Sylvia Plath in 2020

This post looks at how two photographs taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in 1956 have been used this year to tell two very different stories about Sylvia Plath. 

In this week’s Times Literary Supplement (see image below) I wrote about four recently published books about Sylvia Plath, including Heather Clark’s magisterial biography Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (Jonathan Cape, 2020) and the re-issue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (Granta, 2020). The two books are very different in style and content but both feature, on their respective covers, images from a set of black and white photographs of Hughes and Plath taken by Lettice Ramsey in early December 1956 at Ramsey & Muspratt’s studio in Cambridge (their studio in Oxford was run by Helen Muspratt). The couple, who had married six months previously, disliked the resulting images, as I wrote in a linked blogpost earlier this year. After Ramsey sent a contact sheet of thirteen for them to pick their favourites, Plath couldn’t decide which she disliked least, so she forwarded the “grisly” proofs to her mother, describing them as “more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting.” She added that “Ted hates them all” and that Ramsey herself was “an expensive crook.” What do these two recently published books on Plath read into these unloved images from 1956?

The Silent Woman, first published in the UK in 1994, is an extended essay in which the American journalist Janet Malcolm investigates the conflicts over Plath’s life and work since her death in 1963. On the one side are the biographers, academics and journalists who wanted to explore Plath’s personal papers and unpublished work; and on the other, Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who for many years did their best to block their paths. In its 2020 reissue by Granta (pictured above) Luke Bird’s cover design for The Silent Woman (see above) features a Ramsey’s photograph of Plath and Hughes sitting side by side, each looking in the same direction but seemingly wrapped up in their own thoughts. The dramatic red tint suggests a strained atmosphere between the newly married couple, and anticipates their future rupture and its bitter aftermath. More about the background to this in my post here.

It’s hard to believe that the photograph above, as it appears on on the cover of Clark’s Red Comet, was taken during the same session. In Suzanne Dean’s design, Plath is depicted alone on the front cover, looking to one side and smiling in a relaxed and confident way. The book’s title is picked out in red; the background is a deep, velvety black. It is only when you turn the book over to look at the back that it becomes apparent that this is actually another double portrait by Ramsey, and that Ted Hughes is warmly returning Plath’s smile.

Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf’s biographer, wrote: “Women writers whose lives involved abuse, mental illness, self-harm, suicide, have often been treated, biographically, as victims or psychological case-histories first and as professional writers second.” In Red Comet Heather Clark refuses to treat Plath as a victim, and insists that her life and work deserve to be known better. The biography’s cover – using a portrait taken from Lettice Ramsey’s insightful series in December 1956 – suggests that Sylvia Plath’s story can be told in 2020 as a professional writer who succeeded in her own terms, yet also benefited from the poetic inspiration that Hughes provided.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 18 November 2020 (all rights reserved) 

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