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Christopher T. George


“Sylvia”: A Personal Memoir and a Review



I first began to read Sylvia Plath in the late 1970’s. I found her poems riveting, immensely strong, vibrant, and commanding.  I read the volumes Ariel, Winter Trees, and Crossing the Water, largely comprising later poems that Plath wrote before she took her own life on February 11, 1963 in a cold upstairs flat in Belsize Park, London, at the scant age of 30.  The poet killed herself by putting her head in a gas oven, leaving two young children, Frieda and Nicholas, for her estranged husband, Ted Hughes, to raise.


     I had been seriously writing poetry since I had taken poetry classes at the College of Notre Dame, Baltimore, in 1971–1972.  Now reading Plath on a trip to Bermuda, her works had a galvanizing effect on my own writing.  Two of the poems I wrote under her influence immediately won first prizes in Maryland.  I say this not to brag but just to try to give an idea of the quantum leap that I believe her poetry gave to my writing.  One of the prizewinning poems, “Sylvia Plath,” was on Sylvia’s life, and the other, called “Blizzard” was on the death of my father. 


“The Golden Lotus”


I have since written a number of other poems about Plath and her husband, the late British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, and their story and their writings continue to fascinate and inspire me.  The most recent poem was “In Search of the Golden Lotus” which derives its title from a quotation on Plath’s tombstone in Heptonstall Graveyard, Yorkshire, in the north of England.  The wording reads, “Even amidst fierce flames - the golden lotus can be planted,” a quote from 16th century Chinese poet Wu Ch’Eng-En.  


     Supporters of Plath, who since her suicide has achieved myth-like status as a symbol for the feminist movement, probably bridle that the name on her tombstone is “Sylvia Plath Hughes (1932–1963)” or even that the New England-born poet is buried, so to speak, on Ted Hughes’s home turf, he having been a Yorkshireman, though the couple lived in the south of England and partly in the United States while they were together during the years 1956 to 1962.  To me, the inscription resonates with two themes.  First, the personal search of the two poets for success and excellence in literature.  Second, that you simply cannot separate Sylvia Plath from Ted Hughes, as much as anyone may wish, given his known infidelity and his supposed neglect that led to her suicide.


Her “Dark Marauder”


What to make of “Sylvia,” the new movie on the couple from BBC Films and the British Film Council?  It stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath and Daniel Craig as “Edward Hughes.” This was the name he first went under when he wrote a slashing review of one her poems in a Cambridge University literary magazine that first draws them together at a boozy literary gathering.  First to say is that Paltrow is much better than Craig in this memoir that is sympathetic most to its eponymous subject.  Craig is adequate in the part of her “dark marauder” as she calls him in the first flush of meeting.  However, Craig has neither the rugged good looks nor the physical height of Hughes.  The poet Philip Larkin remarked that Hughes reminded him of “a Christmas present from Easter Island.” After a while in “Sylvia” Hughes, as played by Craig, comes across as a cypher, the cheating husband and insensitive brute.  Whether this view is exact is for the viewer to decide. Of course, all movies on historical topics take liberties with the facts to a lesser or greater degree.   


     A recent movie that I thought somewhat akin to the present effort was “Tom and Viv” on T. S. Eliot and his first wife, another film involving the marriage of a Briton and American, though there the roles were reversed, with St. Louis-born Eliot hitching up with British socialite Vivien Haigh-Wood.  An additional similarity is that like “Sylvia,” “Tom and Viv” involved mental instability, where Mrs. Eliot becomes unbalanced, some would say because of Eliot’s inattention and cold manner to her. On a less controversial level, it also had the same conundrum of the impecunious writer-suiter presenting themselves to their counterpart’s parents, in that case Tom Eliot meeting the stuffy Haigh-Woods.   


     In “Sylvia,” the comparable scene is where the struggling Hughes meets Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, widow of college professor Otto Plath, in her comfortable Wellesley, Massachusetts, home.  Mrs. Plath is played sympathetically by veteran actress Blythe Danner, who happens to be Gwyneth Paltrow’s mother, a nice choice on the part of New Zealand-born director Christine Jeffs.  Mrs. Plath takes an askance view of the young poet and he looks ill at ease among the society matrons at the welcome party for the couple.  She callously indicates a spot below the bookcase.  There, she tells Hughes, with a warning to him to take care of her daughter, is where Sylvia had been found in the crawl space after a suicide attempt, when she took an overdose of pills and was not found for days.


     The couple are shown summering on Cape Cod, a time that should have been a time of creativity for both of them.  However, Sylvia is finding it hard to write and spends her time baking cakes while Hughes goes off fishing or walking.  When he comes back with another poem written, she shows him her cakes.  On going out in a rowboat, she tells him that she has not found a subject for her poetry.  He tells her that the subject of her works is herself.  Possibly making her realize that fact was one of the major contributions that Hughes made to Plath’s verse, as well as to show her the discipline needed to write and make it in the literary world.  At one point, Plath is shown putting poems in an envelope as soon as she has received one of many rejections, and that is one of the things I have learned as a writing practice from the way Plath and Hughes worked—to keep sending out poems to be published, despite the rejections. 


     Cape Cod does not turn out to be the boon for writing for either one of them, and they decide to return to England.  We see them next in the flat in London, with the birth of their first child, Frieda, April 1, 1960, to be followed by the birth of their son Nicholas on January 17, 1962, by which time the couple had moved to Devon.


Falling Leaves


Sylvia is portrayed as almost gloating when, during their early lovemaking, Hughes asks her about a scar on her cheek, and she tells him that it occurred when her cheek tore on the cement as she was dragged from the crawlspace. She also tells him that she has not been happy since the death of her father Otto when she was aged nine.  Despite her apparent early happiness when she and Hughes get together, we sense that the happiness will not last, and that she is basically an unstable young woman.


     The film begins with a close-up side view of Plath lying on her back and we hear her ethereal voice reciting from “Lady Lazarus”: “Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.”  We also see in these opening scenes a tree shedding its leaves, which fades into the damp streets of Cambridge and Sylvia cycling in her black, flying student’s gown. The quotation from “Lady Lazarus” appears to set up the inevitability of her self-destruction, and Sylvia herself, as excellently portrayed as she is in this movie by Gwyneth Paltrow, seems as insubstantial as one of those falling leaves.  In a sense, the film lacks dramatic power because the end is foretold—or does it seem that way to me rather than to the casual viewer who might not know the whole story because I know what the ending will be? 


     It might also be mentioned that one of the disappointments of the film is that apart from the quotation from “Lady Lazarus,” we are exposed to little of her poetry, and the film is noticeably devoid of Hughes’s works.  Possibly the Hughes estate would not allow his works to be used, and if so that’s a pity.  Ted Hughes’s success with his first collection, Hawk in the Rain is noted in conversation, and we quickly see that Plath is in the shadow of the then more famous poet.  Sylvia tries to impress her mother by telling her that W. H. Auden had judged the prize won by Hughes for this first book.  Later on, weighed down by babies and the domestic life, when asked if she is still writing, Sylvia tells the enquirer that she is not and that the real writer is Ted, and that is all that matters. 


Rabid Jealousy


To get away from London and better facilitate their writing, Sylvia and Ted decide to relocate to the countryside of Devon. Poet David Wevill (played by Andrew Havill) and his wife (Amira Casar), a young Jewish woman, move into the Hughes’s London flat. On first meeting the couple, Sylvia is flattered when Assia remarks that she has read Sylvia’s book, The Colossus, and that she is impressed with the power of her writing.  This strikes a rare false note in the movie since the remark seems to reflect more a view of Plath’s later work than the more mannered verse of The Colossus. Another wrong note may be where Plath makes the remark that she does not care about magazine writing, a comment shown not to be true by her posthumous short story collection, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which is clear evidence that she made serious efforts to become a commercially successful writer for magazines.


     Plath issues an impromptu invitation to the Wevills to visit them in Devon.  It turns out to be the visit from hell, as Sylvia serves dinner in a vicious mood, plunking the dinner on the table, suspicious that Ted is beginning an affair with Assia.  Of course, she is shown to be correct in her suspicions, although the viewer gets the impression that it is as much Sylvia’s rabid jealousy as Ted’s waywardness that drives him away. 


     There is happiness in Devon with the birth of Nicholas, and daffodils and beekeeping prove to be diversions. Her father Otto had been an expert on bees and the activity brought her closer to him, as reflected in several of her later poems. However, Plath by now is mired in the tasks of changing diapers and pegging washing on the clothes line.  Hughes is driven from the house by her moods and his admission that he could not give up his affair.  The couple would separate in the late summer of 1962 and Plath is shown gathering up the children from the Devon cottage and driving precipitously to London in her Morris Minor.   


     By October 1962, Plath was writing her Ariel poems, and in one of the best scenes in the movie, she is shown reading “Daddy” to the critic Al Alvarez, who would later champion her works.  Alvarez is played well by Jared Harris, who played John Lennon in the TV movie “The Two of Us” opposite Aidan Quinn’s Paul McCartney.


    The winter of 1962–1963 was a harsh one in Britain, with snowdrifts sealing off country roads and many farms cut off.  To give Sylvia credit, she probably was not prepared for the hard conditions of a cold English flat, trying to care for two small children alone, in a country much different to the world in which she grew up.  Having been born myself in England and having come at age seven to the United States in 1955 where I found myself very homesick I can testify to the then vast differences between the two countries in the late Fifties and early Sixties, with many more conveniences in the United States, a gap that has narrowed in the last fifty years.  Having been allowed to go back to England to live with my grandparents and attend school in Liverpool in early 1961, I recall that hard winter, with snow playing havoc with the English road system that had few snowploughs and with few houses having central heating, leading to burst pipes and further hardship.


     Plath receives some kindness from her downstairs neighbor, nicely played by veteran British actor Michael Gambon, who does good work in a cameo role.  When the electricity goes out, she comes downstairs to ask for help and is supplied with candles by the sympathetic neighbor.  In one light-hearted moment, she tells him, “You must think I’m a stupid American bitch,” to which the character played by Gambon replies, “Not at all, my dear.  I assumed you were Canadian.”


     At Christmas, Hughes comes round to see the children and bring presents.  The couple make love and Sylvia has hopes of a reconciliation.  She asks him if he loves her and he replies “Yes” but when he is asked if he will leave Assia and be coming back, he says no he will not as Assia is pregnant.  At this point, the viewer wants to scream at the screen and get the man to live up to his responsibilities to the two young children he has already fathered.  His refusal to return seemingly seals Sylvia’s fate and within just over six weeks she is dead from gassing herself in the gas oven, for which she prepares methodically, sealing off windows and doors with tape and leaving food for her small children.  She also lodges a letter with her downstairs neighbor to send to her mother in the United States, telling him she has to leave early in the morning and cannot post the letter herself.  Ironically, and not shown of course in the movie, Assia Wevill, who became obsessed with Plath after her death, would kill herself in an identical manner in 1969.  The emotional scars on Ted Hughes from the tragedies that he underwent are hard to gauge in this production, and when we see him gazing out of the window of the flat where his wife committed suicide, the scene lacks impact because of the one-dimensional quality of the Hughes character through most of the film.


     Is “Sylvia” worth seeing?  Most definitely.  Many of the scenes are sumptuous and shot on location in Cape Cod and England by cinematographer John Toon, though the end credits do say that some of the filming was done in New Zealand, home of director Jeffs, and I have to wonder which parts were shot in New Zealand, never visited by Plath and Hughes together to my knowledge, and which in the U.S. and England.  The music by Gabriel Yared is moody and in the English pastoral school. As noted, the character of Plath is plumbed more deeply than that of Hughes, who comes across as more of a stereotype of the rugged and silent man.  Hughes apparently was an intensely private man, and perhaps the filmmakers’ inability to fully penetrate his character might have led to this portrayal.  As a portrait of the last years of the life of Sylvia Plath, the film does a good job even if the part Hughes played could have been further fleshed out.  Gwyneth Paltrow gives an Oscar-worthy portrayal of the doomed poet.  Perhaps alarming to me even though I knew the story was to see the gradual decline of Plath and to realize that the strong voice present in her poems was not apparent in the rather confused and naïve woman portrayed on screen, for surely the strength of character evident in that voice would enable her to survive.  Unless, as seems also evident in this movie, she was doomed anyway, with her poems about self-destruction becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

(This memoir and movie review originally appeared in “Moon Notes,” No. 1, September 2003)



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