All Quiet On The Wench Front

Herstory at its fucking finest.

The Plath Less Travelled


Last week, in the run up to the fiftieth anniversary of The Bell Jar, Hadley Freeman wrote a piece about Ted Hughes with a fist-clenchingly unfavourable view of avid Plath fans. The gist of her gripe is that the criticism Hughes faced in the years after his wife’s death was uncalled for, and probably should have waned as this literary landmark approaches. “Time seems only to have aggravated the emotions, as well as the ignorance,” says Freeman, and it’s “an all-too-typical attitude when it comes to Plath: that outsiders know better, maybe even feel more, than those she left behind.”

For years, Hughes’ family maintained that his controversial censoring of Plath’s work was to protect their children from further pain, to protect her family’s privacy, to protect her reputation. The credibility of this claim, and whether or not he managed to protect anyone, has been fervently contested by Plathites and Sylvia’s friends for just as long.

Of course, the flames of resentment are fanned by accusations of a much more personal nature. Accusations of his responsibility for her suicide – while unfounded – grew considerably when Hughes’ lover Assia Wevill, the lover he left Plath for, killed herself too. Only six years later.

Freeman’s right; it is unfair to put so much blame on Ted’s shoulders. He lost his wife, the mother of his children and most probably had to deal with his own guilt and remorse (I’m continuing under the assumption that he’s not a monster, see Freeman, impartiality). To then face a furor of adorers who felt personally affronted by how he acted on their icon’s behalf must have been horrific.

But it’s no surprise that Plathites have questioned his motives. He burnt her last diary, refused to publish anything written before 1956 (the year Plath met Hughes) and eventually handed over responsibility of Plath’s estate to his sister, who hated her when she was alive. Many of these actions – irrespective of whether or not it’s “fair” to make assumptions about anyone’s motives –  could be construed as Hughes’ efforts to protect his own reputation. Plath had loved Hughes very deeply and everyone who knew them attests to as much. Throughout their relationship she put her own career on the backburner to help him with his. His affair with Wevill devastated her; and while it also allowed her to put all her energy into finishing The Bell Jar, it undoubtedly added to the anguish she’d been fighting throughout her short life.

I think that’s why I sympathise with the fan-girls; the girls who have fought for the rest of Plath’s work. Fuck it, I am a fangirl. For me, the scrutiny that Plath and Hughes’ relationship has endured is protective too. Protective of a woman who at fifteen, after reading The Bell Jar (weeping, nodding and scratching viciously at patches of eczema for the entire 234 pages), I felt was in my head; documenting my own demons. Listening to other’s recount their experiences of the novel made made me, and a million other teenage messes, realise everyone felt the same. So asking devotees to remove Hughes from Plath’s suicide and the shroud of confusion and hurt that surrounds her work doesn’t seem fair either. Rarely is she even mentioned without the context of her husband, he’s so intertwined in what we know about her it’s hard not to hold him with some contempt.

The eventual purpose (there is one) of Hadley’s Hughes-praising is to knock Andrew Wilson’s new biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, which she says gives the Ted and Sylvia story the “usual treatment”. If you read past the blurb you’ll find that’s not what the biography’s intensions are. Wilson has collected previously unavailable material from the archives, interviewed old lovers and friends who have never spoken openly about Plath before, in an attempt to “reclaim Plath from the tangle of emotions associated with her relationship with Ted Hughes and reveal the origins of her unsettled and unsettling voice”. 

The introduction begins at the bit we all know. And no, it doesn’t shed any new light on the Plath-Hughes story. But it quickly it leaves the Ted part of the narrative behind in favour of oh, I don’t know, exploring PLATH’S life. Wilson writes:

“One of the missing poems {from Ariel} is her 1953 villanelle “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” which Plath described as one of her favorites… In her journal, she recalled how she had been inspired to write the poem after a boyfriend, “Mike,” didn’t turn up for a date. The Mike she refers to is Myron Lotz, one of a myriad of Plath’s early boyfriends who, over the years, have been obscured by the “dark, hunky” presence of Ted Hughes. Yet these men—figures who have not been explored in any depth in any previous biography—influenced and shaped both Plath’s life and her work in a way that has not been fully appreciated. Although Hughes was “her husband” (as he once described himself in the third person), he was not the only man in her life: before she met him she had gone out with literally hundreds of men—some who were innocent dates, others who were more serious. As she said herself in an early poem, “Adolescence,” she knew she would never be able to confine her love to just one man. These men inspired both her poetry—for instance, Gordon Lameyer, who was unofficially engaged to Plath in August 1954, was the source of “Sonnet for a Green-Eyed Sailor”—and her prose: she regurgitated her toxic feelings for boyfriend Dick Norton by penning a vicious portrait of him as the unimaginative Buddy Willard in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.”

His description of her early boyfriends have been regarded as a little futile, he even says himself that they were all “obscured” by her torrid love for Hughes. How much can you really learn from finding out how many times a girl was fingered behind the bike sheds? Er, maybe it explains why she felt so strongly for her husband? Someone who had aspirations beyond the restraints of conventional American values. Someone who challenged her and excited her, someone who had artistry coursing through his veins too. Someone who made her go weak at the knees. Maybe she thought he was the antidote to her disdain for life. Maybe that’s why it hit her so hard when he left her. Maybe. Maybe not.

The point is, the book deals with Plath as a separate entity to Hughes. It deals with her as a young woman. A young woman who had opinions on sex: “Plath was an addict of experience, and she could not bear the fact that young women like her were denied something so life-enhancing”, on traditionalism, on what she felt her pressures were as a modern female in the 1950s – all of which are themes in The Bell Jar, but have never really been looked at in Sylvia’s own life outside the parametres of her marriage. Wilson looks closely at the beginning of her mental health issues, beyond the stigmas of “hysteria” and “neurosis”, or the notion that Plath was just another jilted wife:

“If too much has been made of the symptoms of Plath’s mental illness, so too little attention has been paid to its possible causes. Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury.”

Wilson reminds us that Plath’s poetry was at the crux of her ingenious, something which I only discovered years after reading The Bell Jar. 

“Plath’s struggle to come to terms with her self in all its many facets—a battle that, ultimately, she did not win—generated the peculiar set of psychological circumstances that inspired her greatest poetry. There is no doubt that writing was her outlet for venting the host of negative feelings that crowded within her.”

While it can be hard to appreciate her as a poet without some angst, because Hughes largely controlled what poems were and are available, finding out what inspired some of her best loved poems is what I’m looking forward to most.

Freeman finishes by expressing her own adoration of Plath, specifically how she related to her as a young American studying in England. But she wants other fans to know that pro-Plath doesn’t mean anti-Hughes, because “no one can know what really goes on in a marriage other than those involved”. True, everything that we know about their relationship (and Plath) is speculation. Speculation generated by the fact that parts of her life are still a mystery, for whatever the reason Hughes thought alright. That’s why I find her dismissal of Wilson’s biography so odd.

This isn’t just another retelling of an old tale. Whether the book does this period of her life justice remains to be seen, but for one thing, Wilson’s efforts to build an image of Plath’s formative years can only help Hughes’ case. Offering an insight into what Plath’s life was like before Ted, what she went through at the time of her life that inspired The Bell Jar, is probably the only thing that could finally dispel Plathite animosity towards Hughes.

But there is a retelling of an old tale, it’s just not in Wilson’s book. It lies at the very heart of why Plath lovers have fought so hard for so long. What we know about Plath, a woman, has been dictated to us by Hughes, a man – it’s the oldest tale there is. All the other stuff is messy and complicated and I think Hadley’s spot on when she says that nobody will ever know the truth. The truth that we can all agree on is that somewhere in this story, Hughes doesn’t have a speaking part. Understanding that could be the key to freeing both Plath’s legacy, and Hughes’.

So please don’t be too scathing of those who want the rest of story. The Bell Jar made us all mad girls. Mad with loyalty. Mad with empathy. Mad with love.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted is out 31st January.



/wenCH/ noun Origin Middle English: abbreviation of obsolete wenchel, meaning child, servant, prostitute; perhaps related to Old English wancol, meaning unsteady, inconstant. Definition Girl, woman, probably a right stand-up bird.



her·sto·ry /ˈhərstərē/ noun Shit hot history from a female or feminist perspective.
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