Crossing Paths with the Spirit of Sylvia Plath


My grandmother’s road housed several retired military officers, including famous Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, who had trained spies for British Special Operations during the war. He was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and had a portrait of himself hanging over his sitting room fireplace. He also had a small barky terrier, as did the retired major next door to my grandmother. Neither dog helped assuage our collective nostalgia for our family pets. “Yappy little things,” my grandmother said of the terriers. “I always want to step on them.”

I had decided to write a novel while at my grandmother’s house, because I felt I should write hard every day, to see if I had the discipline for it. Poetry, my usual form, couldn’t be harnessed in the way prose could. My poems were often written quickly, in a rush of words and feeling, and it would be impossible to work all day at them the way I anticipated working on a novel. But my book progressed slowly. Writing all day was hard, although not as hard as the loneliness that attended it. (A fact that I have found to be true all through my subsequent writing life.)

I worked at one end of a massive walnut table in the dining room, with my back to the garden windows for the light. At the other end of the room was the coal fire and a huge portrait in oils of my father as a child. Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw him there, aged about six and wearing a sort of pink jumpsuit, painted in the act of climbing down from the bench where he’d been made to sit by the artist. It was strange to see him as a child, and I admired his disobedience in the painting. (He had been, my grandmother said, “a difficult child.”)

When I think now of living in my grandmother’s house and working on my novel, I find it hard to remember the writing part, even though I was actively writing for the majority of my hours there. But writing is largely an internal process. It relies on the thoughts and feelings of the moment, and I no longer have access to those thoughts and feelings, having moved so far past them and not being someone who has ever kept a journal. But I do remember the feeling of writing itself from those days, which was largely a feeling of loneliness, shot through sometimes with a jolt of excitement when the words and phrases came out in a surprising and pleasing order.

I would write at my makeshift desk from nine in the morning until one, when I would break for lunch. In the afternoons, I would walk in the countryside or do errands for my grandmother in the village, and then return to writing in the hours before supper. In the evenings, I read by the coal fire. There were no books in my grandmother’s house, but there was a small library in the village hall, where I went every week to borrow some.

At the ages of 20 and 21, I only had the company of one elderly and fairly misanthropic person. I saw my cousins sometimes, but mostly I was without the company of anyone my age, and I was still too shy to seek out strangers. But perhaps that was what was required for me to be a writer. Perhaps other writers can work with family around, with people coming and going, with constant interruption.

But I have never been that kind of writer. In order to open myself to the thoughts and feelings that are necessary to the work, I have had to turn away from people. Over the years, I have grown used to this and don’t mind it as I used to, but in my formative years as a writer, it was very hard to reconcile myself to it. I was excruciatingly lonely during those years in England, craving the company of people my age, and I can still feel the sting of it when I think back.

She described her writer’s studio in detail, and I was thrilled to discover that nothing had changed in that room from her time to mine.

Because I hadn’t gone to university, I depended on reading for my education, and I read widely and voraciously. Before I went to Britain, I had devoured Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel. I especially loved the poetry, with its sharpness and candor, and so, when Plath’s Collected Poems were first published, I skipped writing for the day and made the one-hour train journey to London to buy a copy.

I read the poems slowly and often out loud, saying the words over and over again, like a spell, to ward off the four p.m. darkness, the winter, the acute loneliness. I came to know the poems intimately. The words drilled their way into my brain, and even now, I can quote large sections of them from memory.

I finished Plath’s book and my own. My grandmother turned 80 and did not kill herself. I returned to Canada, proud of myself for having finished my novel and resolute in my decision to be a writer. It didn’t matter that the novel was bad and I knew it. The quality of the work had never been the point of my time in England. I had proven to myself that I had what it took to write every day, and I was determined to keep that newly made space open. I worked one lousy job after another, but I wrote hard and published—first poetry, then eventually novels. In my thirties, I applied and was accepted into the arts colony Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York.

When I arrived, I couldn’t believe my luck in being given the studio that Sylvia Plath had used when she had been there 40 years before; a third-floor room in West House with skylights, set amidst the tops of the pine trees. (Yaddo had ten thousand hundred-year-old pine trees and was always very dark. There were sometimes bats out during the daylight hours.)

At Yaddo, there was a library with books from all the people who had been residents there, so it was easy to access Sylvia Plath’s published journal and read the entries for her 1959 stay. She described her writer’s studio in detail, and I was thrilled to discover that nothing had changed in that room from her time to mine. The furniture was not only the same furniture but was positioned where it had always been—wooden table by the window, single iron bedstead against the sloping attic wall.

I don’t remember what I wrote while I was in that studio, but I do remember the feel of the room, how it was cheerful, and how I liked being there, climbing the narrow stairs to it every morning with my provided lunch box in hand.

While at Yaddo, I kept a detailed food diary, noting that residents were divided about the merits of the meatloaf sandwich, and putting an asterisk beside the best dinner—homemade salmon cakes, served with wild rice and asparagus.

Years have passed. I have kept on with my writing life, following roughly the same habits I put in place for myself when I was 20 and living in England, only now I have the company of a dog during my working day.

There is a lot of slippage between our two worlds.

Last Christmas, a friend gave me the newly published second volume of Sylvia Plath’s letters. It is over a thousand pages long and I swear that the bookmark never moves, that the unread portion of the book grows larger every day. Multiple times I have felt like giving up—not because I have lost interest in reading the letters, but because the minutiae of Sylvia Plath’s life has begun taking up too much space in my own head. I have gone to sleep thinking about her and woken up thinking about her. It has felt like a kind of madness, the way falling in love feels.

When I was 20, Sylvia Plath dying at 30 didn’t seem young to me. In fact, it seemed quite old. Now that I am almost 60, 30 seems impossibly young, and reading of Plath’s increasingly desperate struggle to manage her life in those last terrible months is heartbreaking because I know how it ends. We all know how it ends.

The quantity of domestic detail makes reading the letters a weird experience. Sylvia Plath is essentially a stranger, and yet after a month of reading her letters, I now know more about her daily life than I know about anyone else’s daily life. I find myself caring that she gets her washing machine to help with the endless labour of Court Green, her Devon house. I am outraged on her behalf that the house is so cold she gets chilblains, and touched by her baking a carrot cake for the midwives who attend the birth of her children. In fact, the letters feel so intimate, so close, that it almost seems as though I could slip into her life from the future and give her the help she repeatedly asked for during the unbearably cold and bleak winter of 1963.

Plath was the age of my mother. I was the age of her children. Much of what was in her life is recognizable from mine. There is a lot of slippage between our two worlds.

One evening when I was at Yaddo, there was a performance by a composer in the drawing room of West House. It was a regular thing for residents to play their music or read their poetry to the other assembled artists. Plath and Ted Hughes both gave readings when they were there in the fall of 1959.

This particular evening, the sun was going down and the room in West House glowed with a golden light, enhanced by the gold curtains and gold velvet chairs. The composer began to play the piano, and as I listened, I thought of all the other musicians who had sat at that piano in this elegant drawing room, year after year after year, and how the furnishings were the constant thing and the people were like ghosts, appearing and then vanishing, each individual, but also successive and continuous.

Five years later, when I was at Yaddo again, I stayed in East House, which was where the administrator for the colony in Plath’s time, Elizabeth Ames, had lived and died. (She is buried on the property.) Those of us who lived in her house during the April I was there used her dishes and played her records in the evening, sat on her couch and walked over her Persian rugs. We were her guests and yet not her guests.

Although we are in our own particular bodies, having our own experiences, we are also constantly sliding in and out of time, some of it not belonging to us at all. This is how I briefly slipped into Sylvia Plath’s world, and how I inhabited parts of my father’s childhood in England during my time in my grandmother’s house.

My grandmother is long dead. Her house, which she lived in for over 60 years, was sold after her death and renovated by the new owners. I found the listing online a few months ago, when it was being sold again, and I looked through the 26 photos of the house and garden.

The rooms downstairs have all been reconfigured into one open-plan layout. Gone is the poky kitchen and the dining room where I had once written an excruciatingly bad novel. Unsurprisingly, the coal fireplace has been removed entirely. All the dark oak floors have been replaced with light-colored hardwood. The casement windows have given way to French doors that open onto a blank, green lawn. My grandmother’s circular rose garden, once the focal point of the backyard, has been completely grassed over. The orchard is gone, and the conservatory from what I still think of as her side of the house. In fact, the whole house, except for the iron-studded oak front door, is unrecognizable.

But this is what I wonder: if sometimes the people who lived there after my grandmother, and the people who will live there after them, walking through the new, massive kitchen and dining area, found themselves thinking of a word or a phrase, saying it out loud perhaps. A word like heart or star or breath, one of the words that I shook out from that blue book of charms, from Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems, all those years ago, and which might still float around that space, even though the space has become so changed. And I wonder if there is ever a mysterious scent of apples in the autumn on the bare strip of grass where the orchard used to stand, or if sometimes the new occupants wake to the barking of a dog, and when they rise and go to the window, there is nothing out there.



Excerpted from AND A DOG CALLED FIG: Solitude, Connection, the Writing Life by Helen Humphreys. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Helen Humphreys. All rights reserved.

This article often contains affiliate links. All products are ones I like. If you choose to buy one of these items through the URL , I will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published