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““All good letter writers”, Virginia Woolf wrote in 1940, a year before her suicide, “feel the drag of the face on the other side of the page.” She meant that the important thing about writing letters isn’t the art of writing but the act of corresponding. Sometimes she linked this to a letter’s disposability, as if the likelihood of its being burned or destroyed fostered a specially “intimate, irreticent, indiscreet” kind of writing.
By this standard, Sylvia Plath – who once said that “nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing” – is not one of literature’s great letter writers. Her main correspondent was always her mother, Aurelia, but there are only qualified kinds of intimacy in the letters they wrote. Their satisfaction, Sylvia noted in her journal, was in allowing mother and daughter to “verbalize our desired image of ourselves in relation to each other”.
When Aurelia published an edited selection of Sylvia’s correspondence as Letters Home in 1975, critics were dismayed by the bouncy brightness, the self-evident insincerity, of Plath’s epistolary voice. How could a poet who was in her work “never a nice person”, as Elizabeth Hardwick put it, have been so breathlessly interested in cooking and acquiring a hunky dreamhusband? Where was the anguish that led to her first suicide attempt, in 1953? Usually the fault – the falsity – was taken to be Aurelia’s. Either she was only able to elicit a self-consciously false self from her daughter or, more sinisterly, she had edited all the darker bits out. For Erica Jong the end of the volume, in particular, was “pruned so severely” that it was impossible to read without suspicion.”
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