August 11, 2021

Tarot With Sylvia Plath

I saw a curious note online this month that a lot of about 50 items connected to poet Sylvia Plath brought in more than $1 million in London, according to auction house Sotheby’s. 

Some of the items up for sale included Sylvia's and her husband Ted Hughes’ gold wedding bands, which went for nearly $38,000. There were more than a dozen love letters from Plath to Hughes dating from early in their marriage. There was a family photo album. 

People also bid on some odd things like a set of family recipes and a rolling pin, two serving trays and a drinking cup. Those sold for a collective $43,130.

I thought the whole thing sounded rather offensive. Who had this stuff? It turns out the items were sold by Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Plath and Hughes.

I know that Sylvia Plath has an almost cultish following, so I understand the interest, but what do people do with these things?

Plath's writing is dark and often depicts mental illness and issues with the men in her life (fathers and husbands). Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and poems lead readers to assume they know about her inner life.

Sylvia was born in 1932 in Boston but spent much of her life in England after moving there in 1955 to attend the University of Cambridge as a Fulbright Scholar. She met poet Ted Hughes there and was married just four months later. Hughes began an affair with a family friend and the couple separated in 1962 and just seven months later, Sylvia committed suicide in the home she shared with her two children in London. 

She wrote most of the work that would make her famous in the short time between her separation from Ted and her suicide at age 30. Much of that writing was published posthumously. Ariel, her collection of poems dealing with mental illness, is the best known of her poetry. 

A more understandable item for the devotee might be a deck of French Tarot cards that belonged to Plath. That was the most expensive at $206,886. Ted introduced Sylvia to the occult and gave her the cards for her 24th birthday. The tarot did have an impact on her work. One example is her 1960 poem "The Hanging Man." 

I imagine someone with those cards tapping the deck, asking a question (to Sylvia?) and making a spread on the table and trying to feel a connection with her. 


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