Sylvia Plath's Troubled Relationship: Excerpt from Lesley McDowell's 'Between the Sheets'

Author Sylvia Plath with her children
Category: Reading
Tagged: poetry, books

Today is the 50th anniversary of the death of one of literature's most well-loved and enigmatic figures, Sylvia Plath. Her poems, diaries and landmark novel, The Bell Jar, all portrayed a struggle for an identity, to balance the often competing roles of her career, relationship, children and home-maker role in a way that still resonates with many women today. Scottish author and journalist Lesley McDowell discussed this struggle in her study of literary women and their relationships Between the Sheets. The following is an excerpt from her chapter on Sylvia Plath and her husband, the poet Ted Hughes. 

...What goes wrong in a literary and sexual relationship? Which part dies first? In January 1959, Sylvia Plath wrote of not showing any of her poems to Ted Hughes (‘Didn’t show him the bull one: a small victory’) as part of her attempt to be less dependent on him. Their writing partnership did not stop being conducive to creativity as it had been at the start, but Plath seems to have been more worried about its closeness than Hughes was. She doesn’t appear to have thought Hughes was stealing ideas from her, or hampering the flow of creativity in her. What she seems to have been worried about was an emotional dependence growing in her. She was right to be worried: if her creativity was dependent on his being close, what would happen to it when he was far away?

Plath, as we have seen from her teenage years, bound up being a wife and poet together. She was a poet before she was a wife though, and not only did she carry on writing poetry throughout her marriage, she continued to do so even after it had begun to fall apart at the seams. Yet, in spite of the remarkable genius of the Ariel poems she produced during the winter of 1962, after the marriage had disintegrated, she does not seem to have believed she could make it without a writing partner wedded to her side. Even though she wrote to her mother that year, ‘I amaze myself. It is my work that does it, my sense of myself as a writer’, she seemed to falter in her belief in this newfound identity two months later, when she wrote that ‘I just haven’t felt any identity under the steamroller of decisions and responsibilities this half year.’

Indeed, it is hard to believe that in the early days of their relationship Plath could have existed without Hughes by her side, so deep was her emotional and literary tie to him, even though she had been a poet before she met him. Again and again we see in her journal her sheer delight in being with him, to the point where ‘my whole being has grown and interwound so completely with Ted’s that if anything were to ho happen to him, I do not see how I could live.’ This dependency on him, which she struggled against and which she never quite overcame, imploded during the autumn and winter of 1962.”

From Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th Century Women Writers (Overlook Press) by Lesley McDowell

You can read more of Lesley's thoughts on Sylvia Plath on her blog.

Lesley McDowell

Lesley is a journalist and writer from Glasgow. She is a literary critic for The Herald, The Scotsman and The Independent on Sunday, and author of books Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and their Famous Literary Partnerships (2010) and The Picnic (2007). you can read more of Lesley's thoughts on Sylvia Plath and more on her blog.