Men Explain Sylvia Plath’s Suffering to Us

Photo by Freddie Phillips via Flickr Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Newly unearthed letters from Sylvia Plath to her therapist — apparently validating her accounts of abuse at her husband Ted Hughes’s hand — inspire Emily Van Duyne to raise the question of why many in the literary world cast doubt over Plath’s allegations, or treat them lightly.

At LitHub, Van Dyune looks at the way men like Peter K. Steinberg — co-editor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956, a collection of Plath’s unpublished letters forthcoming from Faber in October — characterize her accounts of being beaten, in one case to the point of miscarrying her second child with Hughes. Steinberg is quoted in a Guardian article she refers to as saying the unpublished letters promise to be “tantalising” — a disturbing choice of words for domestic violence.

I don’t write this to argue that there is some kind of conspiracy or cover-up of Hughes’s behavior, or even that there is a single thread of golden truth about their marriage that these new letters, or any new document (oh, for those torched last journals!) will suddenly, gloriously reveal, allowing us closure on Plath’s biography. Instead, I want to point out the cultural bias against women’s voices and the domestic truths of women’s lives and the deep role this has played in painting Plath as both a pathetic victim and a Cassandra-like, genius freak. It is only in a culture where these two things be claimed simultaneously that Hughes, a known philanderer and violent partner, can spend forty years botching the editing of, or outright destroying, his estranged, now dead wife’s work, then win every conceivable literary prize and be knighted by the Queen. It is only in this culture that Plath can tell of his abuse, in print, for the better part of the same 40 years, only to have the same reports in a handful of letters recognized as “shocking.” And it is only in this culture that unseen letters detailing abuses as dreadful as a miscarriage induced by beating, and the expressed desire that one’s wife was dead, be described, without irony, as “tantalising.”

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