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Hebden Bridge Local History Society

Sylvia Plath in Yorkshire

Speaker: Heather Clark

Monday, 1 November 2021

Heather Clark is the author of an acclaimed biography of American poet Sylvia Plath, and, speaking to Hebden Bridge Local History Society from her home in the USA, she shared some of the ways in which the landscape of West Yorkshire influenced Plath’s poetry.

Plath visited the area when the parents of her husband, Ted Hughes, were living at the Beacon, in Heptonstall. At first she responded to the moorland landscape as something foreign and romantic, wrapped in her feelings about the Brontës and her idealisation of the relationship of Heathcliffe and Cathy in Wuthering Heights.

She and Hughes first visited in September 1956, soon after their marriage. In letters to her mother Plath speaks of the moorland round Heptonstall as being ‘wild, lonely and perfect’ and one of the first poems she wrote about the area was November Graveyard, inspired by Heptonstall churchyard. But her response to the place was not entirely positive; to a friend she described how she felt constantly watched, the curtains twitching to see the American visitor in the narrow Heptonstall streets. Friends and neighbours who met Plath recall her as aloof, or perhaps rather shy.

On their visits to Heptonstall she and Hughes enjoyed long walks, and she described the moors as her favourite landscape, after the ocean. It was the walk to Top Withens, with its Brontë connections, which inspired her the most, forging a deep connection with the landscape. She identified herself and Hughes with Cathy and Heathcliff, the dark heroes of Wuthering Heights. Two Views of Withens written in 1957 reflects a mental unease. Both the relationship with Hughes, and the uncompromising moorland landscape  made Plath feel a sense of suffocation and loneliness. She felt alienated too by Hughes’ family, and jealous of his relationship with his mother, who she described as ‘the plump mistress of a tiny kitchen.’

The voice of her poems about the moors is disturbed by the landscape, and threatened by the darkness and hardness of the stone. Hughes was aware of her turmoil, recording in his poem Stubbing Wharf how she couldn’t share his vision of making a home in the valley, seeing ‘only blackness.’ In Plath’s poem Hardcastle Crags the speaker is repelled by a landscape both masculine and English – the hardness of the granite and the grit and the ‘humped indifferent iron of its hills’. The darkness contrasted with the light and brightness and focus on people found in Plath’s poems about the landscape in Massachusetts, in her poem Above the Ox-bow.

Much of this feeling is bound up with her relationship with Ted Hughes, and her sense that his genius is somehow suffocating to her. Heather quoted from an unpublished short story Afternoon in Hardcastle Crags in which a barely disguised Sylvia and Ted are given the names of Hughes’ real-life siblings, and with dark humour Plath depicts the husband being almost casually indifferent to her fate: she notes in a deadpan voice ‘My husband is a genius!’ Her relationship with Olwyn, Hughes’ sister, had broken down completely after an argument at the Beacon.

It is clear that Sylvia Plath’s mental state is expressed through the depiction of landscape. The wildness that initially charmed her, turned into something threatening and disorientating – feeling ‘ground down by stones’ reflecting the anxiety about her relationship with Hughes, and her ability to find a voice of her own against all the weight of an English literary tradition.

Heather was able to answer questions via Zoom, and explained something about her sources both written and oral; the six weeks she spent in Hughes’ house in Mytholmroyd; and the contacts locally who helped her become familiar with the landscape of the poems. She also was pleased to note that the talk had taken place on Plath’s 89th birthday. Her biography of Sylvia Plath Red Comet: the short life and blazing art of Sylvia Plath was published in 2020.

The next talk will be on Wednesday 10th November, at Hebden Royd Methodist Church, starting at 7.30. After a short AGM, John Cruickshank will be speaking about Spinning through the West Riding – a look at the textile industry before the age of machines. All welcome - £4 for visitors. Further details on www.hebdenbridgehistory.org.uk and on the Facebook pages.

See also: Sylvia Plath: Killing the Angel in the House by Elaine Connell, published by Pennine Pens