Review: The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963

Faber (September 2018), ISBN: 978 0 571 33920 4, PRICE: A$69.99 (hardback), 1025 pages.

Review ©Ann Skea 2018 (Published in Newtown Review of Books, December 2018)

This second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters takes up her correspondence from where Volume I left off and completes what must be one of, if not the, most comprehensive collections of letters of any major 20th Century literary figure. As with the first volume it has been meticulously edited, footnoted and indexed, and will be of immense value to Plath scholars and to general readers who wish to know more about Sylvia Plath’s life. It contains 1,400 letters to more than 140 correspondents but the bulk of the letters are to her mother, Aurelia, who previously edited and published Sylvia Plath: Letters Home (Faber, 1976). These letters are now published in full for the first time, and it seems that Aurelia had chosen to leave out not just irrelevant details but also critical and sometimes offensive references to people, such as Sylvia’s in–laws, who were still living. The most interesting letters for many readers of this latest volume will be those which Sylvia wrote to her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, during her marital breakup. These are published here for the first time but take up only the last 179 pages of the 1025 pages of the book.

The first letter in the book is dated 28th October 1956. Sylvia and Ted Hughes are now married but Sylvia still has to get “all the proper sanctions and consents” (p.2) from the Fulbright officials and from Newnham, the Cambridge College where she is studying and where, as she puts it with typical exaggeration, “the virginal victorians” “titter incredulously” at the notion that a woman can “think and cook at the same time” (p.85). With approvals granted, she and Ted move to their own flat, and Ted takes a job teaching English and drama to boys who Sylvia describes variously, according to the intended recipient of her letter, as “secondary modern boys”, “individual simple little minds”, “near cretins” and “a gang of 40 teddy-boys, teen–age, who carry chains & razors to school and can’t remember their multiplication tables for two days running”. She also writes that she told Ted that if he allowed her to be his literary agent she would “guarantee 15 poems sold each year” (p.13) and her letters show how, by keeping the work each of them produced in constant circulation, she brilliantly succeeded in establishing the creative careers of both Ted and herself.

Sylvia completes her degree and in June 1957 they sail to America, a country she is plotting “subtly to make [Ted] fall in love with” (p 80). Already she has started his make–over, asking her brother to “go get him a summer suit”, shirts and an overcoat, because “we must get him fitted up in a nice wardrobe which he likes, very subtly”(p. 39). She plans for her second, American, wedding, but she eventually decides against this in preference for a home–coming party and gifts from friends: “I’ve given up all ceremony & presents belonging to a new bride” (p 15).

After a brief holiday in Cape Cod (a wedding present from Sylvia’s mother) Sylvia starts teaching at Smith College, where she took her first degree. Her letters show how keen she was to take the job:

I want to work: to earn a salary, not live off a grant: I want to remember how young & unread 17–year–old girls still are. I want, above all, to make them love their work & shock & stir them into new awareness. Which will teach me immeasurably much & also give me a sense of joyous pride. (p.99)

But she is desperate not to fail the expectations of her former teachers, who are now her colleagues. The letters show how hard she worked and how difficult it often was for her. And Ted’s Birthday Letters poem, ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ describes succinctly her “flayed nerve” and her fear of “the eyes that waited at the back of the class / To check your first professional performance / Against their expectations”. Sylvia expresses her great relief when she chooses not to accept a renewal of her employment at Smith but all this time, as throughout the book, her letters to her mother are almost relentlessly upbeat.

Postcards cover Sylvia’s and Ted’s tour of America, then Sylvia’s letters follow their move to Boston for a year of just writing, their two months at the artists’ retreat at Yaddo, their return to England and their lives in London and Devon from then on.

The letters also show how much in love they were and how closely she and Ted worked together in everything, forging a unique partnership in which they shared every aspect of their lives. Early in their marriage Sylvia wrote: “we read, discuss poems we discover, talk, analyse” (p.21); and they continued to suggest topics, plots and titles for each other, to criticise each other’s work, and to share working–time and baby–care. Also, these letters provide an impressive, ongoing, catalogue of their publications and rejections, prizes, awards, readings, and earnings. In December 1961, Sylvia wrote to her friend Marcia Stern:

It isn’t accurate to say we live on writing, as we’ve been lucky with writing grants & prizes which have seen us over the financial humps which the weekly trickle of earning won’t cover(p.695).

And in September 1962, she told her mother:

Together we have earned about $7,000 this year, a fine salary, I earning a third.

Only a couple of times does Sylvia outline her techniques and meanings in particular poems, but the source of many of her stories and poems, and of Ted’s Birthday Letters poems, is clearly evident. There are also three detailed pages of notes to her publisher about The Bell Jar, identifying the changes Sylvia made in order to avoid libel (p.683-5).

There are brief moments of self–analysis and worrying moments when she identifies with Virginia Woolf or writes that Ted “even fills that huge sad hole I felt having no father” (p 21). In her last very sad and moving letter to Beuscher, she writes:

I have finally read the Fromm [Eric Fromm’s The Art of Loving, suggested to her by Beuscher] & think that I have been guilty of what he calls ‘Idolatrous love’, that I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself, and this is why deeply underneath the marvellous loving, the writing, the babies I feared his loss, his leaving me & depended on him more & more, making him both idol & father.(p. 967)

The letters in this book, however, do not show the whole Sylvia. For that, they must be read alongside her journals and notebooks, her stories and her poems. It is also necessary to read some of the memoirs of her written by others who knew her, such as Lucas Myers, Dido Merlin and Richard Murphy, all of which are included in Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (Viking, 1989).

My own reaction to the letters was complex, and my feelings about Sylvia changed as the book progressed. I admired her drive, her energy, her wholehearted determination to succeed in spite of her fears and insecurities, and her resilience and her genius. But I found it hard to understand how she, whilst constantly claiming in her letters to have little money, could pay a cleaner, a babysitter and, after Ted left, hire a nanny and take riding lessons. In 1963 I was in a similar situation to Sylvia, having moved with a toddler and a new baby to a strange Lancashire town away from family and friends. My husband worked full time (so no shared daytime baby–minding, as Sylvia and Ted had) and I was studying by correspondence. We were not quite “working class”, as Sylvia disparagingly calls her in–laws in her later letters, but we were only just able to survive on my husband’s professional salary. Our situation was not unusual for a young married couple in England at that time but employing someone to do the ironing and clean the house would never have occurred to most people like us.

My other feeling, from quite early in the book, was that in her letters to her “Dearest mother” Sylvia made constant requests for Aurelia to send her things from America (cake–mix, cookie sheets, oven thermometer, bra and pants, sheets of stamps etc. etc.) and to do things for her (handle banking, sponsor Ted for an American visa, make dental and doctors appointments for them, check out available flats in Boston). She comes across as a very demanding daughter, and without Aurelia’s side of the correspondence there is no way of telling whether or not she invited this. I was shocked, therefore, to read, in July 1957, that Sylvia had written a story called ‘The Trouble–Making Mother’ and was planning to send it to the Saturday Evening Post. Sylvia’s outline of this story in her journal (20th July 1957) describes it as “close to my experience”’ and notes that it is about a daughter fighting for freedom and integrity, and trying to break free of a mother who dominates her and flirts with her boyfriends. The second shock, after all the letters from a seemingly very loving daughter, was Sylvia’s angry letter to her mother telling her “my business in this town is my business, & for goodness sake learn to keep your mouth shut about it” (p.874).

Something not mentioned in Sylvia’s letters, but about which there are many pages in her journal, are her consultations with Ruth Beuscher with whom she had therapy whilst she and Ted were living in Boston. In her Journal, on December 12th 1958, Sylvia wrote:

Ever since yesterday I have been feeling like a new person… Better than shock treatment “I give you permission to hate your mother”.
“I hate her, doctor”. So I feel terrific. In the smarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one’s mother. Especially a sanction one believes in….
What do I do? I don’t imagine time will make me love her. I can pity her: she’s had a lousy life; she doesn’t know she’s a walking vampire. But that’s only pity. Not love.

(Kukil (ed.), The Journals of Sylvia Plath, Faber, 200, p. 428).

Another shock, to me, was her account of Olwyn’s verbal attack on her whilst she and Ted were spending Christmas with his parents in Yorkshire. At least one of the claims Sylvia makes in her two accounts of the quarrel is untrue. She writes of “Olwyn and two friends” and that Olwyn wanted them to stay in the small flat she and Ted were renting. Sylvia omits to say that one of the friends was Lucas Myers, whom she knew well, as her letter to him in March 1957 shows (p. 85). Also, as Lucas writes in his memoir of Sylvia, Olwyn and her friend were staying together in the friend’s flat and had no need of accommodation. He writes, too, that Sylvia completely ignored Olwyn’s friend on that occasion, not even acknowledging her the whole time they were there, and that he had never before seen Olwyn disconcerted, as she was by this. Knowing Olwyn, I am sure she spoke her mind bluntly, as she always did, being the Yorkshire lass she was. But with five people in a small house in winter, one of whom is an American stranger, and with Sylvia (who, as she admits, was never easily able to hide her feelings) very critical of her mother–in–law, the stresses must have been considerable. In a letter from Yorkshire to her uncle and aunt, Sylvia writes:

Ted’s mother’s not a good cook. She boils everything, including steak, and her pastries which she makes without any recipe would sink like a battleship….I do love to cook and I can’t understand how anybody can be a bad cook when the recipes are so simple and easy to follow. Of course I try to make as much as I can whilst I’m here, but it’s a battle in a tiny messy kitchen with no supplies(p. 380).

Later, she writes to her mother:

I must be a real terror of a daughter–in–law. (Ted always brags of my cooking), typing away all day & measuring my ingredients & eating meat rare & not falling into the rhythm of starches, sweets & tea… (p.389).

Olwyn may or may not have been jealous of Sylvia, as Sylvia claims, but Sylvia was never able to tolerate other women in Ted’s life, as she admits to Beuscher in one of her last letters to her, and she clearly never forgave Olwyn.

Perhaps the most important perspective on these letters is offered by Sylvia’s and Ted’s daughter, Frieda, in her ‘Foreword’ (pp. xv-xxv). There, she tells of how she came to see extracts from her mother’s correspondence with her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, published in an advertisement from a rare books dealer and how she, finally, got to read these letters after many others outside the family had already done so. She discusses some of the content which the media have sensationalised; and she disproves, to her own satisfaction, some of the accusations made against her father. She also offers a rational and believable view of the marriage and the separation as a whole:

In my view, they were both flawed and impassioned human beings and I love them more for this. They both suffered, they both made mistakes, they were going through the same kind of hell that literally thousands of couples go through every day, and, in fact, the letters are profoundly illuminating in this respect. (p. xxv).

© Ann Skea 2018. For permission to quote any part of this document contact Dr Ann Skea at

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