The Last Days of Sylvia Plath
A new, vivid account of the final months of the esteemed writer’s life
In her last days, Sylvia Plath struggled to break out from the control of the towering figure of her husband Ted Hughes. In the antique mythology of his retinue, she had become the gorgon threatening to bring down the House of Hughes. Drawing on recently available court records, archives, and interviews, and reevaluating the memoirs of the formidable Hughes contingent who treated Plath as a female hysteric, Carl Rollyson rehabilitates the image of a woman too often viewed solely within the confines of what Hughes and his collaborators wanted to be written.
Rollyson is the first biographer to gain access to the papers of Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse at Smith College, a key figure in the poet’s final days. Barnhouse was a therapist who may have been the only person to whom Plath believed she could reveal her whole self. Barnhouse went beyond the protocols of her profession, serving more as Plath’s ally, seeking a way out of the imprisoning charisma of Ted Hughes and friends he counted on to support a regime of antipathy against her.
The Last Days of Sylvia Plath focuses on the train of events that plagued Plath’s last seven months when she tried to recover her own life in the midst of Hughes’s alternating threats and reassurances. In a siege-like atmosphere a tormented Plath continued to write, reach out to friends, and care for her two children. Why Barnhouse seemed, in Hughes’s malign view, his wife’s undoing, and how biographers, Hughes, and his cohort parsed the events that led to the poet’s death, form the charged and contentious story this book has to tell.
"Admirers of Plath will likely find this a noteworthy addition to the field of Plath scholarship. "- Michael Magras, Star Tribune
"Scholars have been trying for some time to piece together what drove this brilliant poet to end her life and leave behind two small children. In The Last Days of Sylvia Plath, Carl Rollyson does much to illuminate the mystery. "- Emina Melonic, The New Criterion
"Unearthed letters from the past, Plath’s marital crisis, intriguing poetic idiom—all of these invite the reader to puzzle out the troubled psychology of the poet, whose work remains so intrinsically linked with the cult around her life, work, and death. . . . A concerted effort to understand and sympathize with something that Plath, with her keenness on mirror images and self-reflections, liked to call creative doubling—reconciliations with inner dualities and paradoxes of life. "- Aleksandra Majak, University of Oxford, The Modernist Review
"Carl Rollyson documents decades spent by Ted Hughes and his sister, Olwyn, in frustrating any attempt by biographers to tell the full, accurate story of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, particularly the relationship between Hughes and Plath as husband and wife. It’s largely in that relationship that answers to why Plath killed herself have to be found. The Last Days of Sylvia Plath is biography and history but also a mystery story (all good history is a mystery story) we plunge into. "- Karl Wenclas, New Pop Lit
"Complicated artists both, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath wore away the distinct edges of their personalities in their abrasive and all-too-brief life together. What Rollyson manages to do here, even as he must strain against the conventions of accepted literary biography, is to provide his readers with a feast of information. What his methodology may acknowledge is the inevitable smudging of any litany of facts—details worn away through hyperbolic explanations, sentiments unresolved, facts blurred into nothingness. And while the readers of The Last Days of Sylvia Plath learn an immense amount, they cannot obscure what is another fact of telling these lives, that so many different and differing points of view can never entirely align. "- Linda Wagner-Martin, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Resources for American Literary Study , 2020, Vol. 42, No. 2
"Rollyson has written a unique, vital contribution to Plath studies. In many ways it’s a microbiography of Sylvia Plath, concentrating solely on the marriage and last years of Plath’s life. Rollyson offers original reading and interpretation of Plath’s works, her life, and some of the drama that surrounds her afterlife. The real value in this book lies in Rollyson’s use of archival materials, some of which are available to a large audience for the first time. "- Peter K. Steinberg, coeditor of The Letters of Sylvia Plath
"The Last Days of Sylvia Plath highlights how a writer can be shaped after their death and the subsequent fallout from posthumous literary editing. Rollyson’s inclusion of previously unused primary sources and extended discussion of Susan Fromberg Schaeffer’s Poison, a work not applied to Plath’s life and afterlife in any detail before, offers new angles and interpretations. "- Gail Crowther, coauthor of These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath