29. Plath domineering father Otto died when she was just a young girl and it had a huge impact on her in several different ways
Plath’s ninth year was as tragic as it was triumphant, however. Before her first poem was published, her father Otto had died. Just 10 days after his daughter’s 8th birthday, the biologist fell ill. For a while, Otto was convinced he was suffering from lung cancer. In reality, however, he was suffering from diabetes. Sadly, he realized this too late. Doctors tried to save his life by amputating a foot. But it wasn’t enough. Otto died from complications following the surgery. His death was to have a profound impact on young Sylvia, both in practical terms and as a poet.
28. Her complicated relationship with her father has long fascinated Plath scholars; did she love ‘Daddy’ or fear him?
Her father’s death hit young Sylvia hard. Later, she would write that the 9 years of her life up until that point “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle – beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white flying moth”. Otto’s passing would inspire her to write ‘Daddy’, one of Plath’s best-known – and most celebrated – poems, in 1962. Alongside this, a later visit to her father’s graveside in the Winthrop Cemetery in Massachusetts would inspire her to write the acclaimed poem ‘Electra on Azalea Path’.
27. Plath was certified a genius by the age of 12 and she was determined to become a literary star from an early age
The publication of her first poem at the age of 8 showed that Plath was a precocious talent. So, it’s perhaps not surprising that her mother persuaded her daughter to take an IQ test when she was 12. Notably, Plath scored a score of 160. According to most metrics, ‘genius’ level intelligence starts at an IQ of 140, making Plath one of the brightest minds of her age. Once the results of the IQ test were confirmed, Plath became even more sure of her own talents and increasingly ambitious.
26. Plath’s early academic career was supported by a wealthy and generous fellow female writer
After graduating high school, Plath won a scholarship to study at Smith College, a prestigious but expensive women-only liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Her scholarship was funded by Olive Higgins Prouty, a wealthy novelist and poet. Not only did she want to help “promising young writers” such as Plath, but she had also suffered from acute depression herself. Plath and Smith college were a natural fit. Despite her background, she excelled at the elite institution. As she wrote to her mother of her first year: “The world is splitting open at my feet like a ripe, juicy watermelon.”
25. Plath was worried about her lack of social class and the fact she had to work to support herself at her prestigious college
Even though she had a scholarship, Plath still had to earn money while studying. For her first two years at Smith College, she held down a number of jobs to help pay her rent for her accommodation in the yellow-walled Haven House. As well as waiting tables, Plath peeled potatoes in a local kitchen. On several occasions, she lamented her modest background, even resenting her family for not being wealthier. According to some of Plath’s biographers, this made her work even harder as she tried to prove herself among the wealthy elite young ladies she studied alongside.
24. From the age of 14, Plath was ‘obsessed with boys’ and dated ‘hundreds’ during her student years
Plath studied hard at Smith College. But, as well as her love of literature, she also pursued one of her other great passions while a student: Boys. Ever since the age of 14, she had recorded her obsessions with the opposite sex in her diaries. On some occasions, she complained that her sexual frustration – she was “sick with longing” – hindered her studies and creative work. By her own accounts, she dated ‘hundreds’ of boys before and during her college years. However, Plath also regularly worried that she would be seen as “fast” and get a bad reputation.
23. Her fellow students at Smith College were not only amazed by Plath’s brains but by her beauty too
By the end of her first year at Smith College, Plath had earned a reputation for being extremely bright and uniquely talented. She also gained a reputation for being one of the best-looking ladies in the college, and the most mysterious. Famously, upon meeting Plath for the first time, Nancy Hunter exclaimed: “They didn’t tell me you were beautiful!” Hunter had moved into the same dormitory as Plath and had already heard of her new roommate’s sharp mind before her first day at Smith College.
22. Plath was left hugely disappointed by her time in New York City and the experience plunged her into a dark depression
For most of her first and second years at Smith College, Plath edited The Smith Review. In her third year, she was invited to be a guest editor on Mademoiselle magazine, an upmarket women’s magazine based in New York City. She accepted the offer without hesitation and moved to downtown New York for a month. She spent much of the time trying to meet her idol, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, even hanging out in his favorite bar. However, she left New York disappointed. The whole experience left her profoundly depressed. Plath entered one of the darkest periods of her young life.
21. A failed suicide attempt led to Plath being sent to a psychiatric hospital where she received 6 months of electroshock therapy
Down and unable to face returning to Smith College, Plath returned home. Later, she would reveal that she slashed at her legs in order to see if she had the “courage” to take her own life. Soon after, she attempted to overdose on her mother’s sleeping pills. The suicide bid failed and Plath was admitted into McLean Hospital, a specialist psychiatric institution. She spent 6 months here, with her old benefactor Olive Higgins Prouty – the writer who funded her college scholarship – picking up the bill, including for several sessions of electroshock therapy.
20. Plath’s colossal intellect earned her a Fulbright Scholarship and sent her to Cambridge, England
After recovering from her depression, Plath returned to Smith College for a final year. She graduated with distinction and won a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newham College, a women-only college of the University of Cambridge. Here, she would study under the renowned Israeli literary scholar Dorothea Crook, one of Plath’s academic heroes. The two would form a deep bond and remain pen pals for years after. Above all, however, the Fulbright award gave Plath the chance to leave Massachusetts and take her place at one of the world’s oldest – and best – universities.
19. Plath called Richard Sassoon the great love of her life and he would prove her equal in more ways than one
In 1954, Plath met “the one that got away”, Richard Sassoon. Unlike the other ‘boys’ she had dated up until then, he was a Yale student and could match the poet on an intellectual level. The two became correspondents and their letters became increasingly romantic and then lust-fuelled. In one, Sassoon said: “I am talking myself into thinking it would be rather fun to play daddy to a naughty girl if you are naughty”. In her diary, Plath recalls a trip to New York City to see Sassoon, revealing they barely left their 44th Street hotel room for 4 days.
18. Plath enjoyed a passionate affair with a fellow American scholar while sailing to England – despite the fact the man was a newlywed!
Late summer 1955, Plath set sail for England. The voyage across the Atlantic was long and, within days of leaving America, the poet embarked on a romantic affair with Carl Shakin, a physics graduate sailing to England to take up a scholarship in Manchester. This was despite the fact Shakin admitted to Plath that he had only been married for 10 weeks! The two traveled to London together before Shakin left for Manchester. According to her diaries, Plath felt only a small amount of sadness at the end of the affair. Cambridge was calling.
17. Plath holidayed with Richard Sassoon – and the photos they took on the beach famously show another side to the troubled poet
For a while, Plath tried to keep her relationship with Sassoon going. She was besotted with him. The pair traveled to the south of France for what would be one last vacation together. The photographs of that time, taken on the sun-kissed beach show a completely different side to Plath than the melancholic, suicidal poet she is often remembered as. She’s pictured smiling in a white bikini, frolicking with the man she loved. Once the vacation was over, however, Sassoon broke up with her. Plath would write to her mother saying he was the only man she had ever loved.
16. Plath knew Ted Hughes was a hard-drinking womanizer, but she couldn’t resist the English poet’s charms
It was at Cambridge that Plath met the English poet Ted Hughes. In her diaries, she wrote that she was aware of Hughes beforehand, having read some of his work in a literary magazine. She was taken by his literary prowess. At the same time, however, Plath was also aware of Hughes’ reputation as a heart-breaking and hard-drinking womanizer. Despite this, when the two met at a party on February 25 1956, she was immediately smitten. It was love at first sight, Plath said. One of the most tempestuous romances in all of literary history had begun.
15. Plath and Hughes came together at a Cambridge party and their first meeting was full of intrigue, lust, and blood
Both Hughes and Plath had brought dates to the Cambridge party that night. But that didn’t stop them from flirting outrageously with one another. According to Plath’s diaries, Hughes kissed her passionately – violently even. Plath then bit into Hughes’ cheek causing him to bleed. Though they didn’t spend the night together that first evening, Plath was hooked. When Hughes returned to London, the pair began writing poetry for one another. Four months later, Hughes returned to Cambridge and asked Plath to marry him.
14. Plath was bowled over by Ted Hughes and the pair of poets decided to get married just 4 months after they first met
Just as she was when she met Hughes that first night, Plath recalled she was “very, very beautifully drunk” when she agreed to be his wife. The pair had been together for just 4 months. But it could have all been so different. Just before the proposal, Plath went to Paris to try and win Richard Sassoon back. He fled the city when he learned his ex was coming! According to several of Plath’s biographers, this brutal rejection essentially pushed her into the arms of Hughes.
13. Plath married Ted Hughes on a day of literary significance and the pair even enjoyed a happy honeymoon in Europe
Plath and Hughes got married on June 16, 1956, in London. The pair agreed on the date due to their shared love of literature: June 16 is the day on which Ulysses by James Joyce takes place. There were only a few witnesses including Plath’s mother who had traveled over from America for the occasion. The newlyweds honeymooned in Paris and then Benidorm, Spain, before returning in time for Plath to start her second year at Cambridge.
12. Hughes introduced Plath to the occult and the pair would hold their own seances in her Cambridge home
Poetry took up most of Plath’s time and energy. However, soon after the wedding, Hughes introduced his new wife to his love of the occult. According to Plath’s own diaries, the pair would spend evenings in Cambridge making a Ouija board and using an upturned brandy glass to try and communicate with the dead. Hughes claimed his embracing of the supernatural inspired him to write and made his poetry better. Even if she had been skeptical at first, Plath soon became interested – perhaps even obsessed – with the occult and the metaphysical.
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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