What Happened to Sylvia Plath’s Lost Novels?
Plath herself burned one of her unpublished manuscripts, but the other disappeared under mysterious circumstances
Each “Unfinished Business” will examine an unfinished work left behind by one of our greatest authors. What might have been genius, and what might have been better left locked in the drawer? How and why do we read these final words from our favorite writers — and what would they have to say about it? We’ll piece together the rumors and fragments and notes to find the real story.
O n a 1962 calendar, now archived in the Smith College Library’s Special Collections, the poet Sylvia Plath kept careful track of the routine details of her daily life. She jotted grocery lists, planned the meals she’d cook, and noted when her husband, poet Ted Hughes, was going to be out of town. She noted how many bouquets of flowers from their garden sold each week, and when new rubber nipples would be needed for her infant son Nicholas. Each Wednesday she left herself the same one-word reminder: “Ashcans.”
Then, on August 10th, she left herself a single writing-related note: “Start Int. Loaf!!!” From her journals, we know this note refers to a novel she planned to write, titled The Interminable Loaf.
Plath had recently finished The Bell Jar and was separating from Hughes after discovering his affair with a woman named Assia Wevill. Plath would soon move, with Nicholas and their older daughter Frieda, into a room in a London house where the poet William Butler Yeats had once lived.
In a letter that November, Plath described her desire to return to fiction to a friend, Olive Prouty. “My dream is selling a novel to the movies and (eventually) buying the house from the present owner,” she wrote. She described how she would then rent the rooms out, and “slowly furnish it, poem by poem.” In parentheses, she added, “(I have novels in me, one after the other, just crying out to be written.)”
In parentheses, she added, “(I have novels in me, one after the other, just crying out to be written.)”
This would begin with The Interminable Loaf, already underway, though under a new name.
“I hope to really get into my second novel this winter and finish it as soon as I get to London and can count on mother’s help,” Plath wrote to Prouty. “It is to be called ‘Doubletake,’ meaning that the second look you take at something reveals a deeper, double meaning. This is what was going to be the ‘Interminable Loaf’ — it is semiautobiographical about a woman whose husband turns out the be a deserter and a philanderer although she had thought he was wonderful and perfect.”
Friends who read excerpts of Double Take described it as a kind of dark comedy. “I think I’ll be a pretty good novelist,” Plath wrote to her brother Warren, “very funny — my stuff makes me laugh & laugh, & if I can laugh now it must be hellishly funny stuff.”
In the novel Plath aimed to skewer her husband, and Wevill. “She’d given herself permission to hate Hughes,” remarked Ronald Hayman, in his biography, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, “and the hatred apparently helped to fuel the fiction.”
Hayman also claimed that Plath rated the novel more highly than The Bell Jar and that scholar Judith Kroll had seen a complete outline of Double Exposure (the next, and last, title for the novel) on a series of index cards. Plath wrote to her mother that, “far from wanting to forget what she’d had to suffer, she intended to ‘commemorate’ it in her next novel.”
But with Hughes gone, two children to care for, and limited financial resources, Plath struggled to find the time to work on Double Exposure. “I write at my novel now from about 5 a.m. when my sleeping pill wears off, till they wake up, and hope to finish it by mid-winter” she told Prouty.
Several letters during these months referenced an epic search for a nanny for the children so she could finish the book. Plath estimated that it would take just “six weeks of daylong work” to reach the end. But without the money she hoped to get from the novel, it was hard to find a nanny; without the nanny, she could not finish the novel.
Double Exposure was almost surely never completed. December of the 1962 calendar is jammed with more and household chores and duties, including repeated notes on painting and repainting the floors and furniture in the new apartment, and appointments to get a phone installed. By January, Plath was suffering severe depression and insomnia.
On the 22nd of that month, Plath wrote to Olive Prouty again, mentioning that she’d been prescribed “sleeping pills & tonics to help me eat.” She had, finally, found someone to watch the children six mornings and one evening a week. Still, she wrote, there was the novel, which she had “not dared to touch […] until I saw ahead I could sit to it every morning and fear no interruption.”
She repeated her plan to write a novel that would help her buy a house so she could earn income from renting out the rooms.
“I must just resolutely write mornings for the next years, through cyclones, water freezeups, children’s illnesses & the aloneness. Having been so deeply and spiritually and physically happy with my dear, beautiful husband makes this harder than if I had never known love at all.”
Three weeks later, on February 11th, Sylvia Plath killed herself at the age of 30.
After her death, Ted Hughes became the heir to Plath’s estate, including all her papers. He sent out two more batches of Plath’s poems to quarterlies the following month and marked these down by hand on her meticulous submission log.
Hughes also found a black spring binder on her desk containing the collection of Ariel poems, and arranged to have it published in 1965, though only after omitting several poems — it would not be until 2007 that a new Restored Edition faithfully replicated Plath’s original manuscript.
But what happened to the novel she was writing at the same time as these poems? Was Double Exposure/Doubletake/The Interminable Loaf there on her desk as well? The novel that Plath hoped might save her financially has never been published, and nor, as far as we know, has it been seen since her death by anyone other than Ted Hughes.
Its fate remained a mystery until 1977, when Hughes published a collection of Plath’s short fiction and journals in a volume titled Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams. In his introduction of these previously uncollected works, Hughes remarked on that Plath had “typed some 130 pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.”
The novel that Plath hoped might save her financially has never been published, and nor, as far as we know, has it been seen since her death by anyone other than Ted Hughes.
Of course, Plath’s readers wanted to know how exactly a manuscript could “disappear” (seven years later). Given the purported subject matter of the novel, some were wary of Hughes’s claims. These suspicions were amplified when, in the forward to a 1982 collection of Plath’s Journals, Hughes admitted to interfering with some of her other notebooks.
“Two more notebooks survived for a while,” he wrote. “The last of these contained entries for several months, and I destroyed it because I did not want her children to have to read it… The other disappeared.” Hughes would later add that this first notebook “disappeared more recently (and may, presumably, still turn up).”
The notebook that “disappeared” is likely not Double Exposure, but an earlier journal that scholars have sought, describing Plath’s and Hughes’s return to England. Notably, Hughes distinguished between this journal and the other, which he specifically claimed to have “destroyed.”
That notebook would likely be another journal, the one she kept after their separation and before her suicide. But if he destroyed the journals from those “several months,” he may well have destroyed the novel she was writing at the same time about his being a “deserter and a philanderer.”
By 1995, in an interview in The Paris Review, Hughes would revise his story a third time. “Her mother said she saw a whole novel, but I never knew about it. What I was aware of was sixty, seventy pages which disappeared. And to tell you the truth, I always assumed her mother took them all.”
Was it 130 pages, a whole novel, or sixty, seventy pages? Did he destroy it, or did it disappear? Why would her mother have taken them? And if she had, wouldn’t she have given them to Smith College, along with the many other letters and childhood notebooks and possessions that she later donated to them?
We still have few answers to these questions, but there are a few new pieces to the puzzle — many stemming from discoveries of pieces of another novel entirely.
In the Smith College Library’s Special Collections, there is a copy of the November 20th, 1962 letter to Olive Prouty, typed by Sylvia Plath, with some notations in the margins by her mother Aurelia, made when she gave the letters to Smith.
There is a circle around the place where Plath wrote, “I hope to really get into my second novel this winter” and a note scribbled in the left margin from Aurelia: “It would be her third novel, counting the burned ms as #2.”
The “burned ms” she mentions here, as Plath’s actual second novel, was called Falcon Yard.
Plath had begun writing it many years earlier, even before The Bell Jar. In some sense it could be considered her “first” novel; some scholars even consider it a lost “prequel.”
And in a doubling of sorts, Falcon Yard also dealt with Sylvia Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes — not its grisly demise, but rather its passionate beginnings.
In 1956, the 23-year-old poet Sylvia Plath attended a party at Falcon Yard, near Cambridge University, where she was studying, to celebrate the launch of The St. Botolph’s Review. The first (and only) issue contained four poems by one of the founders, Ted Hughes.
Prior to the party, Plath had taken care to memorize one of his poems, “Fallgrief’s Girl-Friends” and when she met Hughes, she recited the poem back to him.
The following day, in her journal, Plath recounted this leading to their first kiss in a side room, and then to him tearing off her red headband. She, in turn, bit him on the cheek and she wrote that when they returned to the party, Hughes still had blood on his face.
He was, she wrote in her journal, a “big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me. […] as big as his poems, huge, with hulk and dynamic chunks of words; his poems are strong and blasting like a high wind in steel girders.”
Soon they began writing poems to one another. Less than four months later, they were married, on Bloomsday, June 16th.
Plath and Hughes worked intimately together at first, sharing a writing desk, and editing and guiding one another. Hughes would jot down lists of ideas for poems and Plath would dot the ones she thought were most interesting. They routinely wrote on the backs of each other’s scrap paper.
Hughes would jot down lists of ideas for poems and Plath would dot the ones she thought were most interesting. They routinely wrote on the backs of each other’s scrap paper.
The following year, while living together in Massachusetts and teaching at Smith College, Plath began working on a novel based on her romance with Hughes. She planned to call it Falcon Yard, in reference to the place where they’d met.
In her journal, Plath described it as being autobiographical, “American girl comes to Cambridge to find herself. To be herself.” The central character, at times in the third person as either Jessica, or “Jess,” or Jill, or Sadie Peregrine. She was to be, “kinetic, a voyager, no Penelope.”
On a pink sheet of Smith College memorandum paper, Plath kept a long list of character names to use in the novel, with one column, “Real People” that included several former boyfriends. She marked “Leonard,” the character based on Hughes, as the “hero.” In her notebooks she described him as being a “Pan-like, spermy, Dionysiac, God-man.” Later she wrote, “his voice. UnBritish. Refugee Pole rather, mixed with something of Dylan Thomas: rich and mellow-noted: half sung.”
Plath wrote of the overall plot in her journal. “She runs through several men — a femme fatale in her way: types: little thin exotic wealthy Richard; combine Gary and Gordon; Richard and Lou Healy. Safe versus not safe. And of course: the big, blasting dangerous love.” The character would go “through great depression in winter,” which would be then erased by her marriage to Leonard.
The central dilemma of the novel would be, she wrote, “How to lead Pan into world of toast and nappies?”
Her hope was that this “slick bestseller,” might sell for enough money to allow her and Hughes to resume a life of writing poetry without also needing to teach.
Ultimately, Plath set the Falcon Yard project aside, convinced by Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton that she should instead focus on her poetry and try to write a more serious novel about her experiences with depression before Cambridge, which had led to her first suicide attempt. She soon assembled Colossus, her first collection of poetry, and began to work tirelessly on that new novel, which would become The Bell Jar.
Here, too, she hoped that the novel might bring in the money she needed to support their growing family — but publishers were not sold. Despite receiving a fellowship from Harper & Row to help her write the book, they rejected it as “disappointing, juvenile and overwrought.”
She would end up publishing it in the U.K. with Heinemann under a pseudonym, “Victoria Lucas,” originally the name of the novel’s protagonist before it was changed to “Esther Greenwood.”
But U.S. editors were not interested. One, at Knopf, remarked on its “youthful American female brashness” but added “there certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” They hoped, “maybe now that this book is out of her system, she will use her talent more effectively next time.”
Of course, The Bell Jar would, many years after her death, indeed become a “bestseller” and an enduring classic — far from the “potboiler” she sometimes referred to it as. Today, fifty years later, the novel thrives on high school and college reading lists and has sold over three million copies. But during the final months of Plath’s life, this success remained elusive.
By the time The Bell Jar was finished in 1962, Plath and Hughes were living in England again and searching for more stable income. They did paid appearances on BBC programs. Sylvia sold bouquets of flowers from their garden. They moved to Devon and rented out their London apartment to a young couple — David and Assia Wevill.
Rubber nipples for Nicholas. Grocery lists. Ashcans, Wednesday. Keeping house and caring for the children.
Frustrated by the lack of movement on The Bell Jar, Plath soon decided to revisit her abandoned Falcon Yard manuscript. She set a goal to finish the novel by August 17th, Hughes’s birthday, as a present to him.
But when she learned of the affair in July of that year, everything changed. It is hard to imagine how she could have finished the semi-autobiographical “romantic comedy” after Hughes’s infidelity came to light. Distraught and angry, she confronted Hughes, who refused to end the affair.
A few weeks later, Plath built a bonfire in her backyard. Then, while her mother watched, Plath burned the only known draft of Falcon Yard, a few pages at a time.
In two subsequent bonfires, Plath would destroy nearly a thousand of her own letters and several boxes of Hughes’s papers, acts which she went on to describe in a poem called “Burning the Letters.”
By October of that year, she had thrown Hughes out of their house and begun work on the new second novel, The Interminable Loaf.
For decades it was believed that none of Falcon Yard had survived the bonfire. But in the 1990s, scholars at Smith College found something surprising in the collection of Plath’s papers they’d been accumulating from her mother, and from Hughes. On the back of a page listing corrections to The Bell Jar was a single page, # 25, from something called “Venus in the Seventh” — a chapter of Falcon Yard.
The page describes a young woman on a train ride to Munich with a man named Winthrop (likely based on former boyfriend Gordon Lameyer) — “sky darkening, black shapes looming, speckled with lights.” Though the prose is quite beautiful, and the later dialogue sparkling, it was probably an early draft. At one point the narration shifts from the third person, “Jess held herself in,” to the first, “I shut up for a change” as if Plath had not yet decided which point of view she’d use.
Subsequently, similar discoveries were made at the Ted Hughes archives at Emory University. Because Hughes and Plath had reused each other’s scrap paper, a page of a chapter called Hill of Leopards was found on the reverse of some of Hughes’s notes. Then, thirteen more pages from “Venus in the Seventh” resurfaced at Emory, continuing the story of Jess’s European tour, though incompletely, going from page 35, to 42 & 43, then from 64 and 65 to 68, and so on.
For decades it was believed that none of Falcon Yard had survived the bonfire. But in the 1990s, scholars at Smith College found something surprising in the collection of Plath’s papers.
In these pages, Jess travels to Venice and then St. Mark’s Basilica in Rome. Ultimately, she leaves Winthrop to fly home to England. After the flight, on the bus ride to London, she meets a man named Michael Butcher, who convinces her to join him for dinner. (At one point she recalls a resolution she’s made to stay sober after the St. Botolph’s Party, suggesting these scenes would take place sometime after that event.)
While then leaving dinner in a rush, she refers to herself as “Cinderella Greenwood,” a suggestion that the character’s name was, at one point, Jess Greenwood, perhaps some early incarnation of the name she’d eventually use for the heroine in The Bell Jar.
By pages 73, 76, and 79, Jess returns to campus and the arms of a man named Ian, described as reminiscent of Dylan Thomas. (According to later notes, “Ian” was changed to “Leonard,” the character based on Ted Hughes.) The surviving fragments of “Venus in the Seventh” leave off with Jess and Ian in conversation about poetry.
According to Plath’s mother, the novel (as Sylvia had described it to her) would continue from this blossoming romance and into the first years of their marriage, ending with the birth of a daughter — with “Pan” having been successfully led into the world of “toast and nappies” after all.
If Plath got that far before she burned Falcon Yard on the lawn, we may never know. Unless more missing draft pages resurface, this is all we have to go on. Still it is something, and it gives some hope that fragments of Double Exposure — if not all of it—may similarly resurface.
Could Ted Hughes have destroyed his wife’s unfinished novel about the affair that ended their marriage? His claim that he destroyed her final journal, so that her children wouldn’t read it, seems to make it plausible. But in fact, we don’t know that he did destroy the journal.
In 2005, an exhibition on Hughes and Plath was presented at the Grolier Club by Karen Kukil, Associate Curator of Special Collections at Smith College and Stephen Enniss, then Director of Special Collections and Archives at Emory University (and now Director of the Harry Ransom Center in Texas). Alongside many invaluable artifacts of the Hughes-Plath marriage was a draft of a letter Hughes wrote to biographer Jacqueline Rose after Plath’s death.
“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,” Hughes had written. Hid, not destroyed. “Somebody else,” not “the children.” He crossed these lines out. They were not included in the finished letter.
Who is referred to by “somebody else”? Where might it have been hidden? And if it was never destroyed, are there other “disappeared” and “destroyed” things which might also come to light?
If it was never destroyed, are there other “disappeared” and “destroyed” things which might also come to light?
Fortunately, in the world of Plath scholarship, new discoveries do keep emerging. Several journals that Hughes gave to Smith College were originally meant to be sealed until 2013 (50 years after her death) but they were unsealed early by Plath’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, and subsequently edited with Karen Kukil and published with the rest as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath in October of 2000.
Then, in April of 2017, the Guardian published a story describing a trove of never-before-seen letters, sent by Sylvia Plath to her former therapist, Dr. Ruth Barnhouse, between 1960 and 1963. Dr. Barnhouse was likely the model for the Dr. Nolan character in The Bell Jar, the therapist who helps Esther recover from her depression. Plath and Barnhouse remained in touch through letters after Plath returned to England.
In these letters, Plath described how she felt upon first discovering Hughes’s infidelity. She reflected as well on a miscarriage, before becoming pregnant with Nicholas, which occurred just days after Hughes had physically abused her. She wrote that she felt “Hughes wanted her dead.” These letters are now included in the new Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, co-edited by Karen Kukil and Peter Steinberg, and published in late 2018. In these letters, Plath also alleges that Hughes felt threatened by having a son, Nicholas, a “usurper” and that during their separation, he goaded Plath to kill herself.
Carol Hughes, the widow of Ted Hughes, has commented that these accusations are “as absurd as they are shocking to anyone who knew Ted well.” Frieda Hughes also expressed her doubts, writing in the forward to the new volume, “My father was not the wife-beater that some would wish to imagine he was.” She noted that in earlier letters, her mother had mentioned the miscarriage, saying it had happened for “no apparent reason.” During this period of betrayal and separation, she asked, “what woman would want to paint her exiting husband in anything other than the darkest colours?”
If Plath’s missing journals, or the manuscript of Double Exposure, similarly painted Hughes in “the darkest colours” then it is no wonder why he might have resisted their publication. If Plath’s descriptions of physical and emotional abuse in the letters to Barnhouse are echoed in her journals, and in her novel, then this would only reinforce those charges.
If Plath’s missing journals, or the manuscript of Double Exposure, painted Hughes in “the darkest colours” then it is no wonder why he might have resisted their publication.
Did Double Exposure disappear? Was it destroyed? Or was it hidden? Or could it remain under seal in one of the Plath collections, until some future date?
At the Smith College Library Special Collections, I spoke with Karen Kukil, who told me that there’s been a renewed interest in Plath’s unpublished works lately, including a recent piece about an old story, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” in the New Yorker, which Plath wrote at the age of twenty and submitted to Mademoiselle magazine. (They rejected it. The story is now being published in the US for the first time, in hardcover, by Harper Collins, for $15.99.)
Kukil said that this renewed interest is a good sign that people are still excited for new work by Plath, and that she’s hopeful that the missing journals, and the novel-in-progress, Double Exposure, will indeed resurface in the coming years.
If she is right, the novel could be a chance for Plath’s readers to see if the power of those final Ariel poems found its way into her prose as well. We may get a clearer picture of Plath’s last, difficult, but still hopeful months. The “hellishly funny” novel that made herself laugh and laugh, despite everything. The words that she thought might still furnish those apartments, one at a time, until everything was right again.