On a gray day in 1963, during one of the bitterest English winters in memory, the poet Sylvia Plath turned on the gas oven in her London apartment and quietly took leave of the world. Morbid, ebullient, vulnerable, she had spent much of her adult life negotiating the razor’s edge between madness and sanity. But her caustic rejection of conventional womanhood earned her a place in the feminist pantheon and a worshipful cult of admirers. Only 30 at the time of her suicide, she left behind an estranged husband, two small children—and a mother.
For Aurelia Schober Plath, the poet’s 69-year-old widowed mother, her daughter’s autobiographical novel The Bell Jar (published in the U.S. in 1971) brought great pain. A retired schoolteacher, still living in Sylvia’s girlhood home in Wellesley, Mass., Mrs. Plath tried to stop publication of The Bell Jar, denouncing it as “the basest ingratitude.” Now, perhaps to counteract the misunderstanding she feels the novel created by its harsh depiction of an overbearing mother, Mrs. Plath will publish Letters Home in December. In the collection of 391 of her daughter’s almost 700 letters—one of them 16 pages long—the dark side of their relationship rarely emerges.
“Sylvia wrote The Bell Jar to get it out of her,” Mrs. Plath insists. “Also, she needed the money and thought it would sell. There’s no more salable conflict than that between parent and child. I’d given her that instruction myself. I never read it until after her death. It was she who called it a potboiler, not I.”
Whatever tensions may have lurked beneath the surface of the mother-daughter correspondence, the letters reveal a bond of affection. Clearly, however, the workings of Sylvia’s mordant imagination became something of a trial to her mother. “No one ever knew Sylvia wholly,” she concedes. “I’d never say I did. But you need to know her to understand what she wrote. Nothing must be taken factually. For example, her father died when she was 8. When Sylvia wrote about it, the word ‘ten’ sounded better. She was an artist first. All experiences were filed away in her memory to undergo a sea change. Sometimes it was not kindly done.”
Above all, the purpose of Letters Home may be to reclaim for Mrs. Plath a vision of herself and her daughter that was sabotaged by the lethal caricature of The Bell Jar. That, she believes, was a loveless book meant to reflect the desolation of Sylvia’s first mental breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953. She maintains that her daughter later prepared a sequel to The Bell Jar dealing with her departure for England on a Fulbright scholarship in 1955, her marriage to British poet Ted Hughes and the birth of their daughter, Frieda, in 1960. “Her marriage was the greatest therapeutic force in her life,” says Mrs. Plath. “She used to tell me her life was like an onion, as layers of selves peeled off. She felt she’d come to the core when Frieda was born.”
Sylvia’s tranquillity, however, was tragically short-lived. “When her marriage failed in 1962,” says her mother, “I saw her tear apart the manuscript section by section and throw it into a huge bonfire. I couldn’t stop her.”
But if Sylvia’s destiny was deadly un-happiness, implies her mother, it was not foreshadowed in her exuberant childhood. “From the time she was the tiniest tot,” Mrs. Plath recalls wistfully, “she’d go out to the park and pick a lot of seeds which she called ‘a many’ and put them into designs. Later I used to slip a dated diary into her Christmas stocking. When she became a teenager, she asked for an undated one. Her reason was: ‘When the big moments come, one page is not enough!’ ”
As a young widow with two small children, Mrs. Plath was a willing confidante to her talented daughter. (Sylvia’s father, Otto, an entomology professor at Boston University, died in 1940 following the amputation of a gangrenous leg. Her brother, Warren, now 40, manages a linguistics research group for IBM. He lives in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. with his wife and two children.) “From the time Sylvia was small, she’d hide things under my napkin,” Mrs. Plath recalls. “Any little poem or drawing. And when she went to a party, I’d wait in my room. She’d burst in with a whole account, and I could relive it through her.”
Even in the last bleak days of Sylvia’s life, Mrs. Plath believes, her daughter was struggling to retain her perspective. Ultimately, she suspects, it was a string of physical ailments—including a bout with appendicitis and a near-fatal case of influenza—that helped tip the balance toward suicide. “We wanted her to return to the U.S., and we were looking for an apartment for her,” Mrs. Plath explains. “But she was too debilitated to make the great change a return here demanded. And she had pride. She wanted to see things through—the demands made on her, the care of two children, the loneliness at night.” Finally, it was over.
Today, in good health herself after various illnesses including an ulcer, Mrs. Plath is auditing two art courses at nearby Wellesley College. “I always wanted to go to Wellesley,” she confides. “Now, as a senior citizen, I can.” She visits Cape Cod frequently, “to renew my relationship with the sea,” and is an energetic walker and swimmer. An early riser, she toiled long hours on Letters Home and sorting “boxes and boxes” of Sylvia’s papers. A year ago last summer, she was visited by her daughter’s children, Frieda, 15, and Nicholas, 13, now living with their father and his wife in England. “Frieda bubbles,” she declares, “and Nicholas is very witty.”
Occasionally, she will listen to a recording of Sylvia’s voice. “To hear her laugh,” says Mrs. Plath, “it seems as though she has to be alive.”