Was Sylvia Plath a battered wife?

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The fiercest poet of our times

The short answer? Yes.

Over at Literary Hub, a persuasive and passionate argument by Emily Van Duyne. In a nutshell:

To anyone as familiar as I am with Plath’s life and work, the fact that Ted Hughes was likely abusive—emotionally and physically—is not news. In fact, the only way we can discount the certainty of that abuse is if we choose to disbelieve Plath at her repeated word in her journals, reports to friends and family, and now, it seems, letters to Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, Plath’s therapist-turned-confidante. Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic contains a dramatic account of Hughes attempting to strangle Plath on their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain—a grim tale supposedly told to the author by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother, who allowed herself to be interviewed for the book. Plath’s Unabridged Journals, published in America in fall 2000, and edited by Karen V. Kukil, who curates the Mortimer Rare Book Room at Plath’s alma mater, Smith College, are peppered with references to her violent relationship with Hughes.

If Van Duyne’s article has taken the literary world by storm, perhaps it’s because of its obviousness. Didn’t we know it all along? “Why, for instance, did Plath meet Hughes one night at a party, bite him on the cheek when he kissed her, flee to Paris to see another boyfriend with barely a mention of Hughes’s name, and then marry him with no further commentary three months later? What had happened in between?” asks Van Duyne, who is writing a book about Plath.

Yet Van Duyne glosses over that legendary meeting at a party, which is well-known and often recounted. Here’s Maria Popova‘s summary over at Brain Pickings, quoting Plath’s account:

Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”

To talk only about what he did to her is to bathe her in victimhood, which, I think, would have appalled her. We’re tiptoeing around the mysterious link between sex and aggression, sex and violence. I have no special insight to put on the table, but offer the subject for reflection. Plath was clearly familiar with this nexus. It is a delicate topic, given the violence towards women in this culture – any culture, really. Yet whole masses of people have formed in bondage clubs, and S&M clubs – Fifty Shades of Grey had women swooning across the nation. What’s up with that? Who wants to open that can of worms? (A woman once told me, her eyes sparkling with excitement, that when she was attracted to a man she wanted to slap him. Again, what’s up with that?)

The reaction in the days since Van Duyne’s article was published has been telling. Comments on the social media have lamented Plath’s vulnerability, how she was helpless, “sick,” at his mercy. I am offended by the portrayals of Plath as a weepy victim, a basket case, a social liability. She was by many reports lively and smart and witty and a helluva lot of fun to be around – when she wasn’t on the downside of her bipolar swings. The flipside of these comments portray the patient Hughes who put up with this anchor on his career – when, in fact, she taught Hughes discipline and determination, typing his manuscripts and goading him into submissions.

This part of Van Duyne’s argument is well worth reflection and in my opinion beyond dispute:

I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”

Read the whole thing here. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that she was “the fiercest poet of our time.” I just discovered her poem “Mushrooms” at the West Chester Poetry Conference last month. Read it here.


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3 Responses to “Was Sylvia Plath a battered wife?”

  1. Sam Gwynn Says:

    I recently read Jonathan Bate’s biography of Hughes. He was a fairly despicable man and, after his first two books, not much of a poet–England’s James Dickey. But to take Plath at her word in letters to her former therapist raises other questions. Plath’s letters to her mother, collected many years ago in Letters Home, are full of proven exaggerations, omissions, and outright lies. Thus, I doubt that we will ever find out what exactly went on in that torturous marriage. Still, if Emily Van Duyne thinks that Hughes was “knighted by the Queen,” her credentials as a biographical commentator are definitely not “beyond dispute.”

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for checking in, Sam. Good points, all.

  3. Peter K Steinberg Says:

    Thank you for this piece which I enjoyed reading. It’s an important factor that you bring up about victimizing Plath at the easy expense of simply castigating Ted Hughes. The aggressive manner of their meeting a mutual attraction, the passion and violence of it was reciprocal. In addition, the “fight” that took place in Northampton in May 1958 after Plath’s last day of teaching at Smith College included both Plath and Hughes hitting each other. From her journals, “I had a sprained thumb, Ted bloody claw-marks, for a week, and I remember hurling a glass with all my force across a dark room; instead of shattering the glass rebounded and remained intact: I got hit and saw stars – for the first time – blinding red & white stars exploding in the black void of snarls & bitings. Air cleared. We are intact. And nothing – no wishes for money, children, security, even total possession – nothing is worth jeopardizing what I have which is so much the angels might well envy it.”

    What I think is most crucial here is that these allegations, while several decades old, are actually brand new. We have had the stories of Plath and Hughes’s famous meeting and the Northampton fight in Plath’s journals. But the letters — no one knew about them until March and April of this year when news of those letters came to light. And we still do not actually have the letters as they remain held privately. A Plath scholar Gail Crowther relayed another story about the married couple, https://gailcrowther.com/2017/04/13/is-my-life-so-intriguingis-it-for-this-you-widen-your-eye-rings-sylvia-plath-conflict-and-privacy/. And it is neither right nor fair to pass judgment on them until we can read and process them in their entirety. Which comes with its own set of further complications as we simply do not and may never have Ted Hughes’s side of the story.

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