Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 in Boston, Massachusetts. She was the first child of Aurelia Schober Plath and Otto Emil Plath. Otto Plath was a lecturer in Biology and German at Boston University; he met his wife, 21 years younger than himself, when she attended one of his German courses.
When Plath was four years old the family moved to Winthrop, Massachusetts, close to the home of her maternal grandparents who would play a significant role in her upbringing. When she was seven, her father became ill with diabetes, which went undiagnosed for some time. Shortly after her eighth birthday he died, following a leg amputation made necessary by the illness. The widowed Aurelia Plath subsequently decided to move to Wellesley, Massachusetts where the family shared a home with Mrs. Plath's parents.
Following a successful high school career, Plath attended the prestigious Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she majored in English. In the summer following her junior (third) year she suffered a mental breakdown and was treated at the McLean private psychiatric hospital. She was well enough to return to Smith College to repeat the second half of her junior year in early 1954, and eventually graduated in the summer of 1955.
After graduation, she moved to Cambridge University in England on a Fullbright scholarship. During this period she met the poet Ted Hughes, whom she married in June 1956. After a period in the U.S.A., during which Plath returned to Smith College as a lecturer in English, the couple settled in England – first in London, and subsequently in Devon. They had two children: Frieda, who was born in 1960, and Nicholas, born in 1962.
In 1962, Ted Hughes began an affair with another woman which led to their separation. In November of that year, Plath and her two children settled in a rented flat in Primrose Hill, London. During what was a particularly cold and hard winter, Plath suffered a return of the depression and emotional disturbance that she had experienced in the summer of 1953. On 11 February 1963, she committed suicide by gassing herself.
Sylvia Plath is best remembered as a poet, but she was also a novelist, short story writer and an author of children's books.
She began writing poetry at the age of eight and continued to do so throughout her high school and college years, regularly sending her work to magazines such as Seventeen, Mademoiselle and Harpers. In 1960, whilst living in England, Plath published her first volume of poetry. Entitled The Colossus, it was only modestly successful. In fact Plath's real success as a poet only came posthumously with the publication of the poetry collections: Ariel (1965); Crossing the Water (1971); Winter Trees (1981) and Collected Poems (1981), which won a Pulitzer Prize.
The Bell Jar was Plath's only novel. It was first published in England in 1963, under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas. Because of the The Bell Jar's negative depiction of easily recognisable figures in Plath's life, attempts were made – primarily by Ted Hughes – to prevent its publication in America; it was eventually published there in 1971, and was immediately successful.
Plath began writing short stories during her 'teens, and some of her early work was published in the Christian Science Monitor, Seventeen and Mademoiselle. But as with most of her work, her short stories only gained wider recognition after her death. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams was published in 1977.
She also wrote stories for children including The Bed Book (1976) and The It-Doesn't-Matter-Suit (1996).
Since her death, Plath's life and work – and the connection between the two – have received an enormous amount of attention, and have been the source of much controversy and recrimination. A particular focus was Plath's tendency (notably in The Bell Jar) to create fictional characters whose real-life counterparts are recognisable. In 1975 a collection of Plath's letters, edited by her mother, was published under the title Letters Home. This volume has been viewed as an attempt to counter the negative portrayal of Plath, her family and her acquaintances in The Bell Jar. A defamation case was also brought against a film version of the novel in 1987 by Jane Anderson; one of the characters in The Bell Jar, Joan Gilling, appears to be based on Anderson.
There have been numerous biographies of Plath, as well as critical appraisals of her work. Some of these (e.g. Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson and The Haunting of Sylvia Plath by Jacqueline Rose) have stirred up conflict with the Plath Estate. A film of Plath's life, Slyvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig, was released in 2003.
Recently, there was a further tragic twist in Plath's story when her son, Nicholas Hughes, who was a University Lecturer in Alaska, committed suicide at the age of 47.
Interviews with Sylvia Plath (1962):
Sylvia Plath - some observations by those who knew her: