A lioness in winter

Novelist Kate Moses on her portrait of Sylvia Plath during the grim London winter when she changed literary history -- and then killed herself.

Published February 18, 2003 9:00PM (EST)

Feb. 11, 2003, marked the 40th anniversary of an event that has become the center of often heated and poisonous debate: the suicide of poet Sylvia Plath. Plath's marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes had fallen apart in July 1962, after she discovered his affair with Assia Wevill, the wife of yet another poet. She left the couple's home in the countryside of Devon, England, to winter with her two young children in London. During the last months of her life she wrote dozens of poems with an uncharacteristic speed and fluency; they became the book that cemented her reputation as a major American poet, "Ariel."

Like many people, Kate Moses (a former editor at Salon) found Plath's tragic story fascinating. But what interested her most about the poet's final weeks was not whether Plath was a self-destructive, monomaniacal harpy (as Hughes partisans have insisted), the victim of a callous and manipulative Hughes (as some have claimed), or was, according to an increasingly prevalent theory, a casualty of neurochemical imbalance. Instead, what Moses found most intriguing was the nature of the internal alchemy that enabled Plath to write the "Ariel" poems, the fulfillment of her artistic promise, even as the life she had longed for and cherished lay in ruins. "Wintering," the novel Moses has just published, takes place mostly in December 1962, with a few flashbacks to earlier times. Each chapter takes its title and substance from one of the "Ariel" poems, arranged in the order Plath originally intended for them. It reveals, as Moses feels the poems themselves do, a surprising new view of the poet's life.

Sylvia Plath was known for keeping extensive journals. Is there a lot of material concerning this particular period of her life that you used as the basis for "Wintering"?

Not really, but the story behind that is interesting. Plath kept journals since she was a little girl and used them as a springboard for developing herself as a writer and recording her life. It's interesting that the stuff that she did record was material that she wanted to use as a writer. She never recorded anything about her wedding reception, or parties she went to, for example.

So this wasn't a diary?

No. She was so programmatic in trying to develop her skill as a writer. Everything fed into that, even the domestic details. But for the period of time when "Wintering" takes place there were two journals, one that Ted Hughes said he destroyed. That's from the very last weeks and months of her life. He destroyed it saying that he didn't want his children to ever have to read it. The other journal he says disappeared. I understand that back in the 1970s, the Plath estate, with Ted's sister Olwyn in charge, originally had listed one of those journals as well as Plath's novel manuscript in the inventory of the papers they had in the Plath archive. Clearly one of those journals did exist at one point in time. What happened to it, who knows?

The reason why the loss of those two journals is so important and interesting is that they're the journals she was keeping when her life as a writer was taking real, galvanized shape. We don't have those journals from the time she was writing the "Ariel" poems. What we do have are some journal notes that were included in the unabridged journal publication -- say, observations of her neighbors in Devon in 1962, some of which are very telling. But mostly what we've got are her letters and the poems. And she kept a daily calendar from 1962 which listed things like "Wash hair on Tuesday; take out the trash on Wednesday." I took all of that material and created an enormous chronological database of what information I knew for any given day during the period I was writing about. From that I extrapolated where she would have been in the process of putting the manuscript [of "Ariel"] together.

So you were writing about a life that, even without the journals, is fairly well documented. So many other people have written about it and have strong feelings about it. Anytime someone writes a novel about a real person, you have to decide how much liberty you're going to take. You took some, which you explain in your author's note, but did you feel constrained?

The facts gave me a structure, but I also felt a responsibility to be really careful about where I strayed from the facts because I feel it's dangerous territory to write about a real person -- in this case, a real artist whose artistic legacy is still in flux. What I didn't want to do was add something into the canon of understanding about Plath that would be untrue to her artistically. I did feel I had to be very careful about what I made up. I list in the notes the major detours I made from fact, but most of the book comes from the real facts of her life. I know that she really did go to the zoo on Dec. 10 with Ted and the children, and I know some of the animals she saw. I don't know that she stood in the lion's house and watched them eat, but I do know she was there that day.

You're also guessing what she felt about it, why she went.

That was another reason why I needed to be careful. When you guess about her feelings and make up the experiences, you compound the chances of confusing the real facts of who she was and what she was doing and what it means. I tried to illuminate those facts as best I could.

I was connecting all this to the narrative I see in the "Ariel" poems as she envisioned it. What was exciting to me was to see the story that is embedded almost anagrammatically within the "Ariel" poems if you put them back in their order. You see that there is a narrative drive there and that there was a parallel track in what was going on in her life at the time. Emotionally, a lot of the experiences she was going through were probably expressed in how she put that manuscript together.

Is that what inspired this novel, the illumination that you got from looking at that original order?

Yes, it was partly the moment when I realized that the "Ariel" I had understood and that most people have read and felt to be the work of Sylvia Plath was really something entirely different from what she intended.

Even though the poems themselves are the same?

The poems are the same but what's really interesting about Plath is that her poems don't exist in individual vacuums. They're very resonant to each other, and when you place them in different orders you pick up nuances and meanings and reverberations that you don't necessarily get in another format.

I think that's definitely true of the way we see "Ariel" as it was published. Almost anyone who reads it feels that it's an almost inexorable slide toward self-destruction, especially because the last poem in the book is "Edge." What's interesting about that is that she wrote two poems on the day she wrote "Edge." One was the poem "Balloons," which was about observing her children playing with balloons they got for Christmas, and the other is "Edge." If you assume that "Edge" is the last poem she wrote in her life, you get a particular picture of her. But if you consider the possibility that she may have written "Balloons" last, it puts her in a completely different emotional and psychological state as an artist. And the fact is we don't know which of those poems came last on that particular day. It was a decision by Ted Hughes as the editor to put "Edge" last.

This is charged territory because there is so much contention about that marriage and so much blame being dished out, but do you feel that he was imposing a narrative on those poems?

Anytime you put any poetry in any kind of order, you're imposing some sort of form on it. He definitely imposed a form. "Ariel" as it was published is largely chronological and he extracted a few poems that were particularly distasteful to him that she had wanted to have published. So on one hand you can argue that he just put it in chronological order. On the other hand he was too sensitive a reader of Sylvia Plath's work to have missed the fact that in chronological order the poems told a certain story about who she was and where she was emotionally as she was moving toward her death.

And that story was about her becoming more and more determined to kill herself?

Yes, that "Ariel" was an extended suicide note. It suggests that she was obsessed with her own mortality and that her death was inevitable. Of course, that's the story that he continued to tell, and that he elaborated on for many years. Early on, right after her death, he didn't make the claims that her death was inevitable, but as he moved on in his own career as a poet and as her reputation grew because of his stewardship, it is interesting to observe that the statements he makes were more and more sure in that assertion. But if you look at the poems in the order that Plath arranged them, clearly she was trying to tell a different story, to herself if not to her readership. She was taking these poems that were in some way chapters from her own mythology and putting them in an order so that she could place herself in the position of imagining a future. What you have, then, are two completely different books using the same elements.

You don't attempt in "Wintering" to describe her frame of mind when she did decide to kill herself.

I very pointedly did not want to write about her death. Her death has been written about so many times. We all know more detail than any of us needs to know, or probably has the right to know. My feeling was that if I felt internally charged with revealing the story of "Ariel" as she had envisioned it, then it was a story of her survival and her struggle to remake her life. It wasn't a story of her death. So imagining and then writing out her death seemed a gratuitous nod to the fact that we all know about it. In fact, this is really a story about her artistic process and how after years of worrying over the possibility that the facts of her life were going to make it impossible for her to be an artist, it turned out that the opposite was true. Her life gave her her greatest material as an artist. Ultimately, she turned the whole idea on its head by using her art to imagine her way into a new life.

Nevertheless, you know that she didn't manage to achieve this in a lasting way. That puts you in conflict with this huge fact about her life, which is that she killed herself.

One of the questions I asked myself is that if she was trying to right her life and doing it by writing her life, then how did she get from that one point to the other? Was there a moment when I could capture her still thinking that she was going to be all right? That was the moment I wanted to leave her on. Because I think that the myth and the legacy of Sylvia Plath is so weighted toward her death that it often puts her work in shadow. I wanted her relationship to her work, and how her life and her work seemed to be all of a piece, to be the primary focus of this book. It's obvious, yes, that she didn't make it. And she in some way was perhaps gambling on something that ultimately failed her.

She was probably gambling on, or putting her trust in, her knowledge that she had achieved what she had most wanted to artistically. The gamble there is in thinking that if you reach your goal everything is going to be OK. In fact, no, because you've got the wreckage of your life all around you still. She moved to London in December 1962, thinking that she could remake her life based on the weight of her understanding of her own success artistically. But in fact her life was still unresolved and her marriage had fallen apart, her internal psychological frailties were still there and were still going to haunt her. In one way, she was a victim of having too little external support, so you could also read the gamble there as being one where she took her interiority and showed her genius through that, but that this gave her very few resources externally to call on when she was at her most vulnerable.

The character that you've created is very isolated. She can't get a phone installed in her flat. She doesn't seem to have any friends. The people in London that she knows she doesn't like, and they don't like her. I imagine it must have been very difficult to write a book so much in this woman's head and in her moods. It must have been hard to live with that. It's a powerful personality and at the same time a very lonely, bleak one.

I'll tell you, living with Sylvia Plath in my head for three years felt, on one hand, like this incredible gift because of her brilliance and me being able to continually wallow in her work. Trying to imagine myself into her imagination was fantastic and yet it was also like having a stone on your head. Her incredible hypersensitivity to the workings of her mind and her awareness of the world around her was a gift, but it was also an unimaginable burden. To be that open to everything all the time, it's like doors of perception that never close.

Yet as much as the novel is told from her perspective, there is a distance and awareness at some points that seems like it comes from you. There was a quality in the way the book depicts her rage and disappointment in her husband that suggests an understanding that it's too much.

I was trying to be really true and to be right there with her, but at the same time there was a certain level of observation from my point of view as the author. And judging from what she says about herself in the journals, she was acutely aware of her own reactions to things and often of her own unreliability. That was something that I wanted to portray, that in the moment she may not be aware of being irrational or malicious or just nasty, but on some level she always knew that was part of who she was. That was part of her struggle, trying to find out where all that stuff fit.

It was her, but at the same time it was ruining her life.

Right. If we go back to the idea that she may have been a victim of her own biochemistry in some ways, over and over again in her journals she says, why do I feel like this? I feel like I'm dying inside. Or, I feel like I'm inhabited by something that is just crushing me. She was aware that there was something going on in her and I don't think it was just personality. I think it was beyond that, but she didn't know what it was and she died not knowing what it was. That's one of the saddest things. Plath felt enormous responsibility for who she was and how she moved through the world. Certainly she felt that Ted Hughes had wronged her in unfathomable ways, unfathomable from her perspective. But at the same time, you can see in her poetry that she recognizes that there's culpability on both sides.

You're not only writing about a person for whom people have immensely complicated feelings but also about this marriage that's almost iconic. So much of the fascination with Plath and what happened to her is about this marriage and what happened in it. Did you feel hemmed in by all the different versions of it that have been put out there?

I certainly read everything, but from the start my feeling was that it is very easy to judge someone else's relationship. Really only the two people who were there know what happened, and usually even they don't know what's going on. I don't think either one of them had a sense during their marriage of the profundity of how they were affecting each other and what that would ultimately mean.

It's interesting to see how Ted Hughes grew after Plath's death. His work always seemed to circle back to a relationship between a man and a woman that was not entirely understandable to him. It's easy to speculate on what Plath would do with it now, since she's not around. But if she had been able to get some help and had not killed herself -- I mean, she was 30 years old, good God, when I think about what I was doing when I was 30, I cringe at the stupidity. And that's the tragedy here. They were so young and they both did such stupid stuff.

Ted Hughes chose, I think ingeniously, to develop a reputation for Plath after her death. He could clearly see from his relationship to her and what she did with their marriage in her work that the mythology of the marriage was so powerful that it was really worth allowing that to continue. As Plath's literary executor and the person who was getting public attention for her work, I think he very calculatedly used their marriage -- sometimes to his own personal damage -- in order to develop a mythology about her that would become as legendary as it clearly is. But there's a price to pay there, and clearly they both paid far too heavy a price.

One of the things your character Sylvia believes is that her husband is trying to thwart her artistically.

In Plath's own statements about that, she goes back and forth. He's the greatest support she could ever have and yet three days later she's grumbling about the fact that it's all about him. I think that's totally normal in any relationship, to have that kind of sway back and forth between your feelings of being supported and your feelings of being thwarted. They were both extremely ambitious artists working in the same form. I wonder if Plath was also constrained by wanting Ted to achieve fame before she did because that was more fitting and ladylike, for the husband to get the acclaim and then later in life the wife would follow. Her journals, letters and poetry in some ways back that up, but she also wanted to be the arrow, she wrote, "I am the arrow." I am the arrow, not him.

You could speculate that when she got to the point of recognizing how successful she was becoming artistically -- and I mean "successful" from a very personal standpoint, not a public standpoint -- when she was writing the "Ariel" poems, that would wash up a lot of conflicting emotions. One was "He's already gotten famous and the BBC loves him and everything he does seems to turn to gold," whereas she's still struggling for a readership while knowing that her work is truly exceptional. I can't imagine that she wouldn't have felt some rivalry and frustration at not garnering the same level of attention that he was getting. And, frankly, Ted Hughes, because he lived until he was nearly 70, had the opportunity to publish quite a bit more than Plath ever did. Still, I can't imagine anyone putting Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath together in the same category as far as their literary legacy goes. She's clearly in another category. Other people might argue that she only had this one great book, so how can you judge her as a more successful poet than Ted Hughes, who had an entire body of work.

Is it possible that she held back her own full ability while she was married and the breakup did truly liberate her?

I think that's a very interesting possibility. I believe something pretty similar to that. I do think that there was something in Sylvia Plath that required a sense of endangerment and loss in order to really get to the heart of who she was personally as well as artistically. She needed to push things to an extreme in order to get there artistically.

I think of her as being one of the great poets of rage. She needed something big enough to justify and provoke that rage.

Yeah, because you really can't write a great rage poem over the post office not getting you your telephone.

In the way you depict her at the point in her life where she has everything she wants -- her family in the farmhouse and it's springtime -- there's a kind of disorientation. That happiness, that kind of fulfillment was not a state she felt totally comfortable in.

That's one of the sad things. Plath desperately wanted that blissful existence, and yet it did not fulfill her artistically to be in that state. Some of the poems she wrote about motherhood some could argue are blissful poems, but they're not really. They're far more profound and complicated than that. There's a deep happiness -- actually, "satisfaction" is a better word -- but it's not coming from a happy place. It's far more intellectual than that. I think you're right. I think that she was like one of those friends we all have who needs to stir up trouble, who always has a crisis brewing. She was more that personality than not.

There's a story that's repeated in one of the Plath biographies about her going to a party late in '62 after the breakup with Hughes and talking to another writer friend who says something about having trouble getting his work going and that he had to create problems for himself in order to make it happen. Her response was, "I know exactly what you mean because I conjured Assia." At least in that one moment she copped to the idea that she might have choreographed her own crisis to get to a deeper place artistically.

Or she could've just been telling herself that because it was too frightening to admit that something so beyond her control could have destroyed her life.

Yes, that way she was exerting some ownership and control of the situation that otherwise she was adrift in.

Her marriage affected her work in one way, but motherhood was perhaps an even greater factor. That seems to be a particularly important theme to you. Work and motherhood are usually presented as conflicting forces in women's lives, but that's not how you choose to frame it.

That was one of her greatest fears. She wanted motherhood and wanted to have the sense of sweeping fertility in her life. She wanted to be a mother and a wife and an artist. It's that quote -- "books and babies and beef stew" -- she has in one of her journals that has always stuck with me. She wanted all those things at once.

What is fascinating about her is that motherhood seems to have been the galvanizing force for her as an artist. Her most powerful work came after the birth of her children. With both of her children, within a couple of months or so of their births she started writing poems that had evolved to an entirely new and higher plane. It turned out to be the opposite of what she feared. Motherhood gave her the material or maybe the access to the material that she had always needed and had not yet been able to get out of herself.

In listening to recordings of her reading, it's interesting to hear the ones she did in the late '50s, before she had children. There's a determination and a sense of earnestness in her reading voice, but it's also very girlish and there's a certain reticence. You can think of her as a girl poet. In the recordings after she's had children, especially the recordings made in October 1962, historic recordings of some of her late poems -- some of which she'd literally written that morning -- it is amazing to hear the resonance of her voice.

It's as if she has suddenly embodied a new kind of gravitas and confidence. From poem to poem she will take on the cloak of a different character or emotional temperature that is so much more nuanced than the voice we hear from her earlier on. I do think that motherhood had a lot to do with that. It grounded her in a way that she hadn't anticipated before it happened and then afterward it was such a natural part of herself. She wrote several times to her friends and to her mother that her real life began after she had children and everything really flowed from that.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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