TW: Depression, suicide.
Everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath: the successful poet who tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty, her children in the next room. You’ve probably read her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, too. Letters Home, however, offers an entirely different perspective on her life. The collection of her letters spans her time at Smith College until just a week before her death. Since most of the letters are to her mother, and the collection is highly edited by her, the tone is generally more optimistic and the content more everyday than the author’s creative work. (My edition is from 1975 and was highly edited by Plath’s mother. Later collections of her letters, including the most recent volume, published in 2018, include a wider array of letters and cover a longer time period.)
The book cover proclaims that the collection “builds with the intensity of a novel.” This is true in some sense — it’s gripping and entertaining throughout. But that’s not what makes it special. Unlike with most novels, you already know how Letters Home will end. Yet far from spoiling the shock, it supplements the reading experience with a darker under-layer: however happy she may seem, you can’t help remembering that it won’t last. As Dan Chiasson writes in The New Yorker, “The experience of reading these letters, even at their most joyous, cannot be separated from what we know is coming.” In many of her letters, she describes contentment that few enjoy. So how did things get so bad? Or were they never perfect to start with? This kind of nuanced, skeptical reading of biographical texts is rare, and makes for a more interesting and insightful experience.
The letters also strike a great balance in their content, neither excessively navel-gazing nor focusing too much on the day-to-day. Perhaps that is the advantage of being written in the present rather than in retrospect (which Plath never had the privilege to do). Regardless, the book is satisfyingly readable — I’ve near read a non-fiction book with such ease.
In a sense, the book recreates Plath’s suicide in the abrupt end to the letters. There is no final, satisfying ‘goodbye’ letter at the end of the collection; there is only a brief note by her mother. As a result, you experience the effects of her death almost in real time, and mourn the loss of Sylvia from your own life: since you receive her constant commentary in the form of letters for the entirety of the book, it feels as though she has stopped writing to you. This creates the visceral sense of a life cut short. This is amplified by all of her plans which never came to fruition, making you mourn, too, all that could have been but never was.
Letters Home prompts you to realize that mental health issues affect many different people, and often remain hidden, expressing themselves in varied ways. In the midst of marital troubles, she slips back into a depression rivaled only by the period surrounding her suicide attempt while in college. But this wasn’t necessarily inevitable, or if it was, it didn’t have to end the way it did. As a reader, you wonder whether she might have avoided her premature end if she’d had greater access to mental health support, if she hadn’t had to worry so much about money, or if Ted hadn’t been so dismissive in their last phone call. You ruminate, as her mother likely did, whether she would have survived if she’d moved back home to Massachusetts. Of course, everyone is responsible for their own mental wellness, but external factors can make that impossible. Plath’s tragic end can be a reminder to check in on the people you care about.
I would highly recommend Letters Home to anyone even remotely interested in Sylvia Plath’s life, or in the life of a writer in general. The book is certainly dated in some of its language, particularly about people of colour, Jews, and women. With that in mind, and considering its sensitive themes, it is probably not appropriate for early teens or younger. Nonetheless, this book offers a fascinating insight into the life of an author so often overshadowed by her death.
My Ratings (out of 10 As):
Writing: AAAAAAAAAA (10)