Love at first bite

The Journals of Sylvia Plath1950-1962, ed Karen V Kukil (Faber £30)
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The Independent Culture

American boys disappointed Sylvia Plath. The kisses of a few filled her with "electric" longing, but the rest, milkily docile or drawlingly complacent, didn't match her expectations. All too literally, they fell short. Not in the whole of "our tender, steak-juicy, butter-creamy million-dollar stupendous land" could she find one tall enough. What she craved was a boy who could "masterfully pick up his girl and carry her" - for whom she didn't have to wear flat heels (her brother Warren, she proudly noted, was six foot four). "I need a strong mate," she decided, one with "lean, ironsinewed arms" who "can counter my vibrant dynamic self: sexual and intellectual".

She planned to meet her Mr Big in England. Not surprisingly, given the stuntedness of the typical British male circa 1955, she was soon disenchanted. Then in February 1956, at a party in Cambridge, she found him, "a poet and a proper man". In the words of her journal: "the worst happened, that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me, ... came over and was looking hard in my eyes and it was Ted Hughes ... We shouted as if in a high wind ... and I was stamping and he was stamping on the floor, and then he kissed me bang smash on the mouth and ripped my hairband off, my lovely red hairband ... hah, I shall keep, he barked. And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we came out of the room blood was running down his face ... Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists ... "

The journal connects the "blasting" power of Hughes with the "blasting" ECT treatment Plath had once received after a breakdown. He is a panther, a hawk, "my black marauder", "the sun, the sea", "a god from the slack tides, coming up with his spear shining". Afraid she has appeared too eager, is "only a body - a girl-poet, an interlude", she tells herself: "Consider yourself lucky to have been stabbed by him ... Let him go." But she has left her mark. Her journal speaks of a "sleepless holocaust night" with him in London, which

leaves her face "battered" and her "neck raw and wounded". Though the violence scares her, it is what she has long dreamed of, a "big, blasting dangerous love", "a life of conflict, of balancing children, sonnets, love and dirty dishes; and banging banging an affirmation of life out on pianos and ski slopes and in bed in bed in bed".

If there is something familiar about these words from Plath's private journals, that's because most of them have appeared before - and not only in recent serialisations. In the US, a version of her journals - with certain passages excised - was published as long ago as 1982. Numerous biographies have quoted generously from the journals. Then two years ago came Ted Hughes's marvellous Birthday Letters, with their own no less mythic account of events that appear in Plath's journals. Of that cataclysmic first encounter, for example, his poem "St Botolph's" recalls "the swelling ring-moat of tooth-marks / That was to brand my face for the next month".

So what does this new edition of the journals offer, other than Karen Kukil's exemplary editing? Most importantly, it gives us Plath unmediated, as no biography or memoir can. In Anne Stevenson's Bitter Fame, for example, Plath's entry for that first encounter is followed with a deflating parenthesis that bears the hallmarks of Ted's sister, Olwyn: "(Hughes himself has always said this account of their meeting was ridiculously exaggerated.)" In the Journals, there are no intrusions from interested parties and no face-saving abridgements. The only annotations are factual, and confined to brief footnotes. It is up to us to make our own judgment on Plath.

One judgement might be that Plath, for all her mood-swings and depression, appears more rounded - and grounded - than before. Critics have enshrined her as martyr to misogyny, or sanctified her suffering and madness. Even the Birthday Letters present a tragedienne doomily drawn to voodoo and ouija boards. But the Journals show a woman who likes to shop, who enjoys a good cry, who takes pleasure in the simple things around her, who worries that the sedentary writing life doesn't suit her and is giving Ted "fanatic ideas". The first journal entry speaks with hazy warmth of "a day spent setting strawberry runners in the sun, a glass of cool sweet milk, and a shallow dish of blueberries bathed in cream"; the last discusses property manoeuvres in Devon. Here is a worldlier, less enervated Plath than legend allows.

The fuller picture owes something to two journals which Ted Hughes had originally asked to remain sealed until 2013, but which, in a change of heart, he opened shortly before his death. These cover the period August 1957 to November 1959, when Plath was based first at Smith College in Massachusetts, then in Boston, and they include a record of private therapy sessions she had with a psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, touching on her relationship with her mother. Despite the gushing of "Sivvy's" letters home to Aurelia, it's long been known this was a difficult relationship. But nothing Plath said about her mother is quite as devastating as the notes she kept of an interview with Beuscher on 12 December 1958. "In a smarmy matriarchy of togetherness it is hard to get a sanction to hate one's mother," she writes, but given permission by Beuscher she goes to town with undying hostility, blaming Aurelia for the death of her father Otto, demonising her ("she's deadly as a cobra under that shiny greengold hood"), and satirising her ambitions for her daughter to "get a nice little, safe little, sweet little loving little imitation man who'll give you babies and bread and a secure roof and a green lawn and money money money every month". No doubt Plath was deeply unfair to her mother, and might have come to regret these fulminations. But it was a great breakthrough for her to be able to say: "I have done practically everything [my mother] said I couldn't do and be happy at the same time and here I am, almost happy." The exhilaration of her writing here, the rhythms and repetitions, suggest a direct line from these therapy sessions to poems such as "Daddy" and "The Applicant".

One of her fiercest complaints is that Aurelia made her grow up hating men. In truth, she seems more threatened by women, especially "shorter" prettier rivals "with better breasts, better feet, better hair". Far from hating men, Plath is anxious for their company: "Tonight I am ugly. I have lost all faith in my ability to attract males" runs one Bridget Jonesy entry. But for an 18-year-old college girl in 1950, she can also be unusually (and proto-feministly) caustic about men, writing that "most American males worship woman as a sex machine with rounded breasts and a convenient opening in the vagina, as a painted doll who shouldn't have a thought in her pretty head." She worries that marriage will not suit her, for that reason. "I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man's insides," she says, but then "One fine day I would float to the surface, quite drowned." Above all, she worries that a husband might stifle her desire to write. "Some pale, hueless flicker of sensitivity is in me. God, must I lose it in cooking scrambled eggs for a man?"

Once she is married and sewing on buttons for Hughes, her writing ambitions do not slacken. He is ahead of her as a poet, but at best she feels strengthened by him, not undermined. Time and again, she urges herself to work harder, dig deeper, try on different lives like dresses, be more herself. With her A-grade eagerness, she takes rejection badly - many a diary jotting is gloomstruck with "paralysis" by what the post has brought, whereas acceptances find her "smiling inside creamy as a cat". Her greatest problem is knowing what kind of writer to be. At various times, she decides she is really a poet, a novelist, a churner-out of short stories. "Arrogant, I think I have written lines which qualify me to be the Poetess of America (as Ted will be The Poet of England and her dominions)," she says - but then confesses her "absolute lack of judgement when I've written something: whether it's trash or genius". For all her marital contentment, she flies frantically in all directions. She wears herself out teaching at Smith. She applies for a TV writing grant. Her sessions with Beuscher tempt her to take a Psychology PhD. She also, with Ted, enters competitions - not just for poetry, but for ketchup slogans ("We stand to win five cars, two weeks in Paris, a year's free food and innumerable iceboxes"). More and more, she dreams of babies - a prospect that scares her at first but which she comes to feel will earth her and humanise her and nourish her with a "fattening calm".

Her pleasure in domesticity is part of what makes the Journals so readable. They may be intensely introspective, full of the agenbite of inwit, but they are just as intensely external, describing - with an attentiveness one can't imagine in any male diarist - food, furniture, hair, flowers, colours and clothes. "I make a damn good lemon meringue pie," she boasts, and is mortified when a landlady criticises the messiness of her apartment. The first tensions with Ted arise from her objections to his scratching, nose-picking and nail-paring, his "unwashed, unkempt hair & a dogmatic grumpiness". In unreconstructed, northern-male fashion, he responds by telling her not to nag. But she is not so intoxicated with him as to miss the point: "anything Ted doesn't like: this is nagging."

A more serious row follows when she catches him out walking with a doe-eyed girl student at Smith. The former idol is now instantly the God that Failed, "a liar and a vain smiler", foul, false, untrustworthy. The row is made up, and within a month he is again "magnificent, sweet-smelling, big, creative in a giant way". There were no in-betweens with Plath. The peremptoriness, the extremity, the refusal to smile and shrug give her writing its edge. But they must also have made her hard to live with. And after Ted, four years later, began his affair with Assia Wevill, she could no longer live with herself.

The events that led to her suicide are missing from these Journals, which - in the absence of two notebooks from late in her life, one that mysteriously "disappeared", the other destroyed by Hughes - conclude in Devon in the summer of 1962, eight months before. Between accounts of beekeeping, village gossip, and an extraordinarily powerful description of the birth of her son, the only snake in the grass is the 14-year-old Nicola Tyrer, who seems to Plath to be making a play for Ted and whom, with comic persistence, she repels. It would be funnier if one didn't guess that Plath was picking up a true current of feeling, even though it was running elsewhere.

All but the most prurient will feel a measure of relief at having been spared the journal of Plath's final days. There are omens enough: her close identification with Virginia Woolf, for instance, or a dream she had "of running after Ted through a huge hospital, knowing he was with another woman". "Dangerous to be so close to Ted day in day out," she writes at one point, "I have no life separate from his." Or: "It is as if I were sucked into a tempting but disastrous whirlpool." Or: "This English winter will be the death of me," seven years before it was.

Forty years after their marriage ended, the story of Plath and Hughes is far from complete. Elaine Feinstein's biography of Hughes will add a new chapter in due course. The poems tell the story as the poets wanted, with the composure of great art. But in their raw intimacy, these Journals are no less enthralling.