Running to more than 1,000 pages, this second tranche of the poet Sylvia Plath’s letters is remarkable chiefly for a mere 14 pieces of correspondence, seen here for the first time. They are written to the psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher, who had treated her in America in 1953 and 1954, in the aftermath of the suicide attempt that finds its fictional form in Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar, published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas and appearing only weeks before she killed herself in February 1963.
Plath left behind one published volume of poetry, The Colossus and Other Poems — although more appeared posthumously. Such was the impact of her exploration of both inner and outer landscapes in staggeringly intense, brutal and lyrical language that her loss to the literary world has been mourned ever since.
The inclusion of those 14 letters has a painful genesis, detailed in the book’s foreword by Plath’s and Ted Hughes’s daughter Frieda, who didn’t even know of the letters’ existence until two years ago. In the 1970s, it transpires, an unnamed biographer had persuaded Dr Beuscher to give them the letters. Although the project was never realised, they kept hold of this precious material and, in 2017, not only put them up for sale but posted photographs of them on the internet.
It is hard to conceptualise, for a child who was not yet three when her mother died and who has since seen every aspect of her family life scrutinised for decades, how cataclysmic and terrifying that must have been. “I imagined the terrors and anguish my mother could well have expressed in those letters in a bloody sort of way,” Frieda writes of the time before she was given access to them; “I simply wept over their contents”, she says, when she finally read them in full.
Plath’s letters to Beuscher begin in 1960, as she returns to “a cold, bleak & utterly inhospitable London” after two and a half years working and travelling with Hughes in the US. The first few blend easily with the tone she uses elsewhere in letters to her mother Aurelia and brother, friends and associates. In much of her preceding correspondence, she has been markedly upbeat, filled with excitement at marrying Hughes and setting up home in Cambridge, and apparently beguiled by domesticity. She reports painting walls, building bookcases and — occasionally to an almost obsessional degree — buying and cooking food. Send vitamins and Flako piecrust mix, she asks her mother, tossing in news of her and Hughes’s creative and professional successes and failures (including rejection by “the disdainful New Yorker”).
As with all private correspondence, it is impossible to assess what degree of performance pertains. We do not know to what extent Plath’s joyful account of the early years of her marriage can be taken at face value, balanced against how much she wrote to reassure her mother — and possibly herself — of her happiness. The energy and wholesomeness that she brings to family life can read as an attempt to ward off what might trouble her at its edges.
Certainly, when her relationship with Hughes began to break down, after the couple had moved, with Frieda, to a remote and unmanageable house in north Devon, she writes heart-rendingly of her sense of humiliation. “Everyone is delighted at what Ted has done,” she tells novelist Olive Higgins Prouty of the gossips in London’s literary scene. “[He] is so famous, and all I can do is face the spotlight with dignity, not hide.”
With Dr Beuscher, as should be with one’s mental health practitioner, Plath is less concerned to disguise her grief and anger, or to bolster her dignity. She is sick, she says, “of being called a possessive institution, eg an old womb”. She writes cruelly of the barrenness of Hughes’s mistress Assia Wevill (or, as she christens her, Weavy Asshole; she was not without spiteful wit); she confides her fears of replicating her mother’s status as abandoned wife. In an almost aside, she reports that “Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage”, a piece of information that emerged only when the letters did, causing Frieda much pain and confusion (in her foreword, she attempts to balance what she knew of both her parents and make a reckoning about the truth or otherwise of the matter).
Despite the thousands of words written about Plath since her death, it is never not shocking to read about those final days; to witness how rapidly and viciously her mental state unravelled. “I think I am dying,” she wrote to Dr Beuscher, in the autumn before she took her life, and then, in February 1963, comes a final dispatch. “What appals me,” she says, in a sad and strange echo of Virginia Woolf’s last letter, “is the return of my madness”; and, later, “I am scared to death I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up.” A week later, she did.
The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1956-1963, edited by Peter Steinberg, and Karen Kukil, Faber & Faber, RRP£35, 1,024 pages
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