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The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

The Last Days of Sylvia Plath

By Carl Rollyson
Hardcover : 9781496821225, 264 pages, 24 b&w illustrations, February 2020

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

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