A Boston libel trial centering on a film made from Sylvia Plath's novel, "The Bell Jar," has stirred up a minor controversy in Devon, where the author lived before committing suicide in February 1963.
There have been concerns expressed for the reputation and financial independence of Ted Hughes, the British poet laureate, who was Plath's husband and is a defendant in the case. And British friends of Plath are worried that Hughes' efforts to defend himself will harm his late wife's reputation.
The trial, which opened last week in US District Court in Boston, was initiated by a Brookline psychiatrist, Jane Anderson, who was in a mental institution with Plath in 1953. Anderson apparently has no complaint with the autobiographical novel, published in the United States in 1971, in which she says she is used as the basis for a character of a different name. But Anderson alleges that a 1979 film version of the novel depicts a mental patient named Joan Gilling as a lesbian, as the book does not, libeling her and causing severe emotional distress.
She is suing CBS Entertainment, Avco-Embassy Pictures and 12 others, including Hughes, who is the executor of Plath's estate, for $6 million. The Gilling character is allegedly based on Anderson's life, according to the suit. Hughes is a defendant in the case because he sold the motion picture rights to the book. Under dispute is how much control he had over the portrayal of the novel's characters in the movie.
Hughes' sister, Olwyn, is his literary agent, as well as Plath's. In an interview published Thursday in the Western Morning News, a daily newspaper published in Plymouth, England, Olwyn Hughes is quoted as saying she fears the trial will turn into a feminist vendetta that could ruin her brother. "The feminist movement in America has accepted a treacly version of Sylvia's life," the paper quotes Olwyn Hughes as saying. "The truth is, she was terribly possessive, jealous and difficult . . . Ted is not a chauvinist. But with a half-wit or 'libber' jury, the case could ruin Ted."
In a telephone interview, Olwyn Hughes disputed the quotations ascribed to her by the Western Morning News, saying: "What I simply said is that this women's lib issue has nothing to do with it. This is a complicated case that should never have come to court. The case is absurd -- Ted had no rights of approval over the film. I'm his agent; I should know . . . I'd hope that there is no risk to her brother. But one hears these terrible stories about how these trials turn out in America."
She then expressed concern that such comments not be published in Boston, saying: "I think it could cause more trouble than not." Mike Charleston, the news editor of the Western Morning News, said in a telephone interview that the newspaper had quoted Olwyn Hughes accurately. "Miss Hughes' concern, apparently," he said, "is that the trial could turn into a feminist witch-hunt, and if the trial goes against her brother, the damages could ruin him financially."
The publication of the newspaper interview sparked concerns from some of Plath's friends. In a telephone interview, Elizabeth Sigmund, who said she was friendly with Plath in North Tawton, Devon, from February 1962 until her death, said: "This attack from Sylvia's own agent is pretty savage. She's denigrating the memory of a very good friend of mine and her own client. To try to make out that this court case was engineered by 'libbers' to damage Ted is absurd." Sigmund said Plath first published "The Bell Jar" under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, in late 1962, only three months before Plath's suicide.
Published by William Heinemann Ltd., the book was dedicated to Sigmund and her then-husband, David Compton.
"Sylvia told me she didn't want anyone to know who Victoria Lucas really was," Sigmund said yesterday. "She actually said it was so no one could sue her.
That way, no one depicted in the book would have any reason to complain." After Plath's death, when Ted and Olwyn Hughes agreed to allow the book to be republished in 1966 by Faber and Faber Ltd. under Plath's own name, the dedication was missing.
"Sylvia wanted to write the book to express her disgust for electroshock threatments for mental patients . . .," Sigmund said. "It was in that way an early example of being honest about one's breakdown."
For Olwyn Hughes, the case involves the broader principle of literary freedom. "Every novelist will write about the girl next door and add all sorts of things to that character -- it's commonplace. And then if the girl next door is going to sue, that's a terribly dangerous thing for writers, it seems to me. "What amazes me is that the suit has gone as far as it has without being thrown out," she said. "All this about Ted approving the film is ridiculous. In fact, he had lost a better film contract before -- Joseph Losey wanted to do it. "But as we know, it's about her breakdown, and we knew the mother is Sylvia's mother, and we wanted to ensure that the woman who acted the mother be physically unlike Sylvia's mother. But Losey wouldn't have it. He wouldn't give up any control. Unfortunately we sold it to Mike Todd, and they sold it again, and we ended up with this terrible film."
It is Hughes' contention, according to Victor Kovner, his lawyer, that he did not know of the existence of Anderson and so he asked for no control over the portrayal of the Gilling character, alleged to be based on Anderson. He did, however, ask and receive control over the portrayal of the mother in the film, according to Hughes' lawyer.
"My real concern," said Elizabeth Sigmund, "is with Sylvia's memory and reputation. I want to make sure her surviving family in America knows she still has some good friends left in England, who will come to her defense."
Copyright Globe Newspaper Company 1987
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