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This review is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.THE UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
The reason why this book was published, and the way it has been edited, tell us rather more about the motives of the people involved than the letters themselves tell us about Sylvia Plath. When she died, her estate passed to her husband, Ted Hughes. They were estranged by 1963, and Plath felt bitterly about her treatment at the hands of her husband. Her mother, towards whom she had expressed complex and ambiguous feelings in The Bell Jar and in the poems, had an extensive file of her daughter's letters. Like many parents with precocious children, she had saved Sylvia's letters as an undergraduate, and then those which followed from Cambridge, and after her marriage. The copyright belonged to Ted Hughes, but the letters were physically in the possession of Mrs Plath. There were boxes and boxes of 'papers' left at Plath's suicide. She was a professional writer, a compulsive correspondent, and a faithful diarist. She kept extensive poetic notebooks and worksheets. The decision about what to do with this material, including the poems Plath was writing at the end of her life, has for a decade and a half remained squarely in the lap of Ted Hughes. In addition to his own career, he has had to manage Sylvia Plath's posthumous one as well. He has, of course, his own life to live, children to raise, poems to write, things to do. No doubt the recognition of Sylvia Plath which followed Ariel in 1965 was gratifying in a disinterested sense, but also a burden of increasing responsibility. He has had to find some way to reconcile the rapacious public curiosity about Sylvia Plath, with a desire to preserve his own privacy and that of his family.
It is not surprising that he has been criticized for certain of the decisions he has taken, or at least for those he has allowed to be made in his name. That there is no proper collected poems by Plath, despite many promises over the years, remains a puzzling question. It is widely assumed that there are no exotic textual problems for an editor of Plath. The series of handsomely printed limited editions seems to have run its course (they rapidly became among the highest priced modern first editions), and not too quickly; this dilatoriness suggested an insensitivity to ordinary readers of Plath's poetry.
Rumour takes over where this kind of vacuum is allowed to exist. This owes something to the Hughes's, who are the object of no small amount of jealousy, resentment, and good old- fashioned backbiting. Most of the rumours turn upon the relationship between Hughes and Plath, the cause of their estrangement, and hence the true meaning of Plath's suicide. For this reason it was only common sense that an official biography was commissioned, but the biographer, Lois Ames, is said to have been lost to sight, and no one knows when the promised book will materialize. Or, indeed, whether it ever will be written. Rumours float around, but a fundamental contradiction between the biographer and the 'family' may lie at the heart of the problem. There are things which a 'family' might not want revealed. We have a whole literature of official biographies, written with the co-operation of the heirs and the estate, which present dishonest and congenial portraits for the ages. The nonappearance of Lois Ames's biography of Plath has fed suspicions that disagreements of this nature exist. And where there are suspicions, fertile minds and loose tongues will be quick to invent lurid details to 'explain' the real reason. There is a dramatic scene in which Ted Hughes and Mrs Plath are supposed to have burned Sylvia Plath's last diaries. There are stories of husband battering wife. There are stories - of the wife, in a rage, destroying the poet's manuscripts. Gossip, any third-party's vague recollections, any contradiction in the evidence, provides increasingly wild material of this nature.
If the Hughes family is fed up with this, as well they might be, a solution is in their power. Having the entire estate of a poet who in effect died with a curse towards them on her lips inevitably means that suspicion will never entirely be removed from their motives in the way they administer the estate. No one is going to complain if top fees are charged to reprint Plath in anthologies and what-not. But the close restrictions which the Hughes's have placed upon the whole estate with regard to the collected poems and the biography, and the manner of the publication of Plath's work since 1963, inevitably means that their motives will be suspected, and perhaps privately impugned. Behind the suspicion may be nothing - nothing more than a painful separation and a tragic suicide. This is enough. But when spiced by the possibility of further revelations, it is no wonder that to suspicious minds it looks as if something is being covered up. The damage already done in imagination is worse than any so-called revelations are likely to be in reality. But it is only by a systematic act of exclusion, by eliminating their control of what can be said about Plath's life, that the family can relieve themselves of the enormous weight of prurient innuendo and suspicion.
The solution is simple enough. It would be appropriate for the entire collection of papers, letters, notebooks and manuscripts to be given to some body such as the British Library. A limit, if it was felt necessary, might be placed on public access - say for ten years. Alternatively, the business of a biographer might be reconsidered in the light of developments in America. The Hughes family might want to think again about whether they themselves are not making a biography impossible, despite the fact that their own motives are unimpeachable. There are several personal memoirs already published (by Elinor Klein, Wendy Campbell, A. Alvarez, Nancy Hunter Steiner, Peter Davison, Elizabeth Sigmund and others), other manuscripts are being hawked from publisher to publisher, but the worst thing would be for a succession of biographies such as Edward Butscher's Sylvia Plath: Method and Madness, published by the Seabury Press, which will be discussed in the second part of this article (PNR 2). Their own role is now the most serious issue.
There is nothing in Letters Home to explain how the book was edited. We are told that Mrs Plath possesses 696 letters written to herself, and to Sylvia's brother Warren. In addition she has had access to a file of correspondence between Sylvia and her benefactress, Olive Higgins Prouty. This material is of undoubted interest, as Mrs Plath discovered when she began to receive an 'avalanche of inquiries' concerning her daughter. She showed the letters to Mrs Fran McCullough, the editor at Harper & Row who looks after Plath and Hughes, who agreed that they should be published. Mrs Plath took a year, which stretched into two, carefully copying the letters, deciphering dates from faded postal marks, and preparing the manuscript. This was forwarded to Harper & Row, who then sent it to Ted Hughes in England. At each stage material was excised - physically, in the sense that passages, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, perhaps even whole letters, were removed from the typescript, of which no complete original would appear to exist. The holograph letters remain in Mrs Plath's possession. Ted Hughes granted Mrs Plath the copyright, for which he received her 'deeply grateful' thanks, but retained the right of final approval of the text. It was arranged that he would view the manuscript at a preliminary stage, and then in final manuscript form. No complaints were heard after a first inspection, but he subsequently formulated a series of objections, made many deletions, and was described as being 'antagonistic'. Harper & Row, and Mrs Plath, were faced with a dilemma, in that Ted Hughes was neither the author nor a direct party to the book. Yet he proposed to exercise a systematic form of censorship over its contents. He felt strongly that people who were fond of Sylvia shouldn't be hurt by her comments about them (which could be quite nasty). He also objected to her syrupy descriptions of himself. There is a cogency behind his position, but other arguments, of equal or superior force, might apply as well. To want not to hurt people is reasonable enough, but there are negative and hurtful comments which are included in Letters Home which suggest that someone has decided which people will be hurt among those mentioned. The least one can say is that this is inconsistent. It is also seriously misleading. Someone's judgement is present here, but it is certainly not Sylvia Plath's. It is even easier to see why Ted Hughes would not want his wife's descriptions of himself to be printed. She could be obnoxiously effusive. Cut them out of the book, and something fundamental to their relationship is obscured - which makes her feelings in 1962 harder to understand. In response, the Harper & Row legal department restored many deletions which presented no libel or did not raise problems of an invasion of privacy. Letters which did were deleted, thus introducing a fourth party to the editing of Letters Home. The manuscript, somewhat restored and legally vetted, was sent to Ted Hughes again and he raised no further objections. In total, the manuscript has been cut by more than one half. There is no way of knowing which piece of individual censorship is at the behest of Mrs Plath, Harper & Row, Ted Hughes, or the lawyers, but the text printed by Harper & Row, and reprinted here by Faber & Faber, represents a most thoroughly compromised piece of goods.
With so many pairs of scissors busily at work, it is no wonder that the remaining picture of Sylvia Plath seems rather bland. In the relationship with her mother there were obvious constraints (compare the letters to her brother Warren, which seem considerably more pointed). By a rough count over four hundred deletions have been made in Plath's correspondence between 1950 and 1955. This is the period before Ted Hughes appears on the scene, so presumably the censorship is primarily that of Mrs Plath and Harper & Row. An effort has been made to preserve the location of each deleted passage with a row of dots, but the effect is to give the impression that Plath herself wrote making frequent use of dots. Nothing is said in the book, or on the dust-jacket, that the manuscript has been so drastically censored, nor is there any indication of the procedure followed. If the letters merited publication (as I believe they do), there can be no excuse for failing to indicate what, precisely, Letters Home represents: a continuing tug of war between Plath's mother, husband, sister-in-law and publishers for an 'acceptable' version of Sylvia Plath for public consumption. If the reviewers have been unsympathetic, not finding the poet in the soppy letters of Sivvy to dear Mummy, for that the editors (all of them) have no one to blame but themselves. (To be continued in PNR 2)
- Eric Hornberger
This review is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.