"I have experienced love, sorrow, madness and if I cannot make these experiences meaningful, no new experience will help me". --Sylvia Plath, November 15, 1959.
In the decades that have followed the suicide of Sylvia Plath in February 1963, much has been written and speculated about her life; most particularly her marriage to fellow-poet Ted Hughes and her last months spent writing the stark, confessional poems that became Ariel and that posthumously made her name. The myths surrounding Plath were intensified by the strong grip her estate--managed by Hughes and his sister Olwyn--had over the release of her work. Sylvia Plath kept journals from the age of 11 until her death at 30. Previously only available in an abridged American edition, with heavy black scorings out of passages that Ted Hughes did not at the time want read, The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950-1962 is the first unabridged publication of Plath's diaries, scrupulously transcribed (with every spelling mistake and grammatical error left intact) and annotated by Karen V. Kukil, curator at Plath's US alma mater, Smith College.
The Journals show the breathless adolescent obsessed with her burgeoning sexuality, the serious university student competing to get the highest grades while engaging in the human merry-go-round of 1950s dating, the graduate year spent at Cambridge University where Plath's auspicious first meeting with Ted Hughes took place; their marriage a few months later ("He is a genius. I his wife"). Plath's documentation of the two years (1957-1959) the couple spent in the US teaching and writing highlights explicitly the dilemma of the late 1950s' woman--still swaddled in expectations of domesticity, yet attempting to forge her own independent professional and personal life. This period also reveals in detail the therapy sessions in which Plath lets loose her antipathy for her mother and her grief at her father's death when she was eight--a contrast to the bright, all-American persona she presented to her mother in the correspondence that was published as Letters Home. There are some notable omissions in terms of chronology. Plath's breakdown during the summer of 1953, attempted suicide and hospitalisation are not covered in any great detail in her journals, but she recorded the events minutely in her one novel, The Bell Jar. Fragments of diaries exist after 1959, which saw the couple's return to England and rural retreat in Devon, the birth of their two children, and their separation in late 1962. An extended piece on the illness and death of an elderly neighbour during this period is particularly affecting and was later turned into the poem "Berck-Plage". Much has been made of the "lost diaries" that Plath kept until her suicide--one simply appears to have vanished, the other was burnt by Hughes after her death. It would seem rapacious to wish for more details of Plath's despair in her final days, however. This was crystallised in the poems that became Ariel, and this is what the voice of her journals ultimately send the reader back to: Plath's life has for too long been obfuscated by anecdote, distorting her major contribution to late 20th-century literature. As she wrote in "Kindness": "The blood jet is poetry. There is no stopping it". --Catherine Taylor