Book Review: Mirrored in a Glowing Cover: Carl Rollyson’s The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

3rd July 2020

Aleksandra Majak, University of Oxford

Carl Rollyson, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2020)

Content warning: violence

In his preface to The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Carl Rollyson says that every biography is also an autobiography, expressing an implicit belief that something in the author’s own life qualifies them to speak to the life of another. As I read this line, I recalled my first encounter with Sylvia Plath, opening the blue Faber volume of her lyric on the ‘Morning Song’. The poem’s simultaneous seeking and rejecting of motherly love felt instantly familiar, yet also deeply uncomfortable. Later, I have come to believe that to write about Plath is not only to confront the public myths and tropes of her life, work, and suicidal death, but also one’s own psychobiographical motives. In other words, to ask: what is it that speaks to me personally about the author known as, in the words of American critic M.L. Rosenthal, a ‘confessional’ poet? Through trying to answer this question, the readers of biography could not only discover something new about the most well-known American female poet, but perhaps also about themselves.

Rollyson’s first book on Plath, suggestively entitled American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, aired in 2013. His new biography The Last Day of Sylvia Plath is the first book on Plath published after the collection of her correspondence came to light in 2018. The much-discussed letters include those written by Plath to her former therapist and the model for Dr Nolan in The Bell Jar Ruth Barnhouse between 1960 and 1963, leading us to speculate exactly what kind of transatlantic consolation or advice Plath hoped for. In one of her letters she writes – almost casually, as if in passing – that her husband and fellow poet ‘Ted [Hughes] beat [her] up physically’ for tearing up his manuscripts.[1] Looking at the glowing silver cover of Rollyson’s new book, resembling mirror, I was perplexed: do these letters, once intimate confidences shared between patient and therapist, invite a fresh wave of new writing on Plath? Some cynicism here seems justified; after all, the print market has an insatiable appetite for dramatic narratives on female writers that borders on salacious, even better those involving another recognisable public personality like Hughes. With his biographies on Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn and Amy Lowell, Rollyson might be called a specialist in this particular sub-genre.

Though the author is largely sympathetic to Plath and hopes to rehabilitate her image, too often viewed, he says, ‘within confines of what Ted Hughes and his collaborators wanted to be written’ (6), he repeats many of the sensation-seeking scripts typical in dozens of biographies of the poet. Against the premise of the title, Rollyson’s narrative jumps between well-known events in Plath’s life (meeting Hughes at a party in Cambridge, their life in America, Hughes’ infidelity, Plath’s reverberating depression) and simple re-phrasing content from the second volume of letters. He does not analyse the last days of Plath’s life, indeed he could hardly be expected to, given that none of her surviving letters or diaries covers that time. Instead, he looks at the last seven months before her death, arguing that Plath was not just preoccupied with childcare and writing but also ready to re-model and reclaim her life. This statement, too, is nothing new. Scholars have frequently commented on the original arrangement of Ariel’s manuscript, beginning with the word ‘hope’ and ending with ‘spring’,  supposedly reveals a more cheering vision of a life reborn.[2] If an argument based on the collection’s arrangement seems to me implausible, especially as many of Plath’s much earlier poems and prose contain this same idea of symbolical rebirth and cyclicality, the hope for a new beginning is still certainly present in other sources.

Most of Plath’s best poems, like Keats’s, were written and re-written during the outbursts of creativity in the last months and days of her life. Her correspondence and diaries give an account of the intensity of the creative process. In October 1962, Plath says in a letter to her mother, ‘I’m writing the best poems of my life’, and adds, ‘they will make my name’.[3] She was, of course, right. From around 1961, the geo-political situation of the Cold War, and a growing consciousness of Nazi atrocities led Plath to seek a rougher poetic idiom. Set against the grain of what Robert Lowell called ‘the tranquilized fifties’, Plath’s vehement lyric evidenced in Ariel hoped to be relevant to – as she said in interview – ‘the larger things’.[4] Most of the readers would instantly think of  ‘Daddy’ or ‘Lady Lazarus’ where she confronts the idea of being a survivor. Reading Plath, it seems to me that there is little more political than confessional poetry. 

Rollyson declares that the aim of his biography is to ‘explain why Plath’s suicide is not only an individual act but also a concentration of forces and circumstances’ (xi). But what exactly is ‘an individual act’ in terms of suicide? Why, by this logic, we would not talk about any life as ‘concentration of forces and circumstances’? And, finally, why would we cultivate the romantic myth of the poet self, in opposition to the external world? The goal seems vague, and part of the biography reads like a derivative recombination of narratives we already know, the common syllogism of extracting lines from her poetry and presenting them as an evidence to own claims and the dangerous interpretative fallacy that the suicide authenticates the sincerity of her poems. Unlike Janet Malcolm’s meta-critical Silent Woman, Rollyson’s biography seem too insistent on finding answers instead of confronting what Hermione Lee called the ‘thorough-going investigativeness’ of biography; uncertainties become an indispensable part of reading Plath’s works.[5] But perhaps we, as readers, should not be surprised if we feel like the biography is lacking a sense of vigour as the author reflects:  

unlike the art of poetry, biography cannot be transformative. Unlike the poet, the biographer cannot transmute the materiality of fact into a transcendental, universal creation. A biography can mean, but unlike a poem, a biography cannot simply be. (193)

However, the praiseworthy part of Rollyson’s book is his meticulous discussion of Plath’s letters to Barnhouse. The two women met in 1953 at the McLean Hospital near Boston, as Plath recovered after her suicide attempt under Barnhouse’s psychotherapy. Plath continued her sessions with the therapist, this time in private, after her release and even later, when she moved to America with Hughes. An intimate account of these meetings was immortalized in Plath’s notes from therapy, now in the possession of The British Library. Of course, if the professional confidence of the patient-therapist privileged relationship had been sustained, we would never have seen this newly discovered correspondence. Though Rollyson does not inform us about his sources, he quotes the therapist’s letter to Plath:

‘I have often thought if I ‘cure’ no one else in my whole career, you are enough. I love you.’ (115).

Here Barnhouse went, the author reasonably observes, ‘beyond the protocols of her profession, serving more as Plath’s ally than her doctor’ (7). The emotionally charged, ‘loving’ line suggests a pattern of counter-transference yet far beyond its professional application. This idea, not without simplifying, will be familiar to readers who have experienced psychotherapy and remember how often they sought the therapist’s approval or, perhaps even affection. So how, Rollyson asks, has the correspondence re-surfaced over fifty years after Plath’s death? The twists of this particular story read like a noir detective novel.

In June 1970, young academic Harriet Rosenstein interviewed Barnhouse, gathering a wealth of material including the therapist’s memories recorded on tape, carbon copies of medical records, and letters. During in-depth discussions, Rosenstein befriended Barnhouse, who had vouchsafed Plath’s letters to Rosenstein, and seems to have drawn comfort from the presence and attention of the young scholar with whom she talked and openly confronted Plath’s death. The therapist confessed to Rosenstein her belief that she let Plath down. Rollyson notices an intriguing projections of responsibilities saying:

This feeling that some kind of intervention, some change in the terms of Plath’s life, might have saved her is part of what has propelled so many biographers, beginning with Rosenstein, to get the story of Plath right. Barnhouse looked to Rosenstein for a kind of salvation or redemption, as Plath herself sought a saviour. The ironies and parallels and plights of patient, therapist, and biographer converge in a triangulated tragedy that is only now emerging. (15)

Until 2017, when Rosenstein decided to sell the letters, none of the materials she collected had been made public. However, without any formal agreement between the therapist and the scholar, these letters legally belonged to Smith College archive that acquired the documents in a legal case against Rosenstein just before the second volume of letters went to print.[6] The decision on whether to include them in the collection went to Plath’s daughter – Frieda Hughes, whose introduction to the volume is one of the finest I have read. According to Rollyson, Rosenstein still possesses tapes, interview notes, more letters, and documents pertaining to the poet’s biography but all of his attempts to contact her have failed (11). When (or if) these materials are one day made public, there is no doubt that they will inspire even more biographies on Plath.

Unearthed letters from the past, Plath’s marital crisis, intriguing poetic idiom – all of these invite the reader to puzzle out the troubled psychology of the poet, whose work remains so intrinsically linked with the cult around her life, work, and death. Does Rollyson’s book shed a new light on the last days of Sylvia Plath? Not any more than the second volume of her letters does. What it does do successfully, though, is put forth a concerted effort to understand and sympathise with something that Plath, with her keenness on mirror images and self-reflections, liked to call creative doubling – reconciliations with inner dualities and paradoxes of life. Perhaps more so than in any other genre, in biography our sympathies, needs, longings, self-images, and hidden resentments are explicitly confronted. After all we are all tempted, at least from time to time, to see ourselves mirrored in the glowing cover of lives unlived.


Sources:

[1] Sylvia Plath, Letters of Sylvia Plath. Volume 2: 1956-1963, ed. by Kukil, K.V. and Steinberg, P. K (London: Faber and Faber 2018), 830.

[2] Cf. Frieda Hughes, ‘Foreword’ in Sylvia Plath, Ariel: The Restored Edition (London: Faber and Faber 2004).

[3] Plath, Sylvia. Letters op cit., 469.

[4] The Poet Speaks: Interviews with Contemporary Poets conducted by Hilary Morrish, Peter Orr, John Press, and Ian Scott-Kilvery. (London, Routledge 1966). https://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/content/1962-sylvia-plath-interview-peter-orr

[5] Cf. Hermione Lee,  Biography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford UP 2009).

[6] Cf. https://lithub.com/uncovering-the-hidden-love-lives-of-sylvia-plath-and-william-faulkner/

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