The gossipiest, most divisive and arguably most compelling literary legend of them all — “the plot of the suicidal poetess and her abandonment by the man with the witty mouth,” to quote Janet Malcolm — is turning 50. It was on February 11, 1963, that 30-year-old Sylvia Plath, having first sealed up her young children’s bedroom with tape and towels, went into the kitchen of her London flat and gassed herself. Thus began the American poet’s deification as a feminist martyr and an ongoing conflict of Biblical fervor. On one side stand those who place culpability for Plath’s suicide squarely on the head of her husband, the late English poet Ted Hughes. The other side, equally intransigent, blames her innately tortured psyche, which had led to at least one prior suicide attempt.
Hughes’ murderous crime, to those who view it as such, is clear-cut: Six years after the couple’s epochal first encounter at a Cambridge University party in 1956 — he’d kissed her “bang smash” on the mouth, she’d bitten his cheek and drawn blood — Plath’s “big, dark, hunky boy,” the demigod of her teenage fantasies, destroyed their marriage by taking up with another woman, the austerely beautiful Assia Wevill. The case against Hughes was strengthened when, after another six years had passed, Wevill killed herself and their 4-year-old daughter, bizarrely by the same method of gas and, apparently, at least partly driven by his philandering.