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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.

THE PLATH LETTERS
Miss Olwyn Hughes, on behalf of the Plath Estate, has provided several facts and points of information for publication, in order to correct false impressions left by Dr Eric Homberger's review of the Plath letters published in PNR 1.

As general editor, I should mention that the preparation of the book reviews pages of PNR is often of necessity left entirely to my discretion. The review pages are the most current and are last assembled. In the case of Dr Homberger's review there was not time to refer the article to my fellow editors. It was my editorial decision to print it. Professor Cox is now unhappy with this arrangement and is no longer a member of the editorial board.

It has seemed to Miss Hughes that Dr Homberger's review pretends to be reasonable and questing but that it in fact creates doubts and suspicions in people's minds, that it not only repeats but appears to invent rumours. The facts, she suggests, could have been checked with any Plath scholar; by reference to recent correspondence in the American press (see below); by contacting Sylvia Plath's British publishers-Mr Charles Monteith of Faber & Faber or by consulting Miss Hughes herself or Ted Hughes. She feels that Dr Homberger's review partakes of a style (I quote from her letter to the New York Review of Books, 30 September 1976) common to


certain reviewers who treat Sylvia Plath's family as though they were characters in some work of fiction, or a hundred years dead, and proper subjects for speculation and academic dissection. It is almost as though, writing about Sylvia, some of whose work seems to take cruel and poetically licensed aim at those nearest to her, journalists feel free to do the same. Whether such writings are the result of this kind of contagion, or ordinary sadism taking its opportunity, or simply journalistic reflex, giving the public what it seems to want, I do not know.


With reference to the editorial cutting of the Plath letters, I transcribe the letter Mrs Frances McCullough of Harper & Row wrote to Atlantic (August, 1976):


Your reviewer's assumption that Letters Home by Sylvia Plath . . . has been painstakingly whitewashed by its editor ('Mrs Plath has deleted from the letters almost everything in the way of lamentation or complaint . . .') echoes a number of other reviews. Somehow the general exuberance and sugar of the letters seem to overpower the extreme mood swings, the despairing ones, the ones that are bound to alarm the addressee. I worked with Mrs Plath on the original letters over the course of two years: she never once suggested that we spare either herself or Sylvia in the way that your reviewer suggests. There were, to be sure, lamentations about the breakup of her marriage, but they are not the public's business. There were also some wicked comments about people she knew, but Ted Hughes asked that virtually all of them be removed on the ground that they would be extremely hurtful to the people involved. One survives: I insisted that her tart comments about Peter Davison remain as an example of this side of her personality. Since Davison has already invited the public into his confidence in regard to Plath, this seemed appropriate.

Most of the deletions in Letters Home are quite simply explained: Sylvia Plath wrote her mother an enormous body of letters, of which perhaps a quarter appear in the book. The excisions have been carefully noted in the book: all but a handful are either trivial or repetitions of themes already well documented.

Sylvia Plath was clearly a very complex person whose work still awaits an adequate critical response as her life awaits a good biography. Letters Home conveys only one side of Plath's personality, one that most readers had no previous knowledge of-it's true, too, that it's not 'edited' in the classical sense: the reader is not told what to think, he's simply presented with a lot of documents and invited to read them as he will. Anyone who remembers his own letters home will recognize at once that if there is a censor's hand at work here, it is the daughter's, not the mother's.


Concerning the long-delayed Lois Ames biography of Plath, Miss Hughes wrote in the letter already quoted:


Obviously a fully researched, authorized biography of Sylvia Plath is badly needed. In 1969 Ted Hughes signed an agreement with Lois Ames appointing her official biographer. He undertook to help her exclusively in the usual way (to give her his own records and recollections, make available Sylvia's diaries, notebooks, correspondence, manuscripts, etc. and to request family and friends to give their full cooperation). Lois Ames spent a good deal of time one summer with Mrs Plath, made various interviews, and spent a few days in Devon talking with Ted Hughes and studying some of Sylvia Plath's papers. But over the years Mrs Ames' work on the book seems to have slowed to a standstill. My letters to her and those of Harper and Row and Faber and Faber have remained unanswered for a year and a half now. Her contract with these publishers stipulated delivery of the book by 1975, her agreement grants her exclusive help until December 1977.


I have been shown by Miss Hughes correspondence that she has had with Mrs Ames over the winter months of 1976 which show clearly that the Estate is severely disappointed and exasperated by Mrs Ames's non-production of the book and is doing all it can to persuade her at least to share exclusivity with another biographer so that a fully researched biography can be written forthwith. This contract restricts the Plath Estate to helping other researchers only on matters of chronology and textual problems. As a result of it, various misconceptions about the life and work of Sylvia Plath persist and are indeed encouraged by some journalists. Because of this, too, the would-be 'biographies' get into print, for example Edward Butscher's recent volume that uses only marginal sources and through lack of first-hand information is largely invention and conjecture. Miss Hughes's letters to Lois Ames, particularly since the publication of the Butscher book, have been urgent-for damage is being done. She asks her simply to drop the exclusivity clause. She is still unwilling to do so, though Miss Hughes has promised to continue cooperating with her fully on her book until the contract expires in 1977.

Miss Hughes informs me that Dr Homberger seems to have invented the notion of 'boxes and boxes' of papers. All the papers-' "papers" and notebooks'-relating to her writing were contained at her death in a tin box measuring 12" x 10" x 10".

The Collected Poems are in preparation. Miss Hughes reminds us that the best poems are already printed in the four trade editions, and that the few mature poems not included there are to be found in libraries in the limited editions. 'The rest of the material is largely juvenilia.'

With regard to Dr Homberger's comments about the limited editions, I take it that this is a reference to Olwyn Hughes's Rainbow Press publications. These books are still available at their original prices, apart from one which contained illustrations and an etching by Leonard Baskin. The prices of the remaining two are £12.60 and £21.00. Miss Hughes points out that these books are in the best traditions of fine limited editions and can hardly be said to be the most highly priced modern limited editions. Some-especially when illustrated-run to hundreds of pounds. The Plath books therefore, still available at their original prices, are collectors' bargains, and 'could not nowadays even be produced for the price asked.'

It remains for me sincerely to apologize to Miss Hughes and others of the Plath Estate who found Dr Homberger's review of the Plath letters offensive.
-Michael Schmidt

This article is taken from PN Review 3, Volume 4 Number 3, April - June 1978.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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