I don’t know if Ted Hughes thanked his wife, Sylvia Plath, for typing in any of his acknowledgements, but he should have. She typed, and typed, and typed. She typed submissions for the poetry competitions that gave him early success. She typed the sets of poems he submitted to Fabers, which garnered the attention of T. S. Eliot, poet and publisher.
But Plath herself was not published by Fabers until after her death in 1963, when Hughes, who had left her, negotiated a
contract with Faber & Faber because he had inherited her copyright.
I am not commenting now on Hughes’s control over her work after her death; he was responsible for their children, and she could have made a will making someone elsewhere her literary executor. Hughes no doubt contributed to the despair that led to her suicide, but he wasn’t responsible for it.
I had been rereading details about Valerie Eliot in Toby Faber’s charming hagiography for the firm, Faber & Faber: The Untold Story. It was only when I happened to read a note of condolence to Hughes, followed by a request to see Sylvia’s last poems, that I realized Fabers had not been her publisher.
That’s when I realized how odd it is that she is one of the two women on the cover of the book, portrayed around the firm’s famous editorial table with Eliot, Spender, Heaney, and various others? P. D. James is the only other woman shown.
The Plath included in the drawing is a ghost. She’s even wearing the headband she wore in her 1956 wedding photos.
The endpapers include her signature at top right, the most prominent position of all, with T. S. Eliot immediately below hers.
Marianne Moore’s signature is there, and she was a Fabers author in life, so why not include her on the cover? Simple, I suppose: she doesn’t sell like Plath.
I’d love to know if other writers are as offended by this as I am? It’s a false picture, an appropriation based, I assume, on her commercial value to the firm and not on any appreciation or collegiality she experienced, or money she made. I have no doubt she would have been thrilled to be published by Fabers, or praised by T. S. Eliot. But she wasn’t, not when she was alive.
PS: I found a rather wonderful article about Plath by A. Alvarez when working on the post. His comment about how he really ought to have been portrayed by Danny DeVito is adorable. It sounds as though he genuinely tried to be a friend to her in her last tormented months. I have not seen the movie, and should probably watch it now and compare it to Tom and Viv, a rather similar story in terms of the copyright and literary legacy of the estranged wife going to the husband. And here’s an extraordinarily detailed blog about Plath.