11. Alongside Hughes, Plath crisscrossed the Atlantic, growing as a poet as she flitted between England and America
Despite her immense talent, Plath’s career took second place to that of Hughes. The couple moved to America in 1957. Plath began teaching at Smith College, her alma mater, and then, when they moved to Boston, she worked as a receptionist. All the while, Hughes was being widely published, his reputation as a poet growing. Plath did, however, manage to make valuable connections. She attended seminars given by the acclaimed poet Robert Powell. Both he and Plath’s classmate Anne Sexton encouraged her to use her personal life for inspiration – even it meant addressing her depression and even her suicide attempt.
10. Plath’s first child was born in 1960, but this was far from a happy time for her as her marriage started to fall apart
At the very end of 1959, Hughes and Plath moved back to London. The flat the couple shared in Primrose Hill, in the north of the city, is today marked by a blue heritage plaque and many literary tourists still visit every year. It should have been a happy time for Plath. She had her first child, a daughter she named Frida, in April of 1960. Later that year, her first collection of poems, entitled Colossus, was published. However, her marriage was the source of much pain and drove her to the point of suicide.
9. Did Hughes abuse his wife physically as well as emotionally? Letters written by the poet suggest he did
In 2017, researchers uncovered previously unseen letters from Plath, most of them written to her therapist while she was living in Primrose Hill. In them, she revealed that Hughes would regularly beat her. What’s more, the Englishman also verbally and psychologically bullied his American wife. Plath said she believed Hughes wanted her dead. Things got even worse when Plath found out that Hughes had been having an affair with their friend Assia Wevill. In the same letters, she revealed that she crashed her car on purpose, her second failed suicide attempt.
8. Her husband’s repeated infidelities caused Plath to leave the family home for good, and to fall into a deep depression
When Hughes refused to end his affair with Wevill, Plath decided to leave him. Now with two young children to look after, in December 1962 she moved to a flat in Fitzroy Road, London. The fact that the acclaimed Irish poet W.B. Yeats had previously occupied the same apartment was taken by Plath as a good omen. And perhaps it was. It was around this time that Plath wrote much of the best poetry of her life. More than 20 of these would appear in her celebrated posthumous collection Ariel. Many, however, were extremely dark, reflecting Plath’s worsening mood.
7. Plath’s great novel, The Bell Jar, was harshly rejected by the very publishers who paid her to write it
Despite suffering from an intense depression, Plath still managed to finish her first – and only – novel while struggling as a single mother in her freezing London flat. She was helped by a fellowship from the publisher Harper & Row. The $2,080 she received from them allowed her to write The Bell Jar. When she submitted it to them, however, it was dismissed. One editor even called it “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought”. After much effort, Plath finally succeeded in having The Bell Jar published in the UK in January 1963.
6. Since the book contained critical references to real-life people, Plath published The Bell Jar under a pen name
Plath chose to release The Bell Jar under the pen name of Victoria Lucas. This was because she took her inspiration for several of the key characters from friends, relatives and acquaintances. The book was met with almost universal critical indifference on both sides of the Atlantic, much to Plath’s dismay (especially since the career of her ex-husband Hughes was going from strength-to-strength). It was only after her death that critics started to see The Bell Jar as a literary classic. To this day, however, Plath scholars and fans debate whether the book should still be published under the Lucas penname.
5. Plath gassed herself with the kitchen oven while her two young children were upstairs sleeping
Plath’s own family doctor saw that she was a risk to herself. In January 1963, he prescribed her strong anti-depressants. He also arranged for a nurse to visit her apartment every morning to check on both Plath and her two children. On the morning of February 11, 1963, the nurse arrived at the flat to find Plath dead in the kitchen. She had put her children to bed, sealed off the kitchen doors with towels and then placed her head in the gas oven. Some biographers argue Plath never intended to kill herself, that this act was a desperate cry for help. Others, however, point to her past history of failed attempts and the careful execution of the act as evidence Plath really did want to end her life.
4. Plath’s resting place in northern England was chosen by Ted Hughes and is a place of remembrance and of protest
Though they were separated, Plath and Hughes never officially divorced. This meant that Hughes could decide where the American would be laid to rest. He decided to have her buried in the graveyard of St Thomas the Apostle, a church in the hilltop village of Heptonstall, in the county of Yorkshire. What’s more, he had the stone inscribed ‘Sylvia Plath Hughes’ and he chose the line of poetry to go under the name. Since the 1960s, the grave has been a pilgrimage site for literary fans and feminists. On more than one occasion, her husband’s name has been defaced or removed.
3. Plath would win a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Literature – though could her rumored long-lost second novel be her greatest work?
Following her death, Plath’s literary star kept on rising. Her Collected Poems were published in 1981. Ted Hughes wrote an introduction for the work, a fact that angered many of Plath’s admirers, not least since many blamed him for her suicide – a charge that only intensified when his mistress Assia Wevill also killed herself. For her poetry, Plath was awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for Literature. While Hughes once claimed that she had written most of a second novel, the manuscript was lost at the start of the 1970s. It remains one of the literary world’s most-sought-after items.
2. Plath’s legacy lives on – and original manuscripts and items from her life are highly sought-after by fans
Today, Sylvia Plath is remembered as one of America’s great writers. Above all, she is seen as a pioneer of ‘confessional poetry’. She is also seen by many as a feminist icon. In 2018, Plath’s daughter Freida auctioned a number of items from her mother’s life. These included a tartan skirt from her undergraduate years at Smith College, an old typewriter she used throughout her 20s, and a draft copy of ‘The Bell Jar’, which sold for $125,000. Tragically, Plath’s son Nicholas Hughes, also a poet, committed suicide in 2009, aged 47.
1. In recent years, Plath’s other talents, including her skills as an artist, have started to be recognized
In 2017, the Smithsonian National Gallery held an exhibition of Plath’s art, showcasing her other side. Before embracing poetry full-time, Plath had originally planned on being an artist. In fact, she enrolled in a major in art at Smith College before switching to study English after just one academic year. However, she carried on making art throughout her life, including during her troubled years in England. The 2017 exhibition was the first major retrospective of her collages and paintings, including several self-portraits, highlighting her love of the abstract.
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