Poetry News

Joanna Biggs Reviews Both Volumes of Sylvia Plath's Letters

By Harriet Staff
Sylvia Plath, Collected Letters, cover

Joanna Biggs reviews both volumes of Sylvia Plath's letters, Vol. I: 1940-56, edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil, and Vol. II: 1956-63 (both, Faber & Faber, 2017-2018), for the London Review of Books. "After Anne Stevenson’s, Janet Malcolm’s and Jacqueline Rose’s battles to get the archives opened, and the passing of the copyright to Frieda Hughes, Sylvia’s daughter, we now have the unabridged journals, the restored text of Ariel and these two new volumes of all her known extant letters, and can finally see Plath in the round," writes Biggs. More:

...Better than that, we can let her narrate her life in her own words. Virtually no writer in the 20th century has had their life (or rather their death) reshaped over and over again for fifty years in the way Plath’s has been. For a writer best known for being dead – when I got my Collected Plath at 17 from my parents at Christmas, I wondered how she could have killed herself by putting her head in an electric oven, the only kind I’d ever known – she is more alive than most writers apparently en vie. Extracts from these letters were serialised ahead of publication in the Daily Mail; the appearance of a minor, early short story next year is being treated as an event; the New York Times profiled the people who bought Plath’s possessions at Bonhams earlier this year; the Times will put almost any detail of her last days on its front page. Her extraordinary fame has also led to this extraordinary completeness. Maybe only Virginia Woolf’s diaries are comparable as a record of a woman becoming the writer she hoped but wasn’t sure she could be, though Woolf’s legend is different.

Plath grows up in Cold War America, deceived by a God who let her father die, wanting more than anything to be a writer and to marry a man who would make her feel like she had a vodka sword in her stomach, always...

More from this review at LRB.

Originally Published: December 13th, 2018