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Sylvia Plath

C.K. Stead, 12 May 1994

... Ten days after I was, you were born. Heading out past sixty, I’m still hanging on But you baled out at thirty, telling the world ‘Dying is an art. I do it exceptionally well.’ Now you’re a young poet of deserved fame, I An ageing one of modest reputation. From where I sit, cool Daddy looks at you. He sees the pain, and the brat – and the brat in pain ...

‘This is not a biography’

Jacqueline Rose: Sylvia Plath, 22 August 2002

... In memory of Sandra Lahire How not to write a biography of Sylvia Plath? We might put the question another way. What is the relationship for a poet between writing a mind and writing a life? Does self-revelation (or confession, a label often used to describe the work of Plath and her contemporary Anne Sexton) lead us, not just into the inner recesses of the poet’s thought, but through the veils, behind the closed doors of her past? Do we enter the room, see the knife slit the finger, catch the raised voices, watch the vase shatter, hear the baby cry? Plath’s language is sensuous, evocative enough to bring all this, and a great deal more, to life ...

Meltdown

Anthony Thwaite, 26 October 1989

Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath 
by Anne Stevenson.
Viking, 413 pp., £15.95, October 1989, 0 670 81854 2
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... Penguin Contemporary American Poetry exactly a month before she killed herself early in 1963, Sylvia Plath praised ‘the inwardness of these images ... the uncanny faculty of melting through the leaves of the wallpaper, through the dark looking-glass, into a world which one can only call surrealist and irrational’. It was a process she could see ...

Risky Business

Elaine Showalter, 22 September 1994

Telling Women’s Lives: The New Biography 
by Linda Wagner-Martin.
Rutgers, 201 pp., $22.95, July 1994, 0 8135 2092 4
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... of North Carolina, was bewildered by the hostile reception in Britain of her biography of Sylvia Plath, published in 1987. Not only had she run into major conflicts with the Plath estate, she explains in her preface to Telling Women’s Lives, but some critics saw her as both an ‘unethical commercial ...

On Not Being Sylvia Plath

Colm Tóibín: Thom Gunn on the Move, 13 September 2018

Selected Poems 
by Thom Gunn.
Faber, 336 pp., £16.99, July 2017, 978 0 571 32769 0
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... the dramatic personalities behind the voices in recent poetry: Lowell, Berryman, Sexton, Ginsberg, Plath, Hughes, et al. Even in Larkin there exists a strong, identifiable persona, no matter how recessive the tone.’ In Gunn, this was deliberate. In an interview he said: People do have difficulty with my poetry, difficulties in locating the central voice or ...

Slick Chick

Elaine Showalter, 11 July 1991

The Haunting of Sylvia Plath 
by Jacqueline Rose.
Virago, 288 pp., £14.99, June 1991, 1 85381 307 9
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Passions of the Mind 
by A.S. Byatt.
Chatto, 340 pp., £17, August 1991, 0 7011 3260 4
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... by his role as her betrayer, her survivor. She has become his phantom limb. The story of Sylvia Plath, according to Jacqueline Rose, seems ‘effortlessly to transmute itself into soap opera’. As Rose demonstrates in her ambitious and original book, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, ...

Going underground

Elaine Showalter, 12 May 1994

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes 
by Janet Malcolm.
Knopf, 208 pp., $23, April 1994, 0 679 43158 6
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... much attention, but the publication in the New Yorker last August of Janet Malcolm’s study of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was an exception. Brilliantly packaged with reprints of the Plath poems which the New Yorker had originally published, the issue was a sell-out on both sides of the Atlantic, and for weeks no ...

I’m an intelligence

Joanna Biggs: Sylvia Plath at 86, 20 December 2018

The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. I: 1940-56 
edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil.
Faber, 1388 pp., £35, September 2017, 978 0 571 32899 4
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The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol. II: 1956-63 
edited by Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil.
Faber, 1025 pp., £35, September 2018, 978 0 571 33920 4
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... Sylvia Plath​ was scared of letters. The postman always announced his presence with a ‘burst of prophetic whistling’. In May 1958, eating a slice of toast with butter and strawberry jam before going to teach her class at Smith, she spotted the mailman with ‘a handful of flannel: circulars – soap-coupons, Sears sales, a letter from mother of stale news she’d already relayed over the phone, a card from Oscar Williams inviting us to a cocktail party in New York on the impossible last day of my classes ...

Fifteen years on

Elaine Showalter, 20 October 1994

No Man’s Land. Vol. III: Letters from the Front 
by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Yale, 476 pp., £25, October 1994, 0 300 05631 1
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... of the century are Virginia Woolf, Edna St Vincent Millay, Marianne Moore, H.D. and Sylvia Plath. The Harlem Renaissance novelists, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Nella Larsen and Zora Neale Hurston, have a collective chapter as well; and elsewhere the authors manage to work in a reference to nearly every famous, fleeting, highbrow or popular woman ...

Cambridge Theatre

Donald Davie, 19 August 1982

Swansongs 
by Sue Lenier.
Oleander Press, 80 pp., £7.50, April 1982, 9780906672044
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Collected Poems 
by Sylvia Plath, edited by Ted Hughes.
Faber, 351 pp., £10, September 1981, 0 571 10573 4
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Devotions 
by Clive Wilmer.
Carcanet, 63 pp., £3.25, June 1982, 0 85635 359 0
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... could be found, even from the oblique standpoint of Edinburgh. A more obvious comparison is with Sylvia Plath, virtually the patent-holder for our time of poetry as theatre, as ‘emotional drama’. With her, too, the plot of the drama, its theme (Oedipal to be sure, but how?), remains, satisfyingly for enthusiasts, unclear. But out of the ...

Being two is half the fun

John Bayley, 4 July 1985

Multiple Personality and the Disintegration of Literary Character 
by Jeremy Hawthorn.
Edward Arnold, 146 pp., £15, May 1983, 0 7131 6398 4
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Doubles: Studies in Literary History 
by Karl Miller.
Oxford, 488 pp., £19.50, June 1985, 9780198128410
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The Doubleman 
by C.J. Koch.
Chatto, 326 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 9780701129453
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... in its approach, often equally brilliant in its aperçus. Both authors discuss the case of Sylvia Plath, who for Hawthorn had the problem that being a woman – personified in the heroine of The Bell Jar – ‘she is not granted the luxury of a double life.’ But Madame Bovary has one – indeed, three lives and more. ...

Learning to speak

Gay Clifford, 21 February 1980

Gya/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism 
by Mary Daly.
Women’s Press, 485 pp., £8.95, November 1980, 0 7043 2829 1
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The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the 19th Century 
by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
Yale, 719 pp., £15.75, October 1980, 0 300 02286 7
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Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes 
by Margaret Dickie Uroff.
Illinois, 235 pp., £6.95, November 1980, 0 252 00734 4
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Women Writing and Writing about Women 
edited by Mary Jacobus.
Croom Helm, 201 pp., £9.50, October 1980, 0 85664 745 4
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... inexperienced or blinkered readers the existence and nature of a female literary tradition. Sylvia Plath’s best late poetry often has the voice of the rebellious madwoman confidently escaped from her attic. Professor Uroff avoids simple equations between the life and the work, and is not interested in the partisanship of polemical biography: it ...

Short Cuts

Rosemary Hill: What Writers Wear, 27 July 2017

... lurid Prick Up Your Ears T-shirt. The most intricate and poignant of Newman’s examples is Sylvia Plath. The Bell Jar is permeated with frock consciousness. The protagonist, Esther Greenwood, who has come to New York to a dream job on Mademoiselle magazine, ends by throwing her clothes away: ‘A strapless elasticised slip which, in the course of ...

Sorrows of a Polygamist

Mark Ford: Ted Hughes in His Cage, 17 March 2016

Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life 
by Jonathan Bate.
William Collins, 662 pp., £30, October 2015, 978 0 00 811822 8
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... for the sensational, in sentences that lack a main verb: ‘Then a row, an explosion of anger. Sylvia, a trapped animal, brought fresh from the shining shore of the New World and confined in Yorkshire cold, Yorkshire grime, Yorkshire ways she does not really understand.’ How could a book written in this way, I frequently found myself wondering, be the ...

Fame at last

Elaine Showalter, 7 November 1991

Anne Sexton: A Biography 
by Diane Wood Middlebrook.
Virago, 488 pp., £20, November 1991, 1 85381 406 7
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... Lady Lazarus, the come-back queen. ‘I do not want to be known as the mad-suicide poet, the live Sylvia Plath,’ she told her students at Boston University: but she auditioned for the role and rehearsed it in book after book until she wrapped herself in her mother’s fur coat and gassed herself in October 1974. There was no ironic mask in her ...

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