The lost journals of Sylvia Plath

Lydia Wilkins

Earlier this year, the literary world was set alight when a lost story by Sylvia Plath was finally published. The story was new piece of Plath’s fiction; the last had been published in 1977, in Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams. This inevitably led to the next question; will we see the lost journals of Sylvia Plath? And if so, when?

Sylvia Plath and her journaling habits 

Sylvia Plath was a confessional poet; known for infamous works such as Daddy, Lady Lazarus, Fever 103, Edge and others. Her later work, published two years after she died, as Ariel was what secured her literary status. She was also a novelist—known most for the semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar—as well as writing for children.

For most of her life, Plath kept a journal; beginning at the age of either 11 or 12, this was a habit she kept until a few days prior to committing suicide. While the early entries document the minute detail of childhood—who ate what at camp, how much she had saved—the latter would concern her more creative nature. She would write immediately after an event, a day later, or post-event; maintained consistently, they were used for her literary endeavours—including poetry.

Plath scholars have also speculated if the journals had a cathartic purpose for Plath, when it came to dealing with her depression. She also had pocket diaries, used for appointments, that were kept in her handbag. 

 

The journals are lost 

After a brief courtship, Sylvia Plath would later marry Ted Hughes in 1956. While this relationship led to a lot of memorable literary work, the separation of the couple was bitterly contested on both sides.

At the time of her death, Plath was legally married to Hughes—meaning he became the executor or her estate, the gatekeeper to her literary legacy. At the time of her death, Hughes was known to be having an affair with Assia Wevill; Plath did not get on well with her, as well as her sister in law, Olwyn Hughes.

The two lost journals cover late in 1959, until Plath’s death in early 1963. The first dates to when the couple moved to London in 1960; the second, described as a “maroon-back ledger”, is known to contain entries to within three days of Plath’s suicide. Little is known about the content—that is to say, what Plath thought and felt, what she saw. However, it factually covers: the birth of the couples’ two children, Frieda and Nicholas; the house move to Devon; establishing themselves as poets; and more. 

Controversy surrounds the lost journals; Hughes wrote that one of them disappeared, and that he destroyed another. However, this should not be taken in full. 

A biography of Hughes by Professor Jonathan Bate details how items regularly disappeared from Court Green, a house Plath and Hughes both shared in Devon. Part of the book details how there was a burglary after Plath had died; is it possible that the journal, covering the move to London, was stolen at the same time? 

Ted Hughes would later write how he had destroyed one of the journals; he wished for his children not to read it. Little is known about the content—bar factually what happened, in terms of house moves, events, etc—but it is known the last journal came within days of Plath’s suicide. 

However: in a letter to Jacqueline Rose, an early Plath critic, Hughes wrote: "First you must believe me when I tell you—I have never told this to anyone—I hid the last journal, about two months of entries, to protect—possibly to my utter foolishness—somebody else.” (More detail is available from this report by The New York Times.) 

The question should be: if he hid the journals, where are they now? Who did Hughes wish to protect? 

 

The remaining journals are published 

Towards the end of his life, Ted Hughes began to put in motion the publication of his wife’s remaining journals. 

Published in 1982, the abridged version of her journals was forwarded by Hughes. Noting that the first journal—covering the move to London—had “disappeared”, he also wrote a letter to Jacqueline Rose, saying he “did not want her children to have read it”. 

The journals were edited, offering something of a sanitised portrait of Plath and her work. However, a fuller, exact transcript of the journals was finally made available at the turn of the century, due to the work of Karen V Kukil, archivist of Plath’s papers and all the special collections at Smith College. 

In 2017 and 2018, Plath’s letters were published in full; edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil, these offered a rounded portrait of a woman typically viewed through the trope of tragedy. However, speculation remains; will we see the lost journals of Sylvia Plath?