Whose Plath is it anyway?

England's longest-running literary soap opera enters a new chapter, as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes' daughter wages war against ghouls, obsessives and the makers of "Sylvia" (as well as novelists like me).

Topics: Poetry, Books,

Whose Plath is it anyway?

A few months before her father’s “Birthday Letters” and her own first collection of poetry, “Wooroloo,” were to be published, the daughter of literary icons Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consented to a rare interview in which she discussed her childhood, her parents’ famously failed marriage, and her own life as a visual artist and writer. “Readers,” a poem by Frieda Hughes published alongside the November 1997 interview in the Guardian, was an indictment of those literary groupies of her mother’s who had been “fingering her mental underwear” since Sylvia Plath’s suicide in 1963, when Frieda was 2 years old.

Following a gruesomely detailed description of how “they” dug up and roasted and ate her mother’s corpse (an image fueled, unfortunately, by the real Plath fanatics who regularly defaced Plath’s grave over the years, even stealing the pebbles left as decorations by Frieda and her younger brother, Nicholas), Frieda Hughes’ poem ends:

They called her theirs.
All this time I had thought
She belonged to me most.

There was no denying that “Readers,” particularly its conclusion, was the raw, anguished cry of a child. It seemed curious that the poem’s final two lines were dropped when it appeared the next year in “Wooroloo”: as if even Frieda Hughes’ claim to ownership of her mother, let alone ownership itself, had been stripped away.

Hughes’ anguished cry turned to bitter fury earlier this year when she responded to news that “Sylvia,” a major feature film about her parents, was in production. To explain her poem “My Mother,” which was published in the British magazine Tatler, Hughes suggested that she had been all but stalked by producers of the film in pursuit of a “collaboration” — maybe a daughterly endorsement, or at the very least permission to quote from her mother’s poetry in the film. “My Mother” was her response: a blistering, scornful attack not just on the makers of the film but on its viewers, who, she imagined, might make themselves a quick cuppa while leaving the video paused with her mother’s head in the oven.



This is where I showed up. As the author of “Wintering,” a novel about Sylvia Plath during her final cold London winter, I walked straight into the British media’s ice storm of proprietary outrage on behalf of the late Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and their very much alive children, who were raised in England. In London, Cambridge, Reading and Bath, and on radio and television airwaves all over the U.K., people wanted to know if I had considered the children’s feelings, and how I came by the cheek to think I was entitled to tell Plath’s story.

My chilliest critics were those who seemed to forget that the “children” are now in their 40s, no longer fragile, impressionable tots; others were sure that by virtue of my being an American woman, my only motivation for writing “Wintering” was to “get” the unfairly maligned Ted Hughes, so successfully rehabilitated worldwide by “Birthday Letters” and his death a few months after the book hit international bestseller lists. Interestingly — especially because my book came out at the height of the Iraq war protests, when Tony Blair was contemptuously termed “Bush’s poodle” and Americans abroad had (as they still do) every reason to cringe when they pulled out their passports — I had my own rehabilitation in the eyes of some wary English critics when they noticed in my bio that my father had been a Brit. Oh, well then, she might be all right …

The literary editor of the London Sunday Times, Erica Wagner, sniffed that while she could concede that I was a “good writer” and sometimes “interesting” (damned with the faintest of praise!), she also wondered what the point of my close attention to Plath might be, and “when the eternal raking over of Plath’s life will pall,” suggesting finally that it was about time to leave poor Sylvia and her descendants in peace. Wagner deemed my novel about Plath “trivial” and “reductive,” and insinuated that I was perhaps a bit nuts for writing “Wintering.” The final lines of her dismissal explained, in scrupulous detail, how one might go about purchasing, over the phone or online, discounted copies of the very same Erica Wagner’s book of microscopia on Sylvia, Ted and “The Birthday Letters.”

What did Frieda Hughes think of “Wintering”? I don’t actually know, and surely never will. All I do know is that the Guardian’s weekend magazine had requested permission to use a photo of Plath as illustration for a feature article I wrote on her obsessive love of baking. The notoriously uncooperative Plath estate had been contacted and had given a preliminary (and unexpectedly blasé) OK. By the time the photo editor went back to the estate with a formal permissions contract, the film storm had blown up, Frieda Hughes had denied the filmmakers permission to use her mother’s poetry, and for good measure (following the lead of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts: “verdict first, trial afterwards!”) denied the use of the photograph for my Guardian article. It was relayed to me that Hughes disliked the very idea of my having written “Wintering,” as its subject was “private.”

Private? Sylvia Plath’s creation of the “Ariel” poems and her assembly of the “Ariel” manuscript — the work that she rightly predicted would “make her name,” and which became one of the bestselling books of poetry of all time — is private? The creative process of the most famous female American poet, whose unmatched artistic gaze was directed most pitilessly at herself, is private?

Well, I guess Ted Hughes might have argued that his destruction of his estranged wife’s final journal, which presumably detailed her thoughts and feelings as the “Ariel” poems were being written and their marriage fell to pieces, was justified because it was “private” — though he put it in other words, saying that he destroyed the journal because he never wanted his children to have to read that “sad” document. But if Plath’s life, creative and otherwise, is truly private, how does one account for Hughes’ subsequent decision to publish Plath’s remaining journals, with all their extra-literary personal details and acidic sniping? Or Hughes’ thoughtful critical writings on Plath’s poetic legacy, which both compared her in stature to Emily Dickinson and stressed the vital importance of understanding her creative development within the context of her domestic life during her last two years?

How does one explain the Plath estate (then controlled by Ted Hughes but agented by his sister, Olwyn) strong-arming Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, into consenting to the U.S. publication of “The Bell Jar,” her daughter’s semi-autobiographical novel? Aurelia Plath was mortified by “The Bell Jar,” as so many of the novel’s distasteful characters were thinly veiled caricatures of the Plath family’s dearest friends, relatives and neighbors; the Plath estate resorted to a sort of irresistible blackmail by simultaneously dangling the possibility of overseas visits with Plath’s children while offering Aurelia Plath permission to publish her daughter’s letters in return for her promise not to interfere with “The Bell Jar’s” U.S. release. (Hughes published the abridged “Journals of Sylvia Plath” in 1982 as a corrective to the chirpy “Sivvy” depicted through Aurelia Plath’s 1975 “Letters Home by Sylvia Plath,” just as Aurelia Plath put together “Letters Home” as the corrective to the black-humored malice of “The Bell Jar”: a calculated game of familial one-upmanship.)

How to justify the Plath estate’s sale of the poet’s archive to Smith College, making not just manuscripts and poem drafts available to the public but also personal memorabilia, such as Plath’s Girl Scout uniform, or doll furniture she hand-painted as a gift for Frieda’s second Christmas? Indeed, how does one account for Sylvia Plath’s ransacking of her own life and psyche for literary ends, or Ted Hughes breaking his official silence about his dead first wife with the release of “The Birthday Letters”? Has it never occurred to Frieda Hughes that the only reason anyone’s had the chance to finger her mother’s “mental underwear” is because her family, beginning with her mother and father, made it available?

Since taking on the responsibility of active control of her mother’s literary estate (shared with her reclusive brother) shortly before the death of Ted Hughes in 1998, Frieda Hughes has done a single-handedly remarkable job of further muddying the Plath privacy waters while protesting against public intrusion into her “personal” history at the same time. Frieda and Nicholas Hughes’ first significant act as literary executors of the Plath estate was to arrange for the preparation and publication of their mother’s “Unabridged Journals,” a literary event deemed so newsworthy that galleys of the book were embargoed until the very last minute. Recognizing the international interest the “Journals” were guaranteed to generate, both the Guardian and the New Yorker serialized the book upon its U.K. publication, though the U.S. edition was almost a year from release. Among other revelations, the “Unabridged Journals” included what must surely be considered the most “private” of writings by Sylvia Plath: Her vivid description of Nicholas’ 1962 home birth. Given that Nicholas was barely a year old at the time of Plath’s death, his mother’s candid account of his arrival could be considered a precious family heirloom made public.

In June 2002, Frieda Hughes further complicated her proprietary stance over her family’s story by accepting an $80,000 grant to be distributed over three years from Britain’s National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. Hughes’ NESTA grant, which is funded through national lottery money and is therefore rightly considered a public charity, is intended to give her the “opportunity and means” — apparently without regard to the fact that she is one of the two sole copyright holders and financial beneficiaries of the works of her mother, whose poetry and fiction has been in constant, vigorous print around the world for four decades — to write her life story, charting her first 40 years through poetry and painting. Just four months later, Hughes announced her bitter rift with her stepmother, Carol Hughes, over control of the income from her father’s estate, said to be worth $3.5 million at the time of his death.

A strange, tortured feature by Frieda Hughes in the Sunday Telegraph — published with advantageous timing upon the 70th anniversary of her mother’s birth, the fourth anniversary of her father’s death, and the occasion of the British release of her third poetry collection — explained in wounded detail how her father’s widow refused to honor a letter intended to make her brother, her aunt and herself equal beneficiaries of the earnings from the copyrights to Ted Hughes’ poems. Hughes explained that the dispute over her father’s money left her “not only without my father, whose loss devastated me, but also without the stepmother whom I had loved, and trusted, as my father did.” “I walk into bookshops and see my father’s astonishing works on the shelves,” Hughes continued, “and have to acknowledge that I now feel they have been disconnected from me.” Hughes’ pained airing of relational dirty laundry ended with an apologia on her newly published book (complete with “how to purchase” info, á la Erica Wagner), lending the entire article an opportunistic, advertorial whiff.

The familial umbilicus, for Frieda Hughes, seems not to be simply the convenient notion of “privacy” but the distribution of money. From the time of her death the income from Sylvia Plath’s estate has been designated for her children’s benefit. Having lost her mother before she could have more than the haziest memories of her, Hughes has known Sylvia Plath’s tangible maternal attention only through the good schools, ability to travel, and material comforts her mother’s estate made possible. All children feel a sense of “ownership” of their mother’s corpus — but in this case that corpus was nothing but words on paper and quarterly statements tallying the sale of those words.

Like the baby laboratory monkeys who clung desperately to sharp metal edifices substituted for their warm monkey mothers, it seems that Frieda Hughes, lacking a living embodiment of Sylvia Plath, projected her daughterly emotional need onto the financial comfort provided by her mother’s (and now her father’s) lucrative writings. Those writings, however, have to be shared with others in order to get the “mothering” that the Plath estate’s income symbolizes. Yet Plath’s daughter seems to maintain a psychic disconnection between the financial security supplied by the estate she controls and the book buyers whose investments in Sylvia Plath find their way into her checkbook.

It’s not surprising that Frieda Hughes — who claimed in an article on Britain’s National Poetry Day that “poetry is for everyone,” only to deny access to her mother’s words a year later when approached by the “Sylvia” filmmakers — maintains such a disdainful stance toward her mother’s readers. Children and art require the same resources of ceaseless, undivided attention and wholehearted commitment; it is part of Sylvia Plath’s audacious brilliance that she so successfully, though for so regrettably short a time, juggled the competing needs of her tiny children and the demands of her muse during the first 34 months of Frieda Hughes’ life. Nevertheless, Hughes’ continuing antagonistic, distrustful rivalry with Plath’s readers reminds me of my 5-year-old daughter’s response to how my attention was divided for a time between the writing of “Wintering” and herself: On the last day of kindergarten, which followed the day I finally overnighted my novel’s manuscript to my publisher, my daughter announced to her class, “I want to share that my mommy finished her book, and I’m pleased to announce that Sylvia Plath is finally dead.”

I don’t mean to belittle the genuine harm and lasting scars inflicted on Frieda Hughes and her brother by losing their mother in their infancies, and by stupid people who demonized her father or crudely politicized and misunderstood Sylvia Plath. It must, in fact, be hell to know that one’s loved ones and remote, unremembered past are relentlessly scrutinized and that one’s parents’ most humiliating flaws and fatal mistakes remain the subject of public attention long after their deaths. Surely there have been insane, grave-robbing readers of Plath and unjust, hysterical accusers of Hughes. But they are, for all their vituperations and loud-mouthing, the minority, especially as our cultural understanding of and appreciation for Sylvia Plath has matured with time, moving away from the prurient voyeurism that accompanied Plath’s meteoric launch into the public literary arena with “Ariel” in the 1960s.

Rather than obsessing over Plath’s suicide and her biographical apocrypha, contemporary readers of Plath tend to be interested in her life in context, to better understand her artistic achievement. My experience in meeting and hearing from hundreds of Plath and Hughes readers has been that by far the vast majority of them are drawn to the story of Frieda Hughes’ parents because of the immediacy and vigor of their literary gifts, rather than the sordid details of their failing of each other. Plath’s readers are not ghouls; they revere the written word as Plath and Hughes did, and respond to the power and complexity of the poetry. They struggle with the frustration and helplessness they feel at the premature loss of Plath, and for her unearned sense of failure, and for Hughes’ bravery in trying, however late in life, to understand his culpability and guilt. And as with the reports of Mark Twain’s death, their potential for diverting income from the Hughes children to themselves is greatly exaggerated. I can attest personally to the fact that the residual benefit of writing about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, no matter how well received (outside of, ahem, England), is modest at best; the real money belongs to the copyright holders of the poetry and prose — the words that, for all Plath’s ultimate loss of faith in herself, have never become “dry and riderless.”

The exception to this rule, however, may be the makers and stars of a major feature film about Sylvia Plath, which is perhaps why “Sylvia” elicited Frieda Hughes’ ferocious outrage while my novel, virtually contemporaneous to the movie, merited no more than Hughes’ frowning grumble. The job of judging the artistic success of this film is for someone more objective than I can be. However, there is no denying that “Sylvia” will make money off the lives of Plath and Hughes, which is where Frieda Hughes’ prickly stance becomes most problematic. No one can fault Hughes for distancing herself from a project that will depict her mother’s death, or, in her own words, blame her for not wanting to be “involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to.”

But every major player in the making of “Sylvia,” from producer Alison Owen to screenwriter John Brownlow, from director Christine Jeffs to stars Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig and even composer Gabriel Yared, has characterized his or her part in this film as a “labor of love” born of admiration for the works of Plath and Hughes. Owen, Paltrow and Jeffs have been lifelong readers of Plath; Brownlow switched from math to English at Oxford University because of Plath’s poetry. Craig was given a copy of Ted Hughes’ book “Crow” when he was 12 years old and remembers sneaking into a Hughes reading when he was in grammar school. Yared wrote the elegiac score with a sense that he was composing “for” Plath. In an interview during her recent stop in San Francisco for the premiere of “Sylvia” at the Mill Valley Film Festival, director Jeffs revealed that she, like Paltrow, would read Plath’s poetry late into the night before a morning film shoot, selecting individual lines from Plath’s “Ariel” poems to focus the tone and emotional temperature of the next day’s filming.

It is difficult, then, to find fault with the impulse behind the film, despite Frieda Hughes’ claim that the filmmakers refused to take her objections or her “feelings” into consideration. One has to wonder if Hughes’ feelings might have more to do with the siphoning off of income from the Plath estate than with the sensitivity or fairness or accuracy of the film itself.

Is it reasonable for an artist — or in “Sylvia’s” case, a group of artists and investors — to benefit financially from the work, or even the reputation, of another artist? Isn’t that exactly what Frieda Hughes is doing by accepting her fat NESTA grant and writing her life story? Would NESTA have given Frieda Hughes $80,000 if she hadn’t been the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath?

Hughes has every right to feel proprietary over her mother as her mum and her father as her dad. But it is foolhardy for her to attempt to control either the general reader’s response to her parents’ work or to prevent the creative interpretation of her parents’ work by other artists. As Hughes is a poet and artist herself, it is confounding that she seems to refuse to acknowledge the natural attraction that artists feel for the works of other artists, often to beneficial effect for both the subject and the interpreter.

It is doubly confounding that Hughes seems to believe that by clinging to a misapprehended sense of nepotistic “privacy” she alone has the right to artistic response to one — two — of the major literary figures of the 20th century. This is the kind of schizophrenic attitude that has characterized the Plath estate for many years: The desire to realize the income created by making Plath’s works available to the public, coupled with active distaste at the possibility that those same works might elicit some response other than A) a narrowly circumscribed, family-approved interpretation, or B) the ringing of a cash register.

What might “Sylvia” be like if Frieda Hughes and her family had granted the filmmakers liberal use of Plath’s words, placing poetry at the heart of the relationship of their version of Sylvia and Ted, as it was in real life? “I know the bottom,” Plath wrote in the poem “Elm” in April 1962, when Frieda had just turned 2 years old. “It is what you fear.” What Frieda Hughes may continue to fear is that letting go of the stranglehold the Plath estate maintains on Plath’s work will force her to forever revisit the terrible specter of her mother’s death and the nasty spectacle that followed for her family when that death became the crux of public knowledge about Plath. But Frieda Hughes’ mother continued, almost prophetically, in that same poem: “I do not fear it: I have been there.” The genius of Sylvia Plath was her courageous willingness to face her inner demons, excruciating as it was, and to come to know herself profoundly in the process. Her poetry continues to resonate far beyond her personal struggle to become, as her daughter recognized in September 2000, “her own woman, defined not by others, but by the words she left behind.”

In those last anguished, exhilarating, fruitful months before Plath’s suicide, she became a woman whose sole proprietor was herself. That’s the Plath her readers know, and that’s the Plath who will last: the ardent, defiant, fierce and nimble writer, not the miserable woman who inscrutably and with hopeless finality took her own life. All secondary Plathian roads, whether biographical or critical or fictional or celluloid, will lead surely and inevitably back to the genuine article. As an artist and a poet, but most important as Sylvia Plath’s daughter, it’s time for Frieda Hughes to trust not just her mother’s readers but her mother’s words, and the profound power they have to transcend her death. Until she does, Sylvia Plath will never be truly hers.

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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