July 2024

Loving Sylvia Plath

By Emily Van Duyne
Unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath may have shocked the world in 2017, but Loving Sylvia Plath shows we’ve long had all the evidence we needed to condemn her abuser, poet Ted Hughes.
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It is well known that much of Sylvia Plath’s work comes to us altered by her husband, Ted Hughes. Everything published after her death bears his heavy-handed revision and redaction, from her most famous book of poems, Ariel, to her journals. The extent of Hughes’ influence, however, stretches beyond his management of her literary estate to even the basic facts we’re willing to believe about his relationship with Plath.

In 2017, newly surfaced letters from Plath to her longtime psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, made headlines. Plath wrote that Hughes’ physical violence had caused her to miscarry, and that Hughes had told her he wished she was dead. The Guardian called the letters “shocking,” and added an addendum from Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes, that the “suggest[ion]” of abuse was “absurd . . . to anyone who knew Ted well.” Yet though the letters were new to the public, there were long-published existing accounts of Hughes’ abuse of Plath. 

Stockton University professor and Fulbright recipient Emily Van Duyne wrote as much in an op-ed for Literary Hub that went viral, “Why Are We So Unwilling to Take Sylvia Plath at Her Word?Loving Sylvia Plath is Van Duyne’s longer answer to that question, a deeply researched analysis of how the popular myth of Plath’s life, one that depicts her as an unreliable narrator and subordinates her poetry to her depression and her suicide, was constructed by Hughes and maintained by critics from the time of her death in 1963 to the present. The book examines how evidence of Hughes’ emotional and physical abuse has been repeatedly minimized, erased and outright dismissed by critics and scholars alike. 

Van Duyne’s scope includes the cultural context in which Hughes’ narrative has thrived, bringing in philosophy of intimate partner violence, as well as reflecting on her own personal experiences with an abusive ex. A chapter is devoted to Assia Wevill, a translator of poet Yehuda Amichai and the woman Hughes left Plath for. Hughes didn’t just control Wevill’s story; he completely suppressed it after her death by suicide. Van Duyne also follows the writers who first endeavored to tell Plath’s story, particularly Harriet Rosenstein, who held onto Plath’s letters for almost half a century before trying to sell them in 2017. 

Loving Sylvia Plath concludes with a note of caution about distorting Plath’s memory in a different way through the temptation to “restore” her from Hughes’ interference. That warning’s well-taken—for all the scholarship about her, we can’t expect to know Plath. But we can know her work, which is extraordinary. And, where it remains unaltered, we can take her at her word.

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Loving Sylvia Plath

Loving Sylvia Plath

By Emily Van Duyne
ISBN 9781324006978

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