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27 October 2022

Sylvia Plath’s 90th birthday party

In October, around 300 readers arrived in Hebden Bridge for the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival hoping to change perceptions of the much-misunderstood poet.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Perched high on a moorland ridge in West Yorkshire, overlooking the town of Hebden Bridge in the valley below, is the village of Heptonstall. A windswept collection of square 18th- and 19th-century buildings of dark gritstone – stained even darker by historic soot pollution – line a few cobbled streets. It is here, in the graveyard of the village’s imposing Victorian Gothic church, that the poet Sylvia Plath is buried. She died by suicide in February 1963; had she lived, 27 October 2022 would have marked her 90th birthday.

On Friday 21 October, around 300 fans of Plath’s work arrived in Hebden Bridge for the Sylvia Plath Literary Festival – a weekend celebrating the poet’s birthday. For three days, the picturesque, artsy town – which was also hosting its annual Great Pumpkin Festival – was home to devoted readers of the poet. These were mostly women, of varying ages: 20-somethings wearing black lace gloves or Taylor Swift merchandise, 60-somethings who first read The Bell Jar in their youth, even a few contemporaries of Plath, such as the 91-year-old poet Ruth Fainlight, who reflected on their friendship on stage on Saturday night.

The programme of events included readings from contemporary poets, creative writing workshops, talks from Plath experts, a “disco”, in which Lana Del Rey, Kate Bush and Stevie Nicks songs were played, and a “séance”, in which Plath was “resurrected” through readings. Readers made pilgrimages up the steep hill to Plath’s grave, posted pictures of events to social media with the hashtag “#PlathFest”, and discussed over glasses of wine how the poet’s reputation might be rescued from stereotypes of the crazy, suicidal woman.

“This was the reason to do it,” the festival director, Sarah Corbett, told me – to bring a growing critical correction of popular misconceptions of Plath’s work “to the wider reading public”. On the Friday evening, at the launch of After Sylvia: Poems and Essays in Celebration of Sylvia Plath, Corbett spoke to attendees of a “pressure building” among Plath readers ahead of the 90th anniversary of her birth to “have a big public celebration of this absolutely essential poet”, but also to “begin a redress of Plath – a shift away from the tortured genius image” that has stalked her since her suicide.

Festival attendees spoke reverentially of Heather Clark’s recent literary biography of the poet, Red Comet. At the headline event on the Saturday night, Clark quoted the critic Carolyn Heilbrun’s line that “If you admire Auden, that’s good taste. If you admire Sylvia Plath, it’s a cult,” and reiterated that her biography was intended “to free Plath from the cultural baggage of the past 50 years and reposition her as one of the most important American writers of the 20th century.” (She received riotous applause, and a very long book-signing queue.) But there was a “tussle” with Faber and Plath’s literary estate, Corbett said, over the rights to Plath’s work – as a result, the majority of speakers were unable to quote from her writings on stage.

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Diane, 62, and Suzanne, 69, are sisters from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who first visited the area in 2014 as part of a tour of British places associated with Plath: Devon, London and Yorkshire. On that trip, Suzanne was so charmed by Heptonstall that she now lives here for several months of each year. “A lot of young women reach a place where they see the things around them in society are suppressing them in some way – when they get a hold of Plath, they see a woman that in her art fought against and railed against that,” she told me. “If you only look at her work through the lens of her death, it colours it the wrong way.”

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Olivia, 24, is a PhD student researching Plath. “A lot of the people in attendance have had such a long-standing relationship with Plath,” she said, which made the festival “really emotional – a combination of joy, excitement, admiration, and of course some sadness. But the atmosphere is entirely celebratory – that’s really important.”

Plath never lived in the area, but visited multiple times with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who was born in the nearby village of Mytholmroyd, and whose parents lived in Heptonstall. When Plath died aged 30, not long after the catastrophic breakdown of her marriage to Hughes (sometimes characterised as abusive), she had recently moved with her two children to London’s Primrose Hill. But Hughes, still her husband, decided to bury Plath in Heptonstall. Its location is just one of the controversies surrounding Plath’s grave: her headstone reads “Sylvia Plath Hughes”, and as well as leaving pens and trinkets on the site, visitors also often scratch off the last six letters of this name.

Over the weekend, many people visited Plath’s grave. Stuart is 87, and has lived in Heptonstall all his life (his family have resided in the village for generations, since the early 18th century). For the past seven years he has taken it upon himself to guide visitors to the tombstone, though he is not a particular fan of Plath’s himself. “I prefer Ted Hughes’s poems,” he told me. He knew Hughes’s father, who was for a time a travel agent and organised Stuart’s first trip abroad, to Switzerland, in 1959: “Real gentleman was old Will Hughes.” He’s been keeping track of the number of visitors to the grave – the most he’d ever seen in one day was 76, on 17 September 2021, but he expected to see that record beaten over the course of the weekend.

Plath’s personal writing suggests she had contradictory feelings about the place. In her first visit in September 1956, she wrote to her mother of the “incredible wild green landscape of bare hills, crisscrossed by innumerable black stone walls like a spiders web” and described it as “the most magnificent landscape in the world.” She went on: “Climbing along the ridges of the hills, one has an airplane view of the towns in the valleys; up here, it is like sitting on top of the world… I have never been so happy in my life… Ted and I are at last ‘home’.”

But in her calendar around the same period she described herself as “weary”, “depressed and sterile” and noted her “growing sense of suffocation & loneliness”. In her poems “Hardcastle Crags”, “Wuthering Heights” and “November Graveyard” – a poem inspired by the churchyard she didn’t know would become her burial ground – the sense of the landscape is awe-inspiring but bleak. “Hardcastle Crags” describes “the humped indifferent iron / Of its hills”, “black stone set / On black stone” – a landscape so heavy the “weight / Of stones and hills of stones could break” her narrator “down to mere quartz grit”.

Corbett told me that Plath might be “bewildered” that a festival in her honour would be held in this particular landscape, one that she clearly felt ambivalent about, and is often more associated with Hughes. “But I live here, she is associated with the area, people come here to her grave, and she wrote poems about the place! I’ve often thought, ‘What would Sylvia Plath do?’… I think she probably would’ve done exactly what I did.”

Plath often went in search of the echoes of literary heroines in the nearby hills – particularly that of Emily Brontë (another writer who died aged 30). While staying with Hughes’s parents, she described herself as “a veritable convert to the Brontë clan, in warm woollen sweaters, slacks, knee socks,” and her and Hughes as “a happy Heathcliff and Cathy! Striding about in the woods and over the moors”.

“Plath represents something that you get here,” Corbett said. “On the one hand, it’s a dark, dark place. I mean that literally, metaphorically, metaphysically… She picked up on the ghosts – because the ghosts are real here. They’re not metaphorical.” At the “séance” on Saturday night, speakers expressed how Plath was in the room. In a workshop, a bee flew in through the window – and, as Plath wrote a famous sequence of poems about bees, those present believed its appearance to be symbolic.

In a journal entry from December 1956, Plath wrote of a trip to Haworth, where the Brontë family lived. She jotted down notes about “Charlotte’s bridal crown of heirloom lace & honeysuckle, Emily’s death couch… They touched this, wore that, wrote here”. She walked on to Top Withens, the setting said to have inspired Wuthering Heights, in search of further connection with the Brontës. But what she found there was “all eternity, wilderness, loneliness… The furious ghosts nowhere but in the heads of the visitors.”

[See also: How do we tell the story of Sylvia Plath?]

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