A Painful, Urgent Reimagining: Emily van Duyne on Writing a New History of Sylvia Plath’s Last Years

I met Emily Van Duyne, as used to be so common, on Twitter. It was the start of the pandemic and I had just published this story in the New York Times, and she reached out to say that she’d had a distinct but similar experience—and as it turns out she really had.

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I was drawn to Emily from the start by how smart and fierce and funny she is, characteristics that also mark her writing, both her Substack and her first book, Loving Sylvia Plath. It is a deeply researched and deftly argued book, but also one that holds close a quote from Charlotte Bronte that Emily slips in near the end: “It is better to be without logic than without feelings.”

Lucky for us, Emily has both in spades. For this interview, we wrote back and forth via email in late June, while I was in Spain and she in the US.

Sarah Viren


SV: I’ve been curious as I read Loving Sylvia Plath, how this book will be received—not whether it will be well-reviewed, necessarily, but how it will be reviewed; what language or terms will be used when talking about this book and about you as a writer and researcher (and self-proclaimed “Sylvia Plath superfan”). I saw a recent description of your project, for instance, as “revisionist,” and that immediately struck me as the wrong word, even though you are seeking, in a way, to correct the record.

How would you describe your project in writing this book? How do you hope (or fear) it will be described by others?

EVD: The driving force of the project was love, of course, but I thought and felt very hard about what that meant as I researched and wrote early drafts of the book. I was very aware of the ways Plath fans and women scholars of her work have been written off as martyring her, or sainting her. I don’t agree that this has ever been true, but I wanted to be explicit, in the writing, that this is not an act of martyrdom.

Obviously, I was writing with empathy for what Plath experienced, in terms of the violence of her marriage, because I had lived through a violent relationship. But I also approached the book from my belief that writers on Plath had too-frequently ignored her anti-Black racism and anti-Semitism.

I went back to James Baldwin, who wrote that he loved America more than any other country, which is why he makes the demands and critiques of it that he does—he wants a better world. And so, I thought of my interrogation of Plath’s life and work and reception as a love informed by a rigorous demand.

Plath was Baldwin’s contemporary, and Audre Lorde’s, but she is rarely discussed in terms of these writers, and I thought that spoke volumes for the limited way we have received her.

Plath was Baldwin’s contemporary, and Audre Lorde’s, but she is rarely discussed in terms of these writers, and I thought that spoke volumes for the limited way we have received her—she isn’t seen, in so many circles, as a contemporary American writer from the 1950s and 60s. She’s just this madwoman, or she’s an apprentice of Auden and Yeats and Ted Hughes for twenty-nine years and then, wham!

She waves her magic angry wand and writes Ariel and then is like, peace out, bros, I’m gonna die now. So my writing about her also considered her as a woman of her time, an American woman trying to do this very hard thing far from her home.

As for the word revisionist—I don’t like it very much, and I’m glad you don’t, either. It’s not accurate. Part of my point throughout this book is that the evidence for Plath’s treatment by Hughes has been here all along; no one bothered to put the pieces together before, or if they did (and this is certainly true), no one would publish it. I am very lucky and grateful that Norton took a chance on this book, because I think it’s a narrative that deserves to be public.

SV: Part of what’s so startling about your book is how you show us what’s been hidden in plain sight, both in the poetry of Plath and Hughes and in the archives. But another breathtaking move in Loving Sylvia Plath is the close reading you offer of the stories told about Plath and Hughes—especially the ways in which they have both been mythologized. Tell me about this approach to close reading other people’s writing on and about Plath. How did you go about that? When did that focus become clear to you?

EVD: I had a moment in August of 2022, as I was trying very hard to finish the first draft of the book, when I was rereading many of Hughes’s Birthday Letters poems, and the other, shorter volume of poems that he published about Plath, Howls & Whispers. Howls & Whispers was published around the same time as Birthday Letters, but in a hugely expensive, limited edition. Eventually, though, all of those poems were collected in his Collected Poems, which published in 2003.

At that point, people began to read them, and one critic in particular, Diane Wood Middlebrook, made big use of them in her book Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage. This was a book I loved very much, in spite of the fact that it’s an apologia for Hughes.

Middlebrook’s argument is that Hughes “remained married” to Plath until his death in 1998 (Plath died in 1963; Hughes remarried in 1970, to Carol Orchard, who is still living, so bummer for her, I guess, that her husband of twenty-eight years was also married to his ghost wife). Middlebrook also wrote that Hughes, in his poetry about Plath, “turned the marriage into a resonant myth.”

This line of argument was picked up by Jonathan Bate in his 2015 biography Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life. Bate went as far as to claim that Hughes’s rampant infidelity to his wife, Carol, was an act of fidelity to Sylvia Plath. Now—to be clear.

I love Bate’s biography and his work in general. I think he is a brilliant, reasonable, empathetic scholar and I could not have written Loving Sylvia Plath without his biography of Hughes; it’s an essential reference. But this claim about Hughes cheating on Carol as an act of faithfulness to Sylvia Plath is a bridge too far.

So, in August 2022, it seemed to me that Middlebrook and Bate’s books had worked in tandem with Birthday Letters to set up an idea of a Hughes who dedicated his life to glorifying Sylvia Plath in a mythologized poetry, and that in this way, he honored her with his undying love. Both focused on one poem in particular, “The Offers,” which is in Howls & Whispers.

In the poem, Hughes is visited three times by Plath’s ghost. The last time she visits him, she says, “This is it. The last time. This time, don’t fail me.” According to Middlebrook, this is significant because Hughes’s last printed words on record are spoken by Sylvia Plath. And Sarah, I just thought, well, okay, that’s insane. Because as usual, it isn’t Plath speaking—it’s Hughes putting words in Plath’s mouth.

And then I thought….Well, if they can write about ghosts, why can’t I? Because to me, Plath’s ghost would be furious, as in, literally—she would be like the Furies, before they are transformed into the Eumenides. She would be shrieking and coming for your blood (if you were Ted Hughes, that is).

As far as the ways critics have used Hughes’s work and perspective as a stand-in for how Plath died—this makes me very angry. In Birthday Letters, Hughes continuously writes that Plath was fated to die and led to her death by the ghost of her father, Otto Plath, who died of a pulmonary embolism, related to complications from diabetes, when Plath was eight years old.

Plath’s most famous poem is probably “Daddy,” which references her father and his death, but which is absolutely not a biographical poem, and is in many ways a poem about throwing off the influence of powerful men—her father, sure, but also her teachers and certainly her husband, who was a stand-in for both her father and her teachers, throughout their marriage, according to Plath. She wanted to be done with that—she wrote a fall 1962 letter to her psychiatrist calling that attitude “gravely regressed”—and that poem was part of how she was trying to free herself, emotionally, intellectually, and creatively.

All of which is to say—to then decide that Plath’s suicide happened because for twenty-two years her dead dad was calling her to heaven and in February 1963, she finally heeded the call, with the poem “Daddy” functionally the only evidence you have for that—is absurd.

And it would just be absurd, if Hughes weren’t so famous and if Birthday Letters hadn’t won like every major British literary prize and sold a quarter of a million copies. People really believe this stuff. They really think she finally just went home to be with her father, instead of being backed increasingly into a corner emotionally, financially, professionally, psychologically.

SV: Another aspect of Loving Sylvia Plath that I found compelling was the way your personal experience with intimate partner violence becomes a tool you use to read Plath’s poetry and understand her life with and without Ted Hughes. This is not to say that, because you escaped a violent relationship yourself, you are automatically more qualified to research or write about Plath’s life, but that, by coupling your lived experience with research on intimate partner violence and misogyny, you understand aspects of her poetry and life that previous biographers may have overlooked (or not seen at all).

How did you decide when and in what ways to weave your personal story into this reclamation of Plath?

EVD: The book was conceived of as a combination of my own history as a survivor of intimate partner violence and Plath’s life/work as the same, but editors were dismissive of the memoir aspect, so in the end, my story is a small part of the book.

For many reasons, I think this works better. It’s a slimmer book, it doesn’t overwhelm the reader, and really, there is only so much sadness/violence a reader can take—and this book has a great deal of it. But I also believe that we tend to disregard the idea that survivors of rape or IPV have a window into understanding the ways historical figures have also survived these things.

In any case, it was my ability to see my own experience clearly, more than anything, that helped me to see what Plath was writing about, and experiencing, in terms of intimate partner violence. It was helpful, too, for me to find other feminist thinkers writing specifically about why we should lean into the concept that survivors understand the lives of survivors better than anyone else, and why and how our historical disregard of this concept has kept us from a real understanding of what it means to live through intimate partner violence.

Miranda Fricker, for instance, writes that if we could have a real valuation of women’s lives under IPV, it would have radicalizing effects on how the legal system handles women who, for instance, kill their abusers in self-defense. But since we don’t, when we look at what we do know about these women’s lives, the pieces don’t make sense to us, because we haven’t spent enough time really seeing and hearing them. And when survivors come forward and say, I recognize this, we are often told, Well, we can’t trust you, because you’re too close to it. 

SV: One of the surprises of this book was the way it is not only about Sylvia Plath but about the lives of other women whose stories are tied to her story. I’m thinking specifically of Assia Wevill, a talented translator who had a relationship and a child with Ted Hughes and who killed herself and that child six years after Plath died. I was also captivated by the stories of the various biographers or would-be biographers of Plath, especially Harriet Rosenstein, who, in your telling, was the most poised to write an authoritative biography of Plath, but for unknown reasons, never did.

Tell me about your decision to bring these women into this book, creating, in my mind, a much richer but also more feminist narrative.

EVD: Well, I simply love this question, because I have come to love those women, most of all Assia and Harriet. It was Rosenstein’s research that prompted the book’s writing—in 2017, she attempted to sell fourteen letters by Plath, letters she had either borrowed or stolen from their recipient, a psychiatrist named Ruth Beuscher, who had treated Plath on and off since 1953.

The sale fell through and there was a lawsuit and a scandal, because snippets of the letters, which referred to incidents of violence between Hughes and Plath, were posted on an antique bookseller’s website. The literary internet was “shocked” by this, and I was like, Hoo boy, this is not shocking. That really inspired the book, but then I became obsessed with Harriet Rosenstein. I wanted to know who these other women were, in the 1960s and 70s, trying to learn Plath’s story and tell it, and, in the case of Rosenstein, learn why they never got their research out into the world.

So, as I write in the book, I tried very hard to convince Rosenstein to talk with me. I got close! I think I got closer than anyone has—she said she wanted to talk to me, and asked to read my book proposal and learn about my “approach” to Plath, before she agreed to do so. I sent her everything she requested, but she said no, in the end. Well—she said she was “advised to refuse my request,” indicating a third party was involved. Who?! I guess I’ll never know. Alas.

For a while, I thought I’d have to leave her out of the books since I didn’t technically know why she hadn’t finished her work. But I realized that the mystery is the story, and the lack of resolution is part of why we keep going back to Plath and Hughes.

We get no real resolution of our own heartbreak; we want some for theirs, right? But it’s never there. It’s shadowed in anguish and literal fires, as in, both Hughes and Plath admitted to setting one another’s work on fire, which is an image I can’t escape. Plath fans get castigated as rip-offs, as trying pathetically to be just like Plath, of thinking we’re all like her, the next Sylvia.

But I’m not like Plath! I’m like Harriet Rosenstein. I’m chasing after Plath’s story. And I’m like Assia Wevill, too, kind of floundering in Plath’s wake, trying to find my way into a story that seems to power itself, by its own rage and terror, and trying to fight back against Hughes, and the long shadow he casts.

My feeling, too, going into this was that no one with as much money and power and influence as Hughes ever just harms one woman. If there was Sylvia, then other people suffered, as well. And it wasn’t just a matter of telling people’s sad stories, or whatever. For me, it was about pointing to a pattern of abuse, i.e. Assia.

I really wanted to shift that ridiculous narrative and, in doing so, tell the stories of these other women surrounding Plath, during her life and after, because they are fascinating. They deserve to be part of her story, as much or more than Ted Hughes.

Without Assia, Sylvia’s story looks anomalous; without Sylvia’s whole story, Assia looks anomalous. But read them side-by-side, and well, things seem much clearer.

And while I don’t know that Hughes was violent or threatening toward Rosenstein (although I do know that they met), what interested me in the way she fit into it all was this: when so many of Plath’s biographers failed to produce a book, Hughes blamed Plath’s ghost. He wrote that all of the women met disaster because the project had a black cloud hanging over it, and that it drove those women mad.

He meant, of course, that Plath’s madness was catching. This is another clever way to excuse his own behavior, right? Oh, it’s not my constant evasions and powerful interventions that are driving you mad—it’s my dead wife. Incidentally, this is also what he told Assia, just days before her suicide. When she asked him why he couldn’t commit to a life with her and their child, Shura, he blamed Sylvia’s ghost, claiming she came between them.

I really wanted to shift that ridiculous narrative and, in doing so, tell the stories of these other women surrounding Plath, during her life and after, because they are fascinating. They deserve to be part of her story, as much or more than Ted Hughes.

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