The penpal I wish I had

Sylvia Plath Letters Home edited by Aurelia Schober Plath

Spoiler free (apart from the obvious)

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I first took an interest in Sylvia Plath from reading her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar aged 15 (much to my mother’s chagrin). From just this narrow source material I felt such a connection to her; what slightly awkward, nerdy teen girl wouldn’t? I’m pleased to say my love of this book turned out not to be just teen angst and it remains 13 years later firmly on my list of favourite books. However I never went much deeper into finding out about Sylvia herself beyond a quick skim of her Wikipedia page. Which is why I was thrilled to receive a first edition copy of Letters Home from my mother for my birthday this year (presumably now I am older she is less wary I am going to follow in Sylvia’s melancholy footsteps). How exciting; a collection of letters written from Sylvia to her mother, dating from her college years right up to her death aged just 30. A chance in a way to meet Sylvia personally, and to be able to glimpse into her mind even a little.

Apart from being a wonderfully thoughtful gift for the collectable appeal alone this book turned out to be a fantastic read. From the first slightly homesick letter written on her first night at Smith University I felt absolutely absorbed in her life. I celebrated every time she wrote a triumphant letter to her mother telling her she’d got another poem published in a magazine. As she agonised whether she had taken on too much work and was about to let down everybody who’d supported her, I too felt like I had such a weight on my shoulders. Even in her day-to-day letters home, Sylvia has such a way with words that makes you empathise strongly everything she was feeling. Imagine writing to that extent in your weekly ‘I’m still alive’ emails to your family nowadays! And as I experienced every high and low alongside her, I started to see perhaps how she had ended up in such a desperate place. Every little success sent her soaring impossibly high; “Oh, mummy, I am so happy…How can I bear the joy of it all!” Every tiny road block caused her to crash into absolute despair; “Every fibre of me rebels against the unnecessary torture I am going through… how very desolate and futile and trapped I feel!” What a roller-coaster ride of a life she had. How insightful her mentor Olive Higgins Prouty was when she wrote to Sylvia “A lamp turned too high might shatter its chimney. Please just glow sometimes”.

That being said, for those of you who have read The Bell Jar, you will see a stark contrast in style and mood in this collection of letters, which covers the same time period. As the ill-fated trip to New York started being discussed, and her first nervous breakdown and suicide attempt loomed, I braced myself for the same dark tortured Sylvia to appear in the letters, which of course she never did. (Thinking about it, that was rather naive of me. Everyone wants their parents to see the best of them and to not worry about them). The result being another, perhaps more measured telling of this period of her life.

On that note, it is worth remembering that these letters have been edited by Aurelia Schober Plath, Sylvia’s mother. Not every part of every letter written was included in the book, and one can only wonder why her mother decided to show the world some of the details in each letter (the amount of times ovens are mentioned may raise a wry smile from the fans of black-humour amongst you), and what was left out and why. For example, her mother doesn’t seem to subscribe to the view of some that her husband was a negative influence on her daughter’s life, and is quite happy to print the many gushing letters Sylvia sent during their courtship of how amazing a man and poet she thought him to be. The cynical part of me has wondered if this is due to the fact she had to ask Ted Hughes for permission to print these letters at all, but that is a discussion for another day.

So should you read this book? I think it’s clear by now that for me it is a resounding yes. If I were being completely honest, I would say the endless day-to-day recounts do drag a little near the middle but this is ultimately a wonderful, heartbreaking insight into her life. However, this recommendation does come with a warning. If I felt before like I personally knew her, that is nothing compared to how I feel now (you will note my possibly insolent use of her first name throughout this review). In reading this book you will grow very fond of this dear, sensitive woman and, like me, as the date on the letters grows closer to February 1963, you may start to mourn the loss of someone you have come to think of as a very close friend.

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