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26 October 2021

Your very own Sylvia Plath

An auction of the poet’s private possessions reveals the tension between her work and her personal life.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

“It is the longest I have ever been away from Ted,” Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother in October 1956. She had met Ted Hughes in Cambridge that February, and married him in June. After visiting his parents, Plath returned to Cambridge, while Hughes stayed on in Yorkshire. “Somehow, in the course of this working and vital summer, we have mystically become one,” she continued. “I can appreciate the legend of Eve coming from Adam’s rib as I never did before; the damn story’s true! That’s where I belong. Away from Ted, I feel as if I were living with one eyelash of myself only. It is really agony.”

Her letters written to Hughes himself are even more passionate, possessive and devout. During their month-long separation, she described herself as “completely alone”, yet “living with my god, which is you; like a nun; I talk to you each night before I go to bed, opening the window wide, leaning out looking at clouds or stars, smelling the wet earth and concentrating hard and completely on you, whatever you’re doing, wherever you are”. In another: “When I wash my hair, now, it will be for you; when I drink water, it is for you; when I get dressed it is for you.” Plath and Hughes’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, contemplating what motivated the explosive end of her parents’ relationship in her introduction to Plath’s letters, wrote that “feelings of ownership” were a contributing factor.

In the years since Plath’s death, this question of who “owns” the poet has defined bitter disputes between her family, her biographers and her readership. When Plath took her own life on 11 February 1963, her estranged husband Hughes became the copyright holder of all her writing; his handling of her estate – including his decision to reorder the poems in her collection Ariel (1965), and to destroy the journal she kept up to her death – was contentious, particularly among those who felt their separation voided his right to edit her work, or who blamed him for her suicide outright. In the late 1980s, Plath fans repeatedly scratched out the “Hughes” from her gravestone – a controversy that culminated in Hughes writing letters to the Guardian and the Independent in which he despaired: “I hope each of us owns the facts of his or her own life.”

Plath has long inspired a fervent kind of identification – even “feelings of ownership” – in her readers. This summer, some of her possessions were sold by her daughter in a Sotheby’s auction. Though this was by no means the first auction of Plath’s things, it may well have been the most personal. Called “Your Own Sylvia”, the auction allowed wealthier fans to own a piece of Sylvia Plath: items included the 16 love letters written by Plath to Hughes in October 1956, the tarot cards he gave her on her 24th birthday, their family photograph album and even their wedding rings.

The letters, sold individually, went for as much as £30,000 each. The rings, sold together, were bought for £27,720 by the London jeweller Wartski. The photo album fetched £44,100. But despite a valuation of around £5,000, the tarot cards sold for by far the highest amount. (To practitioners, tarot cards can be deeply personal items, believed to pick up the energy of the person using them.) Plath’s deck sold for £151,200 – more than her typewriter, or any of her books (including her personal proof copy of The Bell Jar or any first edition poetry collection) have ever sold for at auction. This suggests that, to Plath fans, personal artefacts are as compelling as literary ones.

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The auction was themed around Plath and Hughes’s relationship (“your own Sylvia” is how Plath signed off her love letters to Hughes). But it was held three years after the publication of the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, which included a letter from Plath to her therapist in which she claimed that in February 1961, two days before she had a miscarriage, “Ted beat me up physically”. In this context, the objects become even more fraught – relics from a joyful, happy time, but imbued with a morbid quality.

In early July, I visited Sotheby’s in Mayfair to view the objects before bidding opened. In person, they seemed both more historic and more ordinary. Plath’s letters to Hughes offer a window into a uniquely collaborative creative and romantic partnership. But there is also something naive about them – addressed to “dearest Teddy-ponk”, full of anxieties about exams and lies told to tutors, annotated with asides in the kind of neat, round handwriting that could belong to any conscientious student today.

Her tarot cards were still so brightly coloured they seemed new, with the exception of the Tower. Clearly left at the top of the pack, it had been browned either by sunlight or ash from a fire at the Hughes home in Devon. Cards containing recipes, including “Ted’s mother’s Scots porridge oats biscuits” – “‘These are the most delicious cakes I know about’. (Ted’s own words written from London)” – were stained with use, and show the more domestic side to Plath. Then there were the wedding rings – heavier than they looked, and covered with small scratches. Kept together in a small box, her ring slotted perfectly inside his.

Perhaps most intimate of all was the photo album: almost 200 photographs mounted on to black paper, with cheerful captions handwritten by Plath in bright white ink. Beginning with photographs of the couple’s trip to Yorkshire in September 1956, it contains shots of their first months as a married couple in Cambridge, their road trip across Canada and the US in 1959 (complete with pictures of the bear they encountered at Yellowstone National Park) and a trip to Stonehenge with baby Frieda. In these photographs, they look radiant, all smiles and bright eyes – sometimes even gawkily so, despite their beauty. Plath poses with a coffee cup sat at a picnic bench, or grins in a little boat, proudly holding a fish aloft.

But as the album progresses, there is a marked shift in tone. Hughes looms large in pictures from a literary party with WH Auden and TS Eliot; Plath, we assume, is behind the camera. She appears in fewer photos, which are mostly of her two young children (her son Nicholas was born in January 1962) at home. When she does appear, she looks pale and exhausted, her hair and clothes dark, her eyes gaunt. The captions stop.

The final photographs are a sudden burst of colour: Plath, Hughes and the children outside their home in Devon, surrounded by yellow daffodils, smiling beneath a blue sky. They contrast sharply with the photos that precede them. Plath and Hughes were settling into family life, “learning the lessons of having possessions”, writing and gardening. In letters to her mother, Plath mentions the pictures, taken over Easter 1962, on “the first day of real spring”. “I think you can see some of the reasons I am so happy,” she wrote.

Plath struggled during harsh British winters. She had in previous weeks complained the “blasted cold black weather” had her in a “dismal” mood. But on Easter Sunday, “the world relented and spring arrived”. A “heavenly hot sun” shone on the “literal sea of several thousand” daffodils, which Plath described as “the most beautiful flowers in the world – big hothouse blooms, the starry jonquil sort, some with vivid orange centres, some with white petals and yellow trumpets”. Nicholas “smiles and laughs”; Frieda exclaims “Pick daffdees”; Hughes beams among strawberry plants. “How I wish you could see us now!” she wrote to her mother, longing for a family visit “around Easter next year”, so they might “admire the daffodils” together. But the spring of 1962 was Plath’s last; she would not see the daffodils again.

It’s clear this album was never intended for public view. The daffodil pictures, though, are part of a series of photos, some taken by the journalist Siv Arb. Plath wrote that she and Hughes “made the mistake of letting a young Swedish lady journalist invite herself” to Devon, adding darkly: “She was after the personal.” The auction demonstrates a tension that existed even when Plath was alive: between the work and the public’s desire to go “after the personal”.

Explaining her decision to sell these items, Frieda Hughes said: “I was very conscious of the fact that one day, when I pop my clogs, my stuff will just be stuff. Nobody will know the origin of anything.” By parting with them now, she hopes they will find homes that respect their history. But she also hints at something burdensome in their significance. “They need homes, so that I no longer have to carry all the associations. So that, after I’m gone, the associations will continue – but other people will be responsible for that.”

[See also: What George Orwell’s garden reveals about his politics of resistance]

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This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained