In 1951, Sylvia Plath signed off on a letter to her mother: “The only quiet woman is a dead one.”
Was anyone ever so wrong?
Twelve years later, Plath would kill herself in her London flat on a winter morning, while her small children slept in the next room and her husband was off with another woman. But she has never stopped speaking to us.
There have been the posthumously published poems, journals and juvenilia. And she’s been famously spoken for — villainized and valorized in a plethora (Plathora?) of biographies and critical studies, a film, an opera. She’s been made to stand in for the plight of the female writer, the plight of the wronged woman, the plight of mental illness and — in “The Silent Woman,” Janet Malcolm’s survey of this hive of activity — the very problem of biography itself.
In 2003, a reader of this newspaper named Horace Hone spoke for the weary when he wrote in to protest “Sylvia,” a biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow: “Enough already.”
Mr. Hone, I’m afraid I have bad news.
Plath’s letters have been collected for the first time, edited by Peter K. Steinberg, an archivist specializing in Plath, and Karen V. Kukil, the editor of Plath’s journals and curator of the Plath collection at Smith College. The first volume — attractive, immense and done up in trendy millennial pink — is just out.
The era has passed in which those who held Ted Hughes responsible for Plath’s suicide would chisel her married name from her headstone. But the years have passed more slowly, you suspect, for the family and the Plath estate. Frieda Hughes, the couple’s daughter and only surviving child (their son, Nicholas, killed himself in 2009), begins the book of letters with a spectacularly defensive foreword — a tribute less to Plath than to Hughes:
“The reason my mother should be of interest to readers at all is due to my father, because, irrespective of the way their marriage ended, he honored my mother’s work and her memory by publishing ‘Ariel,’ ” she writes. “It seems to me that, as a result of their profound belief in each other’s literary abilities, my parents are as married in death as they once were in life.” There is the effect, slightly comic and horrifying, of the daughter presiding over the vow renewal ceremony for the ghosts of her parents.
Read more at the New York Times.