The many selves of Sylvia Plath: the poet’s early letters show a writer in training

Her mother was the eager audience who would always devour the tiniest detail of Plath's life.

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On 10 February 1956, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother, Aurelia, from Cambridge, where she was – as most readers of this volume of her collected letters will know – a Fulbright scholar, having graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, the year before. During the summer of 1953, she had suffered from “insomnia and exhaustion”, as the editors here describe it; electroshock therapy had been administered.

In August that year, she had attempted suicide, taking an overdose of sleeping pills and hiding in the basement of the family home in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her disappearance was reported in newspapers under headlines such as “Brilliant college girl disappears” – for she had already made her mark not only as a student but as a published writer in Seventeen magazine and the Christian Science Monitor. But she recovered, and the scholarship that took her to England opened up a new world. She relished it.

“It is cold, biting, with blizzard flurries, and I bike home from classes and market, laden with apples, oranges, nuts, and daffodils,” she wrote. “I am grateful for all the uncertainty, and all the horrors of suffering when I thought I was doomed to be mad for ninety years in a cell with spiders; I am solidly, realistically joyous; I like living in hope of publication; I can live without the actual publication. I write, however poorly, or superficially, for fun, for aesthetic order, and I am not poor or superficial, no matter what I turn out.”

Such a paragraph seems a perfect encapsulation of the qualities inherent in much of Plath’s epistolary writing. There is the crystalline observation of the sensual world – the weather, the wind – and her love of food and bright colours, as well as her desire to make a home for herself anywhere she was. Especially in writing to her mother – to whom she was very close, her father having died when she was a little girl – she acknowledged her suffering but determined, with a brittle brightness, to overcome it.

Is it because the reader knows the end of her story that her solid, realistic joy seems more wished-for than attained? By setting it down on paper, did she hope to make it true? How much of what she wrote was meant to present a particular self – especially to her mother, who had worked so hard to raise her children after the death of her husband, Otto?

As Sylvia Plath wrote to her younger brother, Warren, in May 1953: “You know, as I do, and it is a frightening thing, that mother would actually Kill herself for us if we calmly accepted all she wanted to do for us. She is an abnormally altruistic person, and I have realized lately that we have to fight against her selflessness as we would against a deadly disease.”

It is letters to her mother that dominate this first volume of Plath’s collected letters – a book that is more than 1,300 pages long (not counting the index) and ends in the autumn of 1956, a few months after Plath married Ted Hughes in London. And it was to Aurelia Schober Plath that she directed the most idealised portraits of her life, whether she was at summer camp, at college, or abroad, in Cambridge, Paris, or Spain.

Her mother was the eager audience who would always devour the tiniest detail of her daughter’s doings; her mother was allowed glimpses of her daughter’s unhappiness, but never saw the black pit into which Plath would fall when she confided in her journals.

“Oh, mumsy, I’m so happy here I could cry!” she wrote to her mother of her first term at Smith. But her journals from this time tell a different story:

God, who am I? I sit in the library tonight, the lights glaring overhead, the fan whirring loudly… There is my date this weekend: someone believes I am a human being, not a name merely. And these are the only indications that I am a whole person, not merely a knot of nerves, without identity. I’m lost. 

But who does not show many faces to the world? One of the fascinations of reading these letters is seeing Plath present varied accounts of the same events to different correspondents: mother, brother, whichever young man (or young men) was the object of her attention at the time. As the book’s meticulous editors, Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg, note: “She was so conscious of her audience that even when her experiences were repeated there were subtle variations of emphasis aimed to achieve a maximum response or reaction.”

While in Cambridge, she fell for a fellow student a few years her junior, J Mallory Wober. In a letter to her friend Elinor Friedman Klein, she called him “this boy: tall, raven-haired, scarlet-cheeked, husky, Jewish, strong as ‘the giants of the earth’ in the days of the old testament prophets”. She was only sorry he was so young, writing: “Perhaps I shall burn my birth certificate & learn to give birth at the plow in israel.”

But she described him to Gordon Lam­eyer, whom she had dated for a couple of years, rather differently: “My mother-impulses are brought out like mad.” Aside from the fact that, in the internet age, we’ll be lucky if future scholars have any letters by today’s writers to peruse, one of the tragedies of Facebook is that posts must be crafted to be read by all and sundry, and so voices are rendered anodyne, insipid.

It is impossible to read these letters without their author’s fate in mind. The letter to her mother describing her freezing excursion to buy apples and daffodils was written almost exactly two weeks before she met Ted Hughes, a promising young poet, at a Cambridge party to launch a new literary review. Their encounter shadows this long volume, and not simply because it appears in the useful chronology printed at the front of the book.

These unexpurgated letters – allowing a broader and deeper view of Plath’s correspondence than is offered by Letters Home, the edited selection published in 1975 – display, over and over again, her search for a mate to match her. She accepted, in part, the destiny that postwar America determined for her: that of a wife and mother, a homemaker, a bearer of children. More than once, in Cambridge, she remarked on how much she despised most of her women supervisors at Newnham College, “bluestocking grotesques who know about life second-hand”.

Without a man, she was unbalanced and incomplete. “Oh how agreeable I am but I need fifty blazing brutes to tell me so,” she wrote to Lameyer in 1954. Part of Hughes’s appeal was that he was “arrogant, used to walking over women like a blast of Jove’s lightning”, she told her mother; and when they were married, but living apart while she continued her studies, she wrote to him: “Away from you my own judgements are all out of kilter.”

When reading Sylvia Plath’s private writing – her letters, her diaries – one always wonders just what her life would have been like had she been born in 1942 rather than in 1932, if the arguments and conversations of second-wave feminism had been cresting when she was still in her early twenties. These what-ifs seem inevitable when writing about Plath, who killed herself in 1963, the same year that Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published.

The publication of these complete letters offers more pieces in the puzzle of Plath’s life. The earliest letters date from 1940 and include some of her previously unpublished childhood verses. Often her journals, where they exist, are undated: accounts given in letters of events described in the journals will enable accurate cross-referencing. And, as Steinberg and Kukil note, there are no journals from autumn 1953 to autumn 1955. The letters here fill in that gap, to a certain extent.

Not every letter – describing her dreadful sinus colds, the mending of clothes, the courting of boys – is fascinating. Why should they be? This is one young woman’s life, in all its quotidian variety. Many of them, however, have an extraordinary narrative flow: you can feel her practising, like a pianist doing her scales, for her poetry and prose. But what the reader comes away with is a renewed sense of Plath’s wonderfully powerful appetites, for literature, for love and, indeed, for food – though I’m not sure that everyone will share Plath’s excitement over “deluxe peanut-butter sandwiches spiced with onion, mayonaisse [sic], bacon”.

And how hard she worked! That’s no secret, but it is striking to see over the course of more than 1,000 pages. Rejection never dismayed her. She would sit back down at her desk and start again. She was published, she won prizes and she carefully accounted for the money that she earned writing, but still there was so much to achieve, and she knew it would only be achieved through industry as much as inspiration. Her life had so many facets – she called these letters “slices of my self” – but this aspect of her young life, her determination, is never less than inspiring for the reader privileged to see her correspondence so long after her death.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume I: 1940-56
Edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil
Faber & Faber, 1,388pp, £35

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 05 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How the rich got richer