One of literature's great underground documents is coming to bookstores: the complete journals of Sylvia Plath. For decades, readers have obsessed like conspiracy theorists about Plath, the poet and novelist who killed herself in 1963. Biographers continue to analyse everything from her work to her famously difficult marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes. Their relationship has lived on in Plath's posthumously issued poems and letters and in Hughes' Birthday Letters, published just months before he died in 1998.
The exact nature of their relationship and why she committed suicide is still debated: The journals may offer clues. An edition published in the 1980s is believed to contain only one-third of the collection. The new book will almost certainly add hundreds of previously unpublished pages.
"The decision has been made to publish them in their entirety, unedited, so the world can judge for themselves," said Joanna Mackle, publishing director for London-based Faber and Faber, which in April will issue the book in Britain. U.S. and Canadian publishers have not yet been announced.
At the time of her death, Plath had just one book published under her name. But a decade later, she was a feminist martyr, the mourned and beloved author of the Ariel poems and the novel The Bell Jar. Meanwhile, Hughes was cast as the cold, oppressive villain, the man who stifled Plath in life and censored her in death. Plath fans harassed Hughes at readings and hacked his name off Plath's tombstone, which had been inscribed: "Sylvia Plath Hughes." While friends of Hughes defended him as a caring husband driven away by his unstable wife, the poet himself said little in public for decades. But privately, he agonized -- and wrote. In early 1998, he published the acclaimed Birthday Letters, a passionate, mournful and often bitter collection about Plath.
"A reassessment of Ted Hughes' life and work is already under way," said Steve Enniss, curator of literary collections at Emory University, where Hughes' papers are stored. "And the Plath journals will add to that. Any kind of attention given to one inevitably brings attention to the other. They are intertwined." Few have seen all the journals, which have been stored for years at Plath's alma mater, Smith College, but the Faber and Faber catalogue promises an "intimate portrait" of "vigorous immediacy." The manuscript handed in by the editors at Smith runs at least 1,000 pages, more than double the original publication.
Mackle, who handles questions on behalf of the Plath estate, would not give a specific reason for the decision but she did confirm that it was made before the death of Hughes, who was appointed Britain's poet laureate in 1984. The estate is now run by their children, Frieda and Nicholas.
What ended up as one of the great cottage industries both in publishing and academia began as a romance. Hughes and Plath were in their 20s when they met at Cambridge University in England, in the winter of 1956. She was an American student and writer living abroad, he a young British poet trying to establish a literary magazine.
They were married within months, but by the end of 1962, they were living apart. Hughes was seeing another woman and an increasingly unhappy Plath had moved with the children from their country house to a London flat. Plath, who had a history of mental problems, killed herself in February 1963.
Even the upcoming journals are not technically "complete" -- at least one notebook is apparently gone forever. In an announcement that enraged many, Hughes confessed in the first edition's introduction that he had destroyed pages that covered the months immediately preceding her suicide.
"I think by suppressing or trying to suppress for the children's sake all accounts, etc., of Sylvia's more difficult side, I have done everybody an ill-service. Myself especially, perhaps," he later wrote to a friend.
In the original introduction, Hughes also claimed another notebook "disappeared," but he later wrote that it "may, presumably, still turn up." Those entries are not believed to be included in the new edition, which will cover the years 1950 to 1962.
Copyright Vancouver Sun 1999
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