Sylvia Plath was born on 27 October 1932 in Jamaica Plain, Massachesetts. Her Father Otto Plath was a German who went to the United States to study, becoming a biology professor at Boston university, specialising in the study of bees. Her mother, Auerlia, was a high school German and English teacher and Sylvia had a younger brother named Warren. She had a very comfortable childhood 3with her family in Winthrop near Boston until her father dies from complications due to undiagnosed diabetes when she was eight years old - a loss that permanently scarred her.
Excelling in school, Plath sent her work to magazines for publication and edited her school newspaper. Her first publication was a short couplet that she wrote aged eight that was published in the Boston Sunday Herald. She persistently worked to get her poetry printed in major magazines and newspapers. After forty-five rejections, Seventeen magazine published one of Plath's stories and her work continued to appear in publications such as Seventeen, Mademoiselle and Harper's.
A member of the National Honors Society, she attended Smith College on a scholarship. During the summer of her third year in college, she was a guest editor for Mademoiselle magazine. Plath's experiences in New York at this time are evident in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. When she returned home, she learned that she had not been accepted on a fiction-writing course at Harvard summer school. Shortly afterwards, on 24 August 1953, Plath almost succeeded in taking her life, leaving a note saying that she had gone for a walk, crawling under the house and swallowing and enormous dose of sleeping pills. She was discovered three days later and rushed to hospital where she was treated with intense psychotherapy and electroshock therapy and managed to return to Smith for the second semester. She graduated summa cum laude in 1954.
In October1955, Plath went to Newnham College, Cambridge on a Fullbright Scholarship, where she met Ted Hughes at a party at St. Botolph's in February 1956. They married in June of the same year. After she concluded her studies in the spring of 1957, Plath was offered a post at Smith College and returned to America with Hughes. Prior to starting work, Aurelia Plath gave them a present of a holiday in Cape Cod where they could spend the summer writing.
Excited at the prospect of teaching, Plath found the reality of it exhausting and was left with little time to continue her writing. After one year of teaching she did not return, taking a less taxing position as a receptionist in the psychiatric clinic of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Secretly, she began to see her therapist Ruth Boucher from McLean, where she had been hospitalised after her previous suicide attempt. She also attended an evening poetry class under the tutelage of Robert Lowell - whose influence marked Plath's poetry.
In December 1959 the couple returned to England setting up home in Primrose Hill. Sylvia was pregnant and gave birth to Frieda Rebecca in 1 April 1960. During her pregnancy, Plath signed a contract with William Heinemann Ltd. To publish The Colossus, which was published in October 1960. The following February 1961 a miscarriage left Sylvia feeling depressed.
In August 1961 the Hughes family moved to Court Green in Devon. A son Nicholas was born on 17 January 1962. In July of the same year, Plath discovered her husband's affair with Assia Wevill and the couple separated in September. In the following month Sylvia wrote at least 26 of the Ariel poems.
In December 1962, Sylvia took the children with her to London and moved to 23 Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, where the poet William Butler Yeats once lived. She became increasingly depressed and desperate until on 11 February 1963 she committed suicide, dying by carbon monoxide poisoning from her gas oven.
Most of her major works were published posthumously. The Bell Jar was published in 1963 not long after her death and the poems she had written only weeks before her death were published in a collection called Ariel in 1965. She also received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her Collected Poems in 1982, almost twenty years after her death.
The movie Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, went into production in 2002 and was filmed over ten weeks on location in London, Cornwall and New Zealand. It is presently in national release around Australia.
For a review of the movie: sylvia.htm
- Christina Bruce