27 October 2017

Guest Blog Post: Sheila Hamilton on The Letters of Sylvia Plath

The following is a guest blog post by Sheila Hamilton on the recent publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. In the spirit of full disclosure, I supplied to Sheila the parenthetical count of letters addressed to Aurelia Schober Plath. ~pks

Like many people, I was very pleased (understatement) when I heard on this very blog that Peter K.Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil were busy at work on a book of Sylvia Plath's letters. The book was going to be in two volumes, it was going to encompass letters from her early childhood to her tragic death at the age of 30, and it was going to contain her letters to many different people: mother, husband, other relatives, girlfriends, boyfriends, colleagues, editors. It was clear from that first announcement that the publication of these letters was going to be a major event. Vol. 2 is, I understand, currently in the pipeline but as of October 2017, and on both sides of the Atlantic, we have Vol 1, brought out by Faber in the United Kingdom and by HarperCollins in the United States.

I have the British version in front of me as I write this: excluding the extensive Index, this hardback runs to 1,330 pages and can safely be described as "monumental." The first letter in it is dated February 19th 1940 and was written when Plath was seven, to her father; the last one was written on October 23rd 1956 to Peter Davison, an editor and former boyfriend, four months after Plath's marriage to Ted Hughes. Between these two points exist 836 more letters. No project of this kind could possibly be expected to contain every single letter Plath wrote during these 16 years and, sure enough, there are absences. There are very few letters here to her penfriend from college years, Eddie Cohen: (an ex-wife destroyed most of them.) There are very few to Richard Sassoon, and those that are presented here are self-consciously "literary in tone" ("Words revolve in flame and keep the coliseum heart afire, reflecting orange sunken suns in the secret petals of ruined arches" begins one letter from November 1955.) Such gaps in the record are inevitable. But what we are given here is magnificent, a treasure-trove for anyone interested in Plath, and twentieth-century poetry, and academic and literary life in America and England in the 1950s. Because many of the letters are long and very detailed, you can read them as a kind of Bildungsroman, chapters in the life of an interesting and gifted young woman.

When I first suggested to Peter that I would like to write a guest blog in response to the letters, the Letters had not yet arrived. I thought I might like to focus on some of Plath's many friendships, or on the letters written leading up to (and possibly even during) her serious breakdown in 1953: the possibilities are almost endless. But fascinating though those letters are, I have been left feeling that I don't want to create an Elephant in the Room. The Elephant being, put bluntly, Sylvia Plath's relationship with her mother, Aurelia Schober Plath. If Letters Home, edited by Aurelia Plath herself in the mid-1970s, hinted (unconsciously, for the most part) at a troubled mother-daughter relationship, these "new" letters more than confirm our misgivings. That Plath wrote letters to her mother is not in itself remarkable. But the sheer number of them is. (There are 550 total letters to ASP in V1. 549 to ASP as a sole recipient and 1 to ASP and Warren Plath, jointly.) And what's most troubling, to this reader at least, is the tone in which these particular letters are written. A breathless, anxious tone which strongly suggests a terrible and terrifying need to please. There is little that Plath does not share with her mother, even details about dates, physical descriptions of the various boys she meets. We get the entire curriculum of Smith College in minute detail: lots of essay titles, lots of detail about the essays themselves and then, most importantly, the grades. We hear, too often for it to be healthy, all about finances, down to piddling details about the cost of a pair of shoes or a cup of coffee. All this is, as they say, telling. And we hear about achievement or rather, Achievement. It will not be news to Plath enthusiasts that Plath was an overachiever but what comes through here, very loud and clear, is that she overachieved vicariously, too! Though Plath does describe various boyfriends physically, what she homes in on even more is the academic prowess of these young men. One is aiming for Harvard, another is bound for Yale, still others are on Fulbright programmes or in receipt of Guggenheim grants. Somehow the daughter has to tell all this because, somehow, the mother needs to know it all, needs to know that her daughter is top of the class, summa cum laude and, what's more, associating with a whole array of people who are also top of the class and summa cum laude. Ultimately, the message that such a child gets is: I will only love you because of your achievements. Do what you choose but make sure it's what I want.

There is so much to enjoy in this volume: Plath's holiday jobs, her first term in Cambridge, her travels to Paris and the South of France, the interesting and interested letters to a German penfriend Hans-Joachim Neupert which reveal how Plath's political and historical awareness was in place as early as her teens ("We saw some colored slides of the ruins in large German towns last Sunday, and they were a sad contrast to the jolly story in your letters."). But the heart breaks, too, as we see more clearly than previously some of the stresses that Plath was up against all her life.

All links accessed 26 October 2017.

23 October 2017

Faber Reissues Sylvia Plath's Crossing the Water and Winter Trees

The Letters of Sylvia Plath may have dominated your attention this autumn, but Faber and Faber reissued two classic Sylvia Plath poetry books on 5 October: Crossing the Water and Winter Trees.

Both of these first appeared in England in 1971 and serve as a bridge of poems between The Colossus and Ariel to Plath's growing legions of readers and fans. The contents of these editions varies between England and the US and it is all really rather too involved to go into now for the purpose of this blog post, which is to encourage you to buy these two books!

Faber's reissue reset the text for both books and made other house-style changes such as, for example, bringing their covers up to their current design. They are gorgeously sleek and clean looking. You can see the historical covers over on my main website for Sylvia Plath, A celebration, this is.

One small change to note, though, involved updating the poem title of "Small Hours" to "Barren Woman". The poem was originally published as "Small Hours" in the London Magazine (August 1961) and later in the 1971 edition of Crossing the Water. However, in Plath's Collected Poems (1981) the title changed to "Barren Woman". At some point between its appearance in London Magazine and her death, Plath renamed "Small Hours" to "Barren Woman". The title change is reflected, Karen V. Kukil has observed, in the typescript of Ariel Plath prepared before her death.

You can buy both books on Faber's website, or via Amazon.co.uk (Crossing the Water and Winter Trees), and through other book retailers.

All links accessed: 17 and 18 October 2017.

17 October 2017

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, Published Today

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956 is officially published today by HarperCollins in the United States. For those who were patient enough to wait to couple of weeks after the Faber publication: you inspire me.

The 838 letters in Volume 1 begin on 19 February 1940 and end on 23 October 1956. The cut off date was intentional as that is the last letter Plath wrote before her 24th birthday. Thus Volume 2, you can deduce, begins with the first letter Plath wrote after turning 24. The book was edited by me (that's Peter K. Steinberg in case you forgot) and Karen V. Kukil.

The contents are the same between the Faber edition and that of the HarperCollins edition but there are some differences in the book design. Of course, the covers are different: both stunning and remarkable in their own ways. The Faber edition has two sections of plates, Harper just one. Same pictures and drawings though so no worries. The Faber spine is curved; the Harper spine is squared/straight. Faber has a sewn in red linen bookmark. The Faber edition is slightly taller and slimmer; the Harper edition is thus shorter but a little thicker.

A number of readers of this blog and followers on Twitter have sent me messages and the like that the book is on the way. I find this level of excitement and enthusiasm for The Letters of Sylvia Plath so wonderful. So, thank you all for being patient as we built the book. There is more to come.

Buy it from HarperCollins, Amazon, on Kindle, Book Depository, or in stores.

All links accessed 13 October 2017.

13 October 2017

About Last Night: Sylvia Plath at the Grolier

On a pre-dawn train from New York to Boston, I thought I would write up a small review of the Sylvia Plath Symposium at the Grolier Club last night, which was held in conjunction with Judith Raymo's member exhibit "This is the light of the mind" in which selections from her personal collection of Sylvia Plath books and typescripts is on display through 4 November.

After checking into my hotel, I walked up Madison Avenue to see 575, where Plath was a guest intern for Mademoiselle. I gave "the glass eggbeater...revolving doors" a quick hello before continuing on to the Grolier Club (1963, p. 43).

Before the talks, Judith gave Karen V. Kukil, Heather Clark, and me a tour of the show and it was wonderful to see all the cases bursting with Plath. Judith had consulted all three of us on various aspects of the show and I had seen and read her catalog but to see everything in real time was wonderful. Some, like her copy of the Saint Botolph's Review are so rare that seeing it in person has a curious effect on me. And I can imagine the launch party for it and picture Plath's powerful journal entry written the next day (and also her story "Stone Boy With Dolphin". One aspect of the show I would like to highlight is that the British Library's Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath CD is playing on a loop with an accompanying slideshow of images. As the CD is out of print now, it is a great way to listen to it for free.

Judith gave a lovely introduction to Plath and the symposium and then turned the microphone and podium over to Karen, me, and Heather.

Karen discussed the Plath collection at Smith College and Plath's poetry showing manuscript examples of "Ariel", "Daddy", "Lady Lazarus", and "Fever 103" among others. She also mentioned books in Plath's library that hey have, such as Edith Sitwell's The Canticle of the Rose. One thing I liked best was when Karen showed slides of the exhibits that feature their Smith's Plath Collection because it helps share the documents and other items that many would never see unless they visited Smith. It was an expertly delivered talk with some good humor mixed in to lighten some of the heavier discussions. It was great that Karen showed "Daddy" as yesterday was the 55th anniversary from when that poem was written.

I rambled on about the process of editing Sylvia Plath's letters. And though feedback seemed generally positive I feel I need to revise and rewrite and generally overhaul some of the points for Belfast.

Heather was a gem. She was careful not to discuss too much about her forthcoming (2019-ish) biography of Plath but rather she provided a wealth of evidence in the previous biographies as to why a new one is needed. It was spot on.

Afterwards we fielded some questions from the audience and I got the impressed they were all really engaged with our talks and the subject of Plath. I brought my copy of the American edition of the Letters with me (had to pay for its own seat on the train!) to show people what they can expect next week when it's published here. A couple of people in the audience were sporting the Faber edition. A particular highlight was when Eva Stenskar (@eva_stenskar) showed up, right before the talk started, and handed me a homemade tomato cake using Plath's recipe. I have always been somewhat afraid of this cake but I have to say I am excited to try it tonight when I get home. Eva could not stay but I was incredibly touched that she came just to say Hi and, of course, for the gift cake. After Eva left, I felt compelled to descend the nearby stair.

During the reception afterwards, I got to meet Tim Clair (@plathproject) with whom I have been emailing for a while now. Tim tweeted out some great pictures from the event, many of which feature the back of my head. And he gave me a sheet of his own homemade pink Smith College memorandum paper which looks and feels quite authentic to the originals Plath used from 1958-1962 for her creative writing and letters and other purposes. Tim brought a few things for me to sign, too!

I also met another email correspondent, the literary agent Sarah Butler (@FunkeLit), who paid me a too-kind compliment. Judith, Karen, Heather, and I then reposed to the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue for a lovely dinner.

A pleasant walk back to my hotel on Madison Avenue followed by a refreshing Bells Two Hearted Ale.

How does anyone sleep in that city? Why is Connecticut so long? What the event was particularly great for was providing a warm-up, a settling of the stage for a full-throttle Plath-fest at Belfast.

My deepest, heartfelt thanks go to Judith Raymo for organizing the event and asking me to participate. The staff at the Grolier were awesome, to the co-speakers Karen and Heather for being genuinely superb speakers and friends, and to the good people that attended!

All links accessed 13 October 2017.

11 October 2017

Sylvia Plath Talks at Grolier Club

This is a friendly reminder that tomorrow, Thursday, 12 October 2017, there will be a brief Sylvia Plath Symposium at the Grolier Club in New York City.

Judith Glazer Raymo
Tied into a current members exhibit curated by Judith Raymo, the symposium will feature 20 minute talks by Karen V. Kukil, Peter K. Steinberg, and Heather Clark.

Karen V. Kukil
Peter K. Steinberg
Heather Clark
We will each concentrate on a range of subjects covering Plath's archive at Smith (Karen), letters (Peter), and Plath's biography (Heather).


Judith's exhibition, which I am excited to see, features selections from her Sylvia Plath collection and includes books, manuscripts, and much more. Additional items are on loan from Smith College. The exhibit closes on 4 November.

I am looking forward to talking about Plath's letters and meeting some new people. If anyone is there tweeting, please tag me if you can and I can retweet later, and use the hasghtag #plathgrolier. Or something! I will try to write up a summary of the event the following morning.

09 October 2017

Letters of Sylvia Plath is BBC 4 Book of the Week

The BBC's Radio 4 has made The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1: 1940-1956 its book of the week.

From the website:
Sylvia Plath's renown as one of the twentieth century's most influential poets is beyond dispute, but she was also one of its most captivating correspondents. This radio selection, is abridged by Caitlin Crawford from the remarkable, collected edition of Plath's letters published last week. Edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen Kukil , it is a work of immense scholarship and care, presenting a comprehensive and historically accurate text of the known and extant letters that she wrote to over one hundred and twenty correspondents, including her husband the poet Ted Hughes, to whom previously unseen letters are now revealed. The programmes offer us a generous insight into the life of one of our most significant poets. Known primarily for her poetry, Plath also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. The book's protagonist, Esther Greenwood, is a bright, ambitious student at Smith College who begins to experience a mental breakdown while interning for a fashion magazine in New York. The plot parallels Plath's experience interning at Mademoiselle magazine and subsequent mental breakdown and suicide attempt.

Despite her remarkable artistic, academic, and social success at Smith, Plath suffered from severe depression and underwent a period of psychiatric hospitalization. She graduated from Smith with highest honours in 1955 and went on to Newnham College, Cambridge, in England, on a Fulbright fellowship. Here she met and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. For the following two years she was an instructor in English at Smith College.
There are five, 15 minute episodes:

1. 1943 to 1951 - Adolescence to Smith College.

2. November 1951 to December 1953 - The Smith College years.

3. January 1954 - February 1955 Convalescence to Cambridge University.

4. September 1955 to March 1956 - Cambridge University to Richard Sassoon.

5. April 1956 to October 1956 - from meeting to marriage. Sylvia and Ted Hughes.

Each program is read by Lydia Wilson; Abridged by Caitlin Crawford; and produced by Susan Roberts.

On 15 October 2017, "Sylvia Plath's Letters: Omnibus" will broadcast.

All links accessed 9 October 2017. Links to individual episodes expire in 29 days from today.

05 October 2017

The Letters of Sylvia Plath: A Conversation

The following piece is a conversation between Peter K. Steinberg and Gail Crowther about the research, transcription, and publication of The Letters of Sylvia Plath. Begun in July 2017 after some initial reaction to the UK and US covers of the Letters, the conversation continued throughout the rest of the summer as we continued to ponder what the publication may mean for Plath readers.

GC: The first time I handled an original letter written by Plath was years ago now and I can still remember the feel of the paper and seeing her signature in black ink. I was surprised that she wrote on such thin, flimsy paper. It was creamy-coloured and seemed more like tracing paper than something you would use for correspondence to the BBC. Other letters I saw were typed on clearly ripped in half pieces of paper – and then years later I saw letters written on the pink Smith College memorandum paper. Each letter looked different and letters to different people had different voices. She almost always played up her (already impressive) achievements to her mother; letters to her brother were hilarious; business letters firm and often wry. At the moment you are one of the few people in the world that has seen every letter included in volumes 1 and 2, and transcribed and proofed them for publication. That’s got to feel peculiar?

PKS: Peculiar, certainly, yes in some ways. Like you, I recall my first interactions with the Sylvia Plath archive. I was working at Smith with her journals, some letters, and poetry drafts and each one has its own distinctive characteristics. Like siblings, if you will. As such, each style of writing almost calls for its own way of being read and considered. At the same time, however, each forms a complementary part of a whole thing; kind of like movements in symphonies. What I really feel about these volumes of Plath's letters though is a sense of privilege and entrustment.

GC: It’s obvious that this has had a massive impact on your life for about eight years now. You’ve been a Plath scholar for decades and published extensively, but why do you think Karen Kukil invited you to be co-editor on this particular book?

PKS: In January 2012 I had both taken and co-taught a course with Karen on 'Editing Sylvia Plath's Correspondence' at Smith College. [You could link to this post: http://sylviaplathinfo.blogspot.com/2012/01/im-smith-girl-now.html] Later that year, when Karen was issued with an initial contract for the Letters, she asked me to be the lead transcriber. Of course I said yes, but I did so somewhat blindly as at the time I did not have a grasp on how large the project was. I knew of caches of letters from my researches and readings, but then that's hardly indicative of what was truly out there. I had never made any concerted effort at tracking existing letters or finding new or unknown letters. I think Karen asked me to do this because I took her course, but also for the reasons you state, that I had been working on Plath for decades and had been published. Maybe also because she knew me and trusted me as a researcher and as a person; that my body of work to that point (2012) was something upon which she felt recommended me for the task.

GC: But co-editing must be quite challenging especially if you are not located in the same place and have to discuss over email/phone etc. Also you and Karen are holding down day jobs at the same time. What was the process by which you decided who did what? How was the workload divided up?

PKS: Yes, we do both have day jobs which meant mornings, lunches, nights and weekends for me were more or less (more!) dominated by transcription and all the rest. Thank goodness my wife was patient! I cannot remember really ever discussing who did what. My role was to transcribe so that's what I did. That being said, the work was essentially divided into two categories: letters held by Smith College and letters not held by Smith College. Karen had students transcribe the Smith letters in the series of courses she taught and she took responsibility for finalizing them. So the non-Smith letters—which amounted to more than 1,250—were up to me.

GC: At some point though you moved from main transcriber to co-editor alongside Karen, how did that come about?

PKS: The sheer volume of the letters lead to an increasing role for me than just a transcriber. In addition to proofing and annotating, I amassed sets of supporting documents such as Plath's early diaries, calendars, papers, creative works, scrapbooks, and the like to write the several thousand contextual footnotes. I sent out countless inquiries looking for more letters and in the process I located two caches of new letters that are now at Smith! I took on doing these as copies of the letters were sent to me before Smith took ownership. I guess as a result of this effort, my status was elevated from transcriber to that of co-editor. The day Karen insisted my name be first on the title page was one of those fairy-tale days that remains even now, hard to believe. Once the letters were finished, the final task was to assemble them all into a single document for review and submission.

GC: When I was working on Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year’s Turning with Elizabeth Sigmund, we obviously spent a lot of time talking about Plath. It was a privilege to work with Elizabeth who had real insight into Plath as a friend. However, Elizabeth was also a woman with great politics who understood how society and power structures operate and as a consequence of this, how narratives get constructed about people. She was hugely upset at the way that the Sylvia she knew had been portrayed over the years. One of the reasons that she asked me to write a brief biography of Plath’s year in Devon was because she felt it was important that it was written by a woman. She firmly believed that ultimately the best Plath biography will be written by a woman. The Letters of Sylvia Plath has two editors – you and Karen Kukil, do you think this book would have been better edited by two women?

PKS: Oh, I really miss Elizabeth. I am not sure how to answer this question without insulting anyone or coming off as a complete egotist. I believe, firmly, anyone could have transcribed these letters. With all due respect to Elizabeth, it is limiting to judge the work a person does or should be able to do based on their gender. I would only ever ask to be judged on my work. In this case, I believe Elizabeth was always pleased with me and my perspectives. While I think anyone with eyes and fingers could have completed the transcriptions, I do believe—based on my history in working with Plath's papers—I was one of a very small number of people (including both women and men) that could have handled the extensive annotations. I felt I had both the specific background and the resources to do them properly. While I failed to do everything I wanted with this project, I am nonetheless very happy with the effort and dedication I contributed into the making of The Letters of Sylvia Plath.

GC: I agree. The extent and scope of the accompanying contextual notes and annotations in the Letters required extensive pre-existing knowledge – and you’re one of the few people with that. But I think what Elizabeth meant in terms of biography was that a woman’s lived experience might best be understood by another woman who has to inhabit the same power structures that Plath did. In other words there would be an experiential aspect necessarily excluded from masculine understanding and the more privileged position men hold. Furthermore, I do think it is fair to say isn’t it that generally female writers often get treated differently to male writers? If we take the cover of the UK edition of the Letters book by Faber we see Plath depicted in, as she called it, “a neat two-piece white Jantzen bathing suit”. If we do the usual comparison with Hughes, his Collected Letters show him sitting in a chair by a river, writing in a notebook. If we look at Faber’s edition of T.S. Eliot’s volumes of letters he is shown staring boldly at the camera. Anne Sexton on the cover of her Selected Poems is shown in a swimming pool. There is a huge difference in the way these writers are portrayed on the cover of their books and gender plays a massive part in this. I don’t mean to go down the simplistic line of “women always get shown like this and men do not”. Neither do I want to start finding examples of men in bathing suits or underwear to underscore my point (there are plenty of Joe Orton for example on posthumous editions of his books). It seems to me such comparisons rather miss the point. There are however lots of pictures of Plath during the years covered in Volume 1 that show her sitting writing or typing or reading or staring in her bold unflinching fashion at the camera. So why do you think designers would choose the picture that they did? And in comparison, the US edition has gone with a completely different cover.

PKS: I agree there is difference in the way female and male writers have been depicted and Plath herself has an interesting marketing history as Tracy Brain discussed in her 'Packaging Sylvia Plath' section of The Other Sylvia Plath (2001). Marketing and advertising decisions cannot be easy ones to make and likely go through a number of different stages and channels before being finalized. And this is the way it works for the publishing houses in any country, which I think explains the difference between covers for the UK and US edition of Plath's letters. We provided a number of photographs of Plath that fit the time period represented in the volume. Selection was then made and approved by people at the publishers and the Plath Estate.

As for Sexton, one might be able to argue that cover image pays homage to several of her poems, for example, 'The Nude Swim' and the more famous 'Music Swims Back To Me' and more generally her love of swimming (she used a grant she was awarded in 1961 to install a swimming pool at her house). That's hardly addressing your point, but I think in some ways may help to explain why this photograph of Plath was used.

The photograph gracing the Faber cover is actually a well-known, well-published, and already iconic photograph of Sylvia Plath. I believe it was first published, although in black and white, in Letters Home in 1975. And it has probably been reprinted in any number of books and articles about Plath since then. A colorized version was used in 1980s and a 1990s paperback editions of Faber's Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams. However, the main difference between then and now is that it is now in full, original color, the way Lameyer took the original when he and Plath visited Chatham, Massachusetts on 24 July 1954. I cannot state with authority why this particular photograph was chosen over the others. Aesthetically I conjecture the image worked best for their design team and it offers ample space for text to appear. The red lettering matches Faber's most recent cover of the Journals, and any reader of Plath should appreciate the colour red from how Plath used it in her life: from her clothing to her lipstick to her poetry.

Plath's smile is radiant. She is captured here at the beach, in the sun, less than one calendar year after her first suicide attempt, resplendent in life, enjoying a day-trip to the beach with Gordon Lameyer, and away from the rigors of Harvard Summer School. She is at the ocean, just down from Nauset, which she loved more than anything and from which she drew so much energy and inspiration. It is so Plath. That being said, just about every photograph of Plath would find its reflection in any of the letters. I feel that this particular photograph of Sylvia Plath complements the Sylvia Plath that readers will find when they read her letters, and let's face it, all the negative comments were made before the book was published. I can't help but think of the command made by many parents to their children: 'Don't judge a book by its cover'. Doing so is disrespectful and in a sense silences her. It draws attention away from Plath's own words which is where the focus of her readers should be and where the direction of discussions should lead.

The HarperCollins cover could not be more different. Plath here is depicted standing up, holding library books, wearing a shocking number of layers of clothes. She stands in a field between Whitstead and Newnham College circa winter 1955-56. She appears strong here; confident, looking into the distance (and maybe wondering why she chose England over a warmer climate!).

Both images are Sylvia Plath. She is the woman who loved the beach and loved books; she was studious and intelligent, but relished downtime in the sun by the ocean.

GC: Ok I see what you mean about capturing a particular moment and a favourite place for Plath that represents her at that time. I guess I have conflicting feelings about it really. One criticism of this image is that it sexualizes Plath. While I don’t read this as a sexual image, (and like you I feel it represents a particular moment in her life) I still feel it needs to be placed in a wider context. That summer was an important one as she moved into recovery from her suicide attempt, the peroxide hair, feeling reborn etc. She writes so eloquently about it. What I like most about the picture is not only that it captures Plath as a young woman (before she became the poet we all know and love) but that we see her in an informal setting, relaxed at the beach. It’s good to move away from the usual gloomy picture of her that often accompanies books and articles. Photographs are so powerful and seeing a smiling, informal Plath seems to really reflect the content of some of those letters written by her younger self. However, another factor to consider here despite what we as readers may think or like or want is perhaps to try and consider what Plath might find appropriate, or indeed how she might want herself to be represented. If we look through her work it’s really hard to find a fixed concrete answer to that question. For example, she gives very open reasons for her ‘Platinum Summer’ look and equally when she got over that gave equally good reasons why she dyed her hair brunette again. But then years later while living in Boston (1958-1959), she decried her whole brunette look as ‘mousy’ and boring and lamented she couldn‘t afford a decent hair cut or colour. In 1962 she hated her overly long skirts and wanted a more updated, daring look. Perhaps the pertinent, yet unanswerable, question is what would the 84 year old Plath today think about the way in which she is represented? Because she changed her mind so much throughout her life, I think we simply cannot know with any certainty. And since we cannot get a definitive answer from the words Plath left behind, where does the final responsibility lie for Plath’s representation? With her Estate? These are difficult and pretty uncomfortable questions. All that said, I still think the representation of female writers is often different (and not in a good way). You do mention above though a sort of multi-faceted Plath, having fun on the beach at Cape Cod, bundled up with books in Cambridge, so do you feel the two volumes of letters show a fuller version of Plath’s voice than we have seen before?

PKS: Absolutely. I think there are an infinite number of ways to interpret Sylvia Plath because everyone who reads her is different. We each find something in Plath that reflects back on us. One gets, I feel, a much truer sense of her complexity, how she interacted with her correspondents – and by extension how she may have been to be around as a person. These letters will complement Plath's unabridged Journals in new, interesting, and intersecting ways. Experiences she relates also directly tie-in with dozens of her creative writings, from poems, to stories, to novel(s). The Sylvia Plath present in these letters is quite a different one than was given to her readers in 1975 when Letters Home was published. We witness quite a comprehensive, but still incomplete, growth and development of the woman and the writer. We see, freshly, the startling nuances of her life. We see Sylvia Plath, both on the cover of the Faber edition and in the letters printed between the boards, in full colour.

GC: What I find exciting about the scope of this project is that we get to move through Plath’s life with her. So we can see the inconsistencies, we can see how she changed and developed, her plans that never happened, we see her changing her mind, changing her opinion, that normal general business of living that we all do – sometimes being hugely decisive, sometimes indecisive. In this sense do you think it is fair to say that there is no ‘authentic’ Plath, no ‘true self’ to uncover here, but rather like the rest of us, a woman going through her life in flux?

PKS: In a way yes, I do. Working so closely with Plath's letters and all the other supporting material was really educational as I saw firsthand how 'human' Plath was. And I do believe it's important to remember that she was just like many of us in many ways. Or, to put it another way, because most of her readers never knew her they naturally consider her as kind of other-worldly. We all interpret Plath differently and accept her writings—in any genre—with varying degrees of trust. But it is up to each of us on our own to determine who Sylvia Plath was. No one should dare have either the audacity or the arrogance to dictate how one reads, interprets, and appreciates Sylvia Plath.

All links accessed 15 August 2017 and 5 October 2017. 
Please note this blog post appears simultaneously on Gail Crowther's website.
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