Upbeat and sunny Plath emerges from new book

Original version of 'Ariel' shows a different character. By Malcolm Fitzwilliams
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The Independent Culture

A new "uncensored" edition of Sylvia Plath's masterpiece, Ariel, will prove that she was not a doomed depressive but an upbeat, optimistic character whose suicide in 1963 came out of the blue, according to friends.

A new "uncensored" edition of Sylvia Plath's masterpiece, Ariel, will prove that she was not a doomed depressive but an upbeat, optimistic character whose suicide in 1963 came out of the blue, according to friends.

The collection of poems, due out in November, opens a new chapter in the long-running and often poisonous controversy over Plath's treatment at the hands of her husband, the late Poet Laureate Ted Hughes.

For the first time, readers will be able to see an edition of the poems complete and in their original order, instead of the heavily edited version, published by her husband after her death. Many blame that edition for giving the impression that her suicide was the inevitable result of mental illness. The new version will be fresh ammunition for her army of posthumous fans who say that her death was triggered by Hughes's philandering.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes have been referred to as the Charles and Diana of the literary world, a couple who achieved celebrity status in the 1960s. American-born Plath, who became a feminist icon, still inspires a near cult following while Hughes's reputation has taken a battering.

Elizabeth Sigmund, to whom Plath dedicated one of her best-known works, The Bell Jar, welcomed the new edition, saying it would show the poet in a completely different light. She remembers Plath a week before her suicide as an upbeat, positive-spirited woman and believes Hughes's edited version of Ariel, which ended with the poem "Edge", a grim contemplation of the body of a dead woman, was a distortion.

Even so, she does not believe the editing was an act of malice. "I think Ted did some terrible things, a lot of us have, but I don't think he deserved all the blame. She was beginning to come through it all.

"I think Ted was down with guilt. If you feel very guilty, really guilty, about somebody's death, you can do almost inexplicable things to try to put people off the scent."

American academic Marjorie Perloff accuses Hughes, in her book The Two Ariels: The (Re)making of the Sylvia Plath Canon, of changing the trajectory of Plath's work from one extreme to the other: "What was a narrative that emphasised spring, hope and rebirth became one that emphasised suicide, death and completion."

In 2001, Elaine Feinstein's biography Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet revealed that Hughes had been having an affair with Assia Wevill at the time of Plath's death, and was the father of her unborn child.

Ariel appeared two years later, helping to secure Plath's place in the pantheon of 20th-century literary greats and igniting debate about the cause of her death.

Feinstein rejected the idea that Hughes deliberately misrepresented Plath: "The alterations Hughes made did, oddly enough, suggest an inevitable move towards death, although that was not his intention, with the brilliant 'Edge' completing it."

Hughes defended himself against these accusations on several occasions before he died. In an interview published in 1971 he said: "I had already started rearranging the collection, cutting out some pieces that looked as if they might let in some facile attacker, cutting out one or two of the more openly vicious ones ... and a couple of others that I thought might conceivably seem repetitive in tone and form. Two or three I simply lost. I would have cut out others if I'd thought they would ever be decoded. I also kept out one or two that were aimed too nakedly ... I added about nine of the last poems because they seemed to me too important to leave out."

'Ariel' is published on 18 November by Faber at £14.99

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