
July 4, 2007

Lisa, you just gotta love You Tube. Kids today.

I too stumbled across "Sylvia and Assia Forever" and thought it was hilarious. You do have to have a particularly twisted sense of humor to really appreciate it I think. I love the "Silent Movie" style and Assia's gestures with the half-naked cowboy doll.

Another thing I found: the entire film "Sylvia" is on You Tube, though broken up into nineteen parts. How anyone got away with such flagrant copyright violation is beyond me. So for those of us who haven't seen it yet or who are facing a very dull day at work, wheeeeee!

Suzanne Burns
Watertown MA , USA
July 3, 2007

I just wondered if anyone might know the answer to my question about the location of Plath's earliest writings. Years ago while library-hopping I saw a manuscript of Plath's childhood poems--it was one of those old composition books we all carried, with poems and drawings which she had labeled by age. I took notes which I have still, but I neglected to note which library had the notebook. I had thought it was the Berg Collection, but I can't find any reference to it there. I went to several other libraries in New York and Philadelphia at the time, but can't seem to find any reference to this notebook anywhere. Do you happen to know where it is housed? Thanks.

Janet McCann
College Station , USA
July 2, 2007


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