Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was an American writer who married fellow poet Ted Hughes. She visited his parents in Heptonstall, and wrote about it in “November Graveyard”. She struggled throughout her life with depression before taking her own life in 1963 and was buried in Heptonstall graveyard.

Sylvia Plath was born in Boston in 1932 to a middle class family. Otto Plath was a loving father, a noted expert on bees who cultivated a love of all things academic in his two children, Sylvia and her younger brother Warren. Aurelia Plath was a stay at home mother until the death of Otto in 1940 pushed her into a succession of low paid jobs. Otto died of complications from diabetes. His death could have been prevented had he sought treatment, but Otto was convinced he had a terminal illness and refused medical help.

The sudden and unnecessary death of her father hit young Sylvia hard and she began both her writing career and her decline into depression in this year.

Sylvia excelled through high school academically but wrote in her journals that she felt constantly alienated and fundamentally different from her peers.

A scholarship to Smith College in 1950 provided Sylvia with hope that she could start afresh and fulfil a longing to belong socially but this proved difficult when the high pressure environment brought her mental difficulties to the fore.

A young Sylvia

A young Sylvia

A placement on Mademoiselle Magazine and the summer in New York City that went along with it brought to a head Sylvia’s escalating mania and after an unsuccessful but sincere suicide attempt she was placed into the care of McLean Mental Hospital for treatment that included psychotherapy and electro-shock treatments. The harrowing time of what has come to be known as “the peroxide summer” provided Plath with the material for her thinly disguised autobiography “The Bell Jar” which was released in 1963. Sylvia was released from McLean back to the strains of Smith life and she graduated Summa Cum Laude in 1955.

Sylvia and Ted

Sylvia and Ted.

A Fulbright scholarship brought Sylvia to Cambridge University, England where she met Ted Hughes. The poetic titans clashed at a party for Ted’s literary magazine, St Botolph’s Review. After dancing with Sylvia, Ted stole her earring and Sylvia responded with a bite to the cheek that drew blood. They were married in June 1956 and Ted spent the first few years of their marriage encouraging Sylvia in her writing and coaxing her to use her personal experiences and strong emotions in her poetry.

Ted found literary success soon after their marriage and Sylvia found it increasingly difficult to be referred to as the wife of a poet whilst she struggled to find appreciation with the publication of her first collection of poetry “The Colossus” and caring for baby Frieda, who was born in 1960.

As their literary careers gathered speed, so the marriage of Sylvia and Ted slowly fell apart. Ted, it is generally accepted, was unfaithful. Sylvia alternated between wanting to be a perfect housewife and the desire to be completely free of all responsibility.

A move to the quiet village of North Tawton in Devon brought small respite and was followed by the birth of a son, Nicholas.

The revelation of Ted’s affair with the wife of a fellow poet, Assia Wevill, brought new crisis to the Hughes household.

Sylvia had long known of Ted’s dalliances with other women but the fling with Assia stretched into a full blown affair and, when Assia phoned the house in Devon to speak to Ted, encroached on the family itself Sylvia, hurt and humiliated, ended the marriage.

Sylvia moved back to London and took a flat in the house where W.B Yeats had once lived (which she considered a good omen as she and Ted has once read Yeats to one another as young lovers) But the winter of 1962/63 was the coldest on record and Sylvia soon found herself holed up in a flat with no heating and two small children with influenza while her husband paraded his mistress around parties with family friends.

It is generally accepted that Sylvia and Ted attempted a reconciliation around January 1963 but the revelation that Assia was expecting Ted’s child killed the marriage for good and with it, all hope that Sylvia had for the future.

On 11th February 1963 the district nurse arrived at Fitzroy Road to find the body of Sylvia Plath-Hughes in the kitchen and her two children inside a locked bedroom with a plate of bread and butter and glasses of milk. the door had been sealed with tape to prevent the gas which Sylvia had used to end her own life from harming her children. On her desk, Sylvia left the manuscript for her last book of poetry “Ariel” containing her most widely recognised and critically acclaimed work.

Ted Hughes spent the rest of his life fending off accusations from Plath fans of cruelty and even murder. He never discussed the death of his wife, or even their marriage, until the publication of his book “Birthday Letters” in 1998. Ted Hughes died in October 1998 and even now it is not unusual to see Sylvia’s grave in Heptonstall vandalised and the surname “Hughes” removed from her gravestone.

In the years following her death, Sylvia has garnered a following of devoted fans far surpassing that of any other modern poet. Her confessional and violent style of writing has been much emulated and she is seen as the patron poet of tortured souls.

Sylvia’s grave in Heptonstall continues to be visited by people from all over the world, looking to pay their respects to a woman who was unafraid to lay her soul before the world with honesty never seen before or since.

[Biography details contributed by Rachel Wright.]

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