Vol. 24 No. 16 · 22 August 2002

‘This is not a biography’

Jacqueline Rose writes about her conflict with the Estate of Sylvia Plath

5299 words

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. But the question still remains. How much do we know? And is the point to try and find out? Are we meant to be sleuths, piecing together fragment on fragment until the picture is spread before us? There she is! Sylvia Plath – nothing hidden. The true story told. Isn’t that why she wrote in the way she did? Isn’t that what she would have wanted, after all?

Biography loves Sylvia Plath. When I ask students what they know of Plath, they almost invariably reply that she killed herself and was married to Ted Hughes. Occasionally they run these two snippets together as if the second were, in some mysterious and not wholly formulated way, related to the first; as if together they add up to something that leaves nothing more to be said. I watch this story shut down around her, clamping her writing into its hollow wooden frame. Death and marriage may have fed and fuelled her writing, but – posthumously at least – they cramp her style.

According to Freud, the act of suicide always involves more than one person. Maybe that is one reason why suicide is classified as a crime. Maybe, too, that is why biographies of Plath always take on the aura of hunt the culprit: not because, as is most often assumed, someone – usually Hughes – must be held accountable for her death, but because there is an unacknowledged crime calling out to be uncovered, another body to be found. Suicide, as everyone knows, casts a shadow over those it leaves behind. In my conflict with the Estate of Sylvia Plath (more below), I often felt that I was not the real quarry, but more like a diversion; that I was duelling, hit and miss, in the dark. Although they have often denied it, the defensiveness of the Plath legatees is notorious. But perhaps the fervour with which they have warded off incursions from the world outside has been part of a deeper struggle. To kill the killer. Even though she is already dead. It is a paradox of suicide that the murderer, who lives on for ever, is the one who didn’t survive.

It has become a commonplace to say of biographies of Plath that they take sides. In The Silent Woman (1994), her openly partisan study of Plath biography, Janet Malcolm insists that this is unavoidable: ‘As the reader knows, I, too, have taken a side.’ One flier for her book stated: ‘A writer finds Ted Hughes innocent but biographies as a group guilty,’ which suggests the process is interminable and that, as a form of writing, biography has the capacity to indict itself. No biography, no act of writing can be neutral, but something far more serious, indeed deadly, seems to hang in the balance when biographers of Plath dispute whether or not she was bearable, whether she was disliked or liked by her friends. Out of the mire, a banal but chilling proposition starts to emerge – that we decide on the innocence or guilt of a plaintiff according to whether we like them or not. Legality, our conviction in the rights and wrongs of the matter, trails our desires (whether the reverse would be preferable is not clear). Whenever I read biographies of Plath, I always have the suspicion that someone or other is being criminalised simply for being who they were.

In the case of Plath, the subjective component of all biography takes on a special edge. Someone has to be guilty. Someone is to blame. And if someone is going to be proclaimed guilty, then someone else – the person telling the story – has to be certain. Plath biographies are remarkable for their rhetoric of conviction. We are in a court of law, the biographer is mounting her case. Beyond the normal demands of biographical discovery – the search for the crucial detail, the painstaking reconstruction of every facet of a world (biographies, as we know, are getting longer and longer) – incriminating evidence is being gathered. Plath biographies tend to answer each other, shouting like opponents across a legal gulf, each one insisting that it has a greater claim to the truth than the one that went before (why otherwise write a biography at all?). The greater the fervour, the fiercer the claim. In the case of Plath, truth is not just subjective, it is mortal. To die for.

Perhaps the link to pursue, then, is not the one between passion and truth, but between truth and death. Between being so knowing, and touching on the one thing that – as the cliché puts it – no one can ever know. Something untellable, but which has to be told, enters the frame when the subject of biography dies by her own hand, when death arrives too soon. And if that subject is a woman, there is always the risk that femininity will take on a deadly hue. In Freud’s reading, Cordelia – the ‘most excellent’ of the three sisters – becomes, in her dying moments, the ‘Goddess of Death’. In Lear’s arms, she is in fact carrying him, bringing him to the point where he will ‘make friends with the necessity of dying’. A woman is never more deadly than when so perfect, so innocent – like Cordelia – of any crime. Once the link is made, it is a no-win situation for the woman. Plath’s story offers us the same combination of elements, but more nakedly. Let the dead woman carry the can. What, it seems fair to ask, is being exorcised in the seemingly endless, punishing scrutiny of Sylvia Plath?

It is not that biography is irrelevant or inappropriate in thinking about Plath. If anything, the reverse is the case. We are dealing not with a deficit but with a surplus (biography overspilling itself). In relation to biography, Plath fulfils the demand of the Russian Formalists, to ‘lay bare the device’, to show things as they are. To defamiliarise, you take something all too familiar – doesn’t biography try to make us feel at home, show us round the house? – and make it strange.

But if biography is relevant to the work of Sylvia Plath, this does not make the work biographical. On the first page of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath, published just over a decade ago, I wrote: ‘This is not a biography.’ This was partly at legal prompting, but it also, as I saw it, went to the spirit of her writing. When biographers read the lines from ‘Daddy’ – ‘The black telephone’s off at the root’ – as a reference to Plath’s ripping out the phone after a call from her husband’s lover, they do her a disservice, jam her wires. They deny the transformative potential of her art. Plath has taken an act of rage and turned it into a moment of recognition. The speaker realises that she has reached the end of the line with a father to whom no language travels because he can no longer – perhaps never could – be found. Something insufferable at the time, to which the only possible response could be an action, has become bearable by making the passage into words. Biographical readings also take the politics out of the poem – what is the legacy for an American girl after the Second World War of a German-speaking father? Biographies of writers have to move obstinately in the opposite direction from their subject, going back over the ground, filling in the space – the one pulled open on the page – between writing and its source. They have to wrestle with the fact that for the writer, the lived life was the point of departure rather than, as it is for the biographer, the place at which there is a desperate need to arrive. At worst it is a kind of insult: don’t think that this life, for all your efforts, will ever be anything other than the thing you truly are.

Similarly, ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ (1961) has been read with reference to a miscarriage Plath suffered shortly before writing the poem. Here the issue seems more complex, but it goes to the heart of what writing, specifically poetic writing, is capable of:

On this bald hill the new year hones its edge.
Faceless and pale as china
The round sky goes on minding its business.
Your absence is inconspicuous;
Nobody can tell what I lack.

In these opening lines, the speaker seems to go to some lengths to make it very hard indeed to know what she is talking about. Although it becomes clearer in the course of the poem (‘Already your doll grip lets go,’ ‘The blue night plants, the little pale blue hill/In your sister’s birthday picture starts to glow’), a miscarriage is not unambiguously what is being referred to, since these could equally (or more so: ‘doll grip’?) be allusions to a dead child. Plath is confusing and overlaying time registers, refusing the distinction between a child who dies and one who was never born. If anything, after the first concrete allusion – ‘Already your doll grip lets go’ – the uncertainty increases:

The tumulus, even at noon, guards its black
You know me less constant,
Ghost of a leaf, ghost of a bird.
I circle the writhen trees. I am too happy.

Who is letting go of whom? ‘You know me less constant’ suggests that it is the speaker who has relinquished whatever it is that she has lost. Something fades; the speaker herself is inconstant; it is not clear – lost one or speaker – who is the ghost.

Here Plath writes a poem in which what, biographically, is loss – loss of the unborn child – loses itself in turn. She offers the experience as something that can be reached only indirectly, that the speaker can only circle in words. To name the event, as if that is what the poem is ‘about’, arrests this process. Not knowing, we as readers experience a radical uncertainty about what language can and cannot do. What in the world can language grasp when the world itself has not been entered?

A year later Plath returns to the theme in Three Women, a poem for three voices written originally for radio. Three women in a maternity ward offer a distillation of their different experiences – one gives birth to a boy, one miscarries, one abandons her baby girl. The voices overlap and counterpoint one another: in experience they are crucially distinct (there is no doubt that the second woman miscarries); but in voice they are uncannily and progressively alike. This time, Plath does name what has happened to each of them, but only as a starting point. As the poem continues, the voices blur. In doing this, Plath raises a question, central to biography, but troublesome if the aim is to get back from the words to the poet’s life, to what happened to her and to her alone. Is any experience, even the most terrible and/ or life-defining, especially if you are a woman, simply your own?

When the BBC issued the script, it labelled the three voices ‘Secretary’, ‘Girl’ and ‘Wife’, the last the woman who keeps her baby, whereas in fact the only one of the three who alludes to a husband is the one who miscarries (a classical ‘slip’, which deems either that a woman with a baby must have a husband or that only the woman who has a baby is worthy of a husband, or indeed both). By merging and blending the three voices, by refusing to name any one of them, Plath offers her caution. Do not recognise, differentiate, identify too fast. Do not fix a history against the grain of the words. Do not rush to judgment. In this, the poem becomes an allegory for the perils of biography. Outside poetry, language is expected to make certain things unequivocally clear: who exactly is who and what are they all up to? Poetry leaves the connections wide open.

‘This is not a biography.’ Perhaps, however, it is not so easy. For it is not just Plath’s own writing, but writing on Plath, that is inexorably sucked into her life. In this, critical activity shares the same dilemma, runs the same risk, as poetic writing. My opening question – ‘How not to write a biography of Sylvia Plath?’ – could be rephrased: ‘Is it possible not to have written a biography of Sylvia Plath?’ Clearly the Estate of Sylvia Plath thought not. Any writer on Plath who has sought permission to quote from her writing will testify to the pressure exerted on them by the Estate (many have). But in my conflict with Olwyn and especially Ted Hughes, the issue sharpened into a dispute about biography and forms of interpretation, about how a poet can or should be read.

On 22 January 1991 I received a set of comments from Ted Hughes on a draft of The Haunting of Sylvia Plath. Five months previously Virago had received a 20-page document from Olwyn Hughes listing her objections to the typescript, to which I had responded in detail. The timing in itself felt strange, like the delayed – and more effective – late appearance of the chief character in a play. At issue was the distinction, central to the book, between fantasy, or the realm of poetic exploration, and reality, or the lived experience of Sylvia Plath, a reality I claim to know little, if anything, about. For Freud, fantasy refers to a psychic domain, no less important – indeed no less real – than the world we live and move in; but distinguished from that world by the fertility, the potentially endless transformative capacities of the mind. We use fantasy, conscious and unconscious, to explore things that have not happened and never will, to see in our mind’s eye worlds out of reach. In fantasy, we are capable of thoughts, often terrifying and exhilarating, that we never dreamed we had (‘I wouldn’t dream of it’ is, for psychoanalysis, a classic instance of denial, our way of partially recognising something we can bear to acknowledge only as a dream). If asked to express them consciously, we would never dare. More simply, to focus on fantasy in the life of a writer, say Sylvia Plath, is to pay tribute to what a mind – her mind – is capable of. As if to underline the point, one correspondent wrote to me after the book was published suggesting that I should have used ‘phantasy’ to avoid the connotations, which often attach to ‘fantasy’, of ‘just’ or ‘only’ or ‘mere’. Plath, she suggested, should be seen as a painter: ‘I remember a quote by Picasso,’ she explained, who ‘said he only painted what he saw’.

If this is worth spelling out here, it is because my conflict with the Estate turned on these terms. Almost without exception, Hughes deplored biographies of Plath. And yet in his exchange with me, in a strange repetition of the biographical move, he ground all talk of fantasy back into his own past. Grant fantasy a reality of its own and it crosses the barrier into the real world. There can, he argued, be no distinction between fantasy and a life. This was not the argument that, however mediated, fantasy will always include the kernel of the world from which it departs. For Hughes, there was no mediation: I was ‘surreptitiously rewriting the real history of Plath’s relationship to Hughes’, replacing it with my ‘own fantasy’, imposing an ‘invented identity’ on Sylvia Plath. In doing this, I was ‘depriving’ Hughes of his ‘real history’, imposing on him, no less than on Plath, my ‘invention’. This was, Hughes concluded, ‘too elusive for the LAW’ (capitals his), but ‘immoral’, and, given that this was an educational work, ‘corrupt’.

No fantasy, then, except mine. And no fantasy in the writings of Plath. Facing each other across an unbridgeable divide were the reality of Hughes’s (and Plath’s) history, and a lie. There is only the life. Fantasy does no work; it has no life of its own. Critics of Freud have argued that, as soon as he introduced the idea of fantasy into his work, he proceeded to neglect the reality of his patients’ lives. Hughes’s is the stronger case, as it were. Any talk of fantasy is a front, an act of bad faith. It is always, finally, the life that is being talked about. ‘I supposed he was suffering from Korsakov syndrome,’ Aunt Fini comments of Ambros Adelwarth in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, ‘an illness which causes lost memories to be replaced by fantastic inventions.’ It is as if writers on Plath have a version of this syndrome. In Hughes’s diagnosis, it would operate transversally: his memories, the critics’ – deluded – inventions.

The dispute came to a head over my reading of these lines from ‘The Rabbit Catcher’:

It was a place of force –
The wind gagging my mouth with my own blown hair,
Tearing off my voice, and the sea
Blinding me with its lights, the lives of the dead
Unreeling in it, spreading like oil.

I tasted the malignity of the gorse,
Its black spikes,
The extreme unction of its yellow candle-
They had an efficiency, a great beauty,
And were extravagant, like torture.

I commented:

The sexuality that [the poem] writes cannot be held to single space – it spreads, blinds, unreels like the oil in the sea. Most crudely, that wind blowing, that gagging, calls up the image of oral sex and then immediately turns it around, gagging the speaker with her own blown hair, her hair in her mouth, her tasting the gorse (Who – man or woman – is tasting whom?), even while ‘black spikes’ and ‘candles’ work to hold the more obvious distribution of gender roles in place. If we pass to the next stanza, the uncertainty intensifies as we are given what can only be described as a symbolic geography of (the female) sex:

There was only one place to get to.
Simmering, perfumed,
The paths narrowed into a hollow.

If we read the first line of the poem as referring to the rabbit’s predicament, lured without option, and if we then read that as the dilemma of the woman, then we have to notice too that what draws her on unfailingly, are nothing other than the most recognisable clichés of femininity itself (simmering, perfumed, hollow).

My question then, as now, is this: if Plath uses an image, the rabbit catcher, which so obviously calls up a feminist reading – woman trapped like a rabbit by marriage and man – and turns it sexually around in her mind, what is she doing in the process? For if the trap starts to look (sound, smell) like the body of a woman, then there can be no easy accusation. Readers have rushed to see this as a moment – literal, biographical (Olwyn Hughes: ‘The poem is based on an actual incident’) – of rage against Hughes. Instead, Plath makes the reader go through a set of such strange and discomforting contortions that you no longer know who, or where, you are. Danger slips in and out of the trap that has been set for it. Plath can be seen as issuing a warning: for a woman, danger resides not just outside in the man who stalks her, but, no less powerfully, within.

And if Plath winds the moment up with sexual pleasure, then we can surely also ask what is being conveyed about women’s relationship to the forms of violence feminism has most powerfully protested against. For me, Plath’s peculiar genius, part of her abiding importance for feminism, is that while laying her charge against the institutions of patriarchy, she can manage also to say that it is not only men who trap rabbits. It takes two. Fantasy and sexual ambiguity are two sides of the same coin. Take a story – let’s say an event from a life (Olwyn Hughes: ‘there are hollows and dells as described’) – and blow words into it until it twists and distends to breaking point. ‘I am surprised,’ I wrote in a subsequent communication with Ted Hughes, ‘that at no point does Mr Hughes’ – the third person was used throughout our exchange – ‘allow that I use the poem to offer a critique of a too easy association of the rabbit catcher with himself.’

For Olwyn Hughes, this was ‘the most damaging attempt at character assassination in the whole book’, the ‘precise insinuations’ ‘defamatory’ to Hughes and Plath, and ‘by extension’ to Carol Hughes ‘and to any woman TH has had a relationship with’. Ted Hughes commented: ‘The gross assault on Sylvia Plath’s sexual identity made in this interpretation is totally INADMISSIBLE’ (capitals his). ‘This must be cut or totally revised.’ In response, I added to the text: ‘For Freud, such fantasies, such points of uncertainty, are the regular unconscious subtexts – for all of us – of the more straightforward reading, the more obvious narratives of stable sexual identity which we write.’ In reply, I had written to Hughes:

I do not consider my reading of ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ to be a ‘gross assault’ on Sylvia Plath’s sexual identity. That writing can be a place where ambiguity of sexual identity can be explored is an idea that follows, creatively for me, from the psychoanalytic questioning of the too rigid assumption of sexual normality that is part of our ‘civilised’ life. Crucially, however, this is a reading of a poem and therefore, once again, implies absolutely nothing about Plath’s lived identity as a woman.

The political consequences of this seemed worth spelling out:

But it might be worth saying here that the idea that sexual identity can be unconsciously unstable is an argument that has been used by that same form of feminism, to which I myself belong, which questions a too rigid assumption about what men and women are (that men for example are the sole source of violence) or about the relationship between reality and fantasy (that if something appears in a fantasy it implies that that is what is inevitably going on). This is not unrelated to Hughes’s own critique of overliteral interpretations of Plath’s poetry.

Hughes replied that, even though I called my book an ‘interpretation’, what was in fact involved was ‘speculation about what went on in the heads of Plath and Hughes’, a ‘licence’, regardless of my intentions, for ‘rampaging reinvention’ and ‘gossip’. Interpretation transmutes itself back into facts. No question. It is the inevitability of this process, its unstoppable nature, that Hughes insists on, as if all readings were powerless against the drift. In this world, all statements are propositions, all poems bear the scars of vulgar (mis)understanding almost before they have been read. One vulgarity leads to another. As the life is not crushed out of but forced back into the poem, so the offensive, now dangerous nature of sexual ambiguity increases in pitch. I was asked to imagine the effects of my reading on Hughes’s and Plath’s children: ‘In what she calls the “sexual normality that is part of our civilised life”’ – my scare quotes around ‘civilised’, there to suggest some scepticism about the term, have gone – ‘the sexual identity of mothers is a very delicate topic – presumably because it is internalised in such a vulnerable way in the sexual identities of the children. Ms Rose will surely agree with this. After all, there are still countries where speculation about somebody’s mother’s sexual life is grounds for homicide.’ To which he adds: ‘Ms Rose thought that she was writing a book about a writer dead thirty years, and seems to have overlooked, as I say, the plain fact that she has ended up writing a book largely about me.’ Gossip transmutes itself into fact. The plain fact is that I have written a book largely about Ted Hughes.

This is not, however, the end of the story. In 1992, a dispute broke out in the Times Literary Supplement about the pressure which writers on Plath felt was exerted on them by the Estate. In reply to a letter from Olwyn Hughes, justifying such intervention in terms of the ‘forests of fantasy’ that have grown up around Plath (‘I knew nothing, when I took the job on, of the snippets of vindictive and unjust rage in Plath’s letters and comments’), I described the pressures, notably in relation to ‘The Rabbit Catcher’, to which I felt I had been subjected. Ted Hughes’s reply, which opens by describing our dispute as a ‘corrosive misunderstanding’, is worth extensive quotation. After stating that the interpretation of ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ ‘distorts, reinvents etc Sylvia Plath’s “sexual identity” with an abandon I could hardly believe – presenting her in a role that I felt to be vividly humiliating to Plath’s children’, the body of the letter turns on the question of interpretation and its effects. ‘What happens,’ he asks, when these speculations

leave her head, and start up a life outside her control, inside other people’s heads? Don’t they, at that point, cease to be speculations and become – nine times out of ten – facts? Or at least, quasi-facts – that do influence ideas, if only in a fluctuating, provisional way?

I asked her to imagine her ‘interpretation’ in the context of small-town gossip. Here, Ms Rose’s shocking fantasy about the controversial public figure Sylvia Plath would follow the course familiar, I thought, to all. By the third step, that is, it would no longer be ‘interpretation’ or ‘fantasy’ but plain fact . . . As part of the teaching of Sylvia Plath’s poetry worldwide, a titillating ‘revelation’, for almost everybody taught, a kind of ‘fact’.

While almost all students and all but the most sophisticated readers will find it interesting to jump to the conclusion that Sylvia Plath actually was, or possibly was, like that, only the rarest reader, I think, will apply Ms Rose’s interpretation to their own mother. Why should they? The very idea is ridiculous. Sylvia Plath is only a dead, peculiar person in a book – the connection would never be made.

Only when one of those students or readers meets Sylvia Plath’s actual children will the connection be made: this is the son or daughter of that freaky woman who was like that.

That, as I say, is the first humiliation: to know that the world (since they can’t put limits on the possibility) has been told this about their mother . . . I tried to jolt Ms Rose into imagining their feelings, seeing her book (as I have seen it) in a friend’s house and assuming instantly that their friend now thinks about their mother the thoughts Professor Rose has taught them with eyes sharpened by that particular bizarre high point in her book. At that moment, clearly, Ms Rose’s ‘interpretation’ takes its second step – not just into reality this time.

I did not see how Ms Rose could fail to have full and instant knowledge of the peculiar kind of suffering such a moment induces – the little dull blow of something like despair, the helpless rage and shame for their mother, the little poisoning of life, the bitter but quite useless fury against the person who shot this barbed arrow into them just to amuse herself.

I was so strenuously locked into beating at her door, as I have described, simply to wake her up – it never dawned on me that all she could feel is threatened.

‘Freaky’, ‘like that’ – what I am imputed as attributing to Plath’s lived sexual identity cannot be named. Hardening into fact, it travels the world. Interpretation loses its provisionality, becomes speculation (guessing at a secret) and revelation (exposé). And yet the shriller the sound – ‘shocking’, ‘that particular bizarre high point in her book’, ‘titillating revelation’ – the less it can be spoken. Which puts this writer in an impossible position. I did not name Plath as a lesbian (to use the word) – as my reading of ‘The Rabbit Catcher’, I hope, makes clear. I did not name her identity at all, but chose to follow the ‘fluctuating’, ‘provisional’ (to use Hughes’s terms) movements of sexuality through the language of the poem. I would still argue that you cannot deduce her life from these words and that poetry is a place, like dreaming, where the unlived as much as the lived can be explored (the most that could be deduced would be an unconscious bisexuality). But not to name lesbianism here, since this so clearly became the centre of my dispute with Hughes is, it seems to me, to accede to a prejudice. It is in fact a kind of naming or branding: it names the lesbian as unspeakable.

I cannot comment on Hughes’s children, except to say that I do not understand why more pain would be caused them by a continuous celebration of Plath’s writing than by a biography such as Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989), which was written with the full co-operation of the Estate. Far more crucial, or within reach of what I am able to read in the letter, is the extraordinary link it demonstrates between representation and ethics. For it is only if the poem is literalised – if the gap is refused between writing and identity, between fantasy and life – that Hughes’s ethical objections stand. Only if poetry is read as reference can its exploration of sexuality – of anything – become a slur. Hughes may indeed have been writing about what happens all too often to interpretation in our culture (shaming as a central component of celebrity). On that much we agree. But, as I see it, that is not a reason for less interpretation, but more. It is a reason for anyone involved in the interpretation of writing, Plath’s writing, to struggle harder to keep open the space where language works.

An early draft of ‘The Rabbit Catcher’ contains these lines:

Without apparent motive, the paths
The paths narrowed into this hollow from
many directions,
Narrow without apparent motive.

They burned in the hot sun [Simmering,
They had no [without] apparent motive
The snares grew from the border grass
[effaced themselves] in the air, little loops
of emptiness
But significant, they had a significance.

Most of this makes it into the final version, except for ‘without apparent motive’, ‘but significant, they had a significance.’ Hidden markers of a poem that retains their colour, these words place the act of writing in a realm between uncertainty and meaning. How much room, in the biography which Hughes saw me as having written – in most biographies – is there for that moment of suspension in space and time? No writer has suffered as much as Plath from the biographical imperative. Finally, the issue is not one of freedom of interpretation, of how much the writer on Plath is permitted to say. The dilemma is better put in the form of a question. To what forms of uncertainty – of language, sexuality and knowing – do you have the right?

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