Mansplained Right Out of The Canon: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by @HisFeministMama

(Cross-posted from Our Feminist Playschool)

Originally published Jan 2013

This post is my submission for the Feminist Odyssey Blog Carnival – The Seventh Edition – Women and Literature.


In respect to western literature, the intersecting issues of women, editing and ‘mansplaining’ are as ancient as the craft of storytelling. With the exception of a few writers such as Aphra Behn and Sappho, the experience of being a woman in literature (whether as an author, a character, or a reader) hasn’t been on her terms. Even when women are authoring a story, it is often through some male filter. From the medieval mystics, such as Margery Kempe (seriously, look this woman up!) to Sylvia Plath, whose celebrated Bell Jar turns a ripe 50 this year, women’s writing too often undergoes a transmission through men of the canon, making it acceptable, tolerated and authentic.

In reading anything biographical about Sylvia Plath one feels a male presence in almost all stretches of her writing life. Her father, present but unattainable in so much of her work; the cliched writing professor-rapist, praying on her ambition; the psychiatrists that translate her words in the Bell Jar; and finally Ted Hughes – her husband and subsequent postmortem editor of her poetry collection published by Faber & Faber.

Although I am easily seduced by F&F’s as always sensual book design and font choice, my toes begin to curl when I dip into her poems or when I thumb through HIS end notes on HER life

As someone who failed to respond appropriately to his partner through, what most point to as extreme postpartum depression, it feels criminal to allow him to act as the editor, the ‘mansplainer’ of her poetry. In sentence after sentence, Hughes explains to the reader how and what Sylvia Plath was feeling while she was writing. Hughes acts as a lens through which we are permitted to see Plath, her life experiences and her emotional vulnerability.

Ted Hughes was not limited to offering his commentary on Plath’s life and death. He was also the selector, the arranger, the place-maker of her Faber collection. As in their writing life together, Plath’s work is hung by him. Draped by him. Managed by him. Sylvia Plath’s poetry isn’t permitted to stand alone. In both poetry and journal entries, Plath referred to her poetry as her unborn babies, making them a visceral part of her being. But, sadly, it is a birth enacted by Hughes that the modern reader is given the chance to become a part of her work.

This speaks not only to the specific tragedy of Sylvia Plath’s life and death, but to the misogyny that has and still exists in western English Literature.You could pull out a variety of examples – number of female authors accepted and included as a part of ‘the canon’, the downplaying of ‘chic lit’, the ‘pink marketing’ of serious non-fiction by women, the absence of women of colour in most genres of literature, the ghastly number of white, affluent male editors of the books we ram down the throats of our high school and university students.

Of course there are some exceptionsOf course there are some kick-ass female focused/female-run publishing houses. Of course rates of literacy in most western countries mean that female storytellers don’t need to rely on male scribes any longer. Of course many female characters are being written by feminist authors (male and female). Of course there are some amazing female authors who make their way despite the male state of literature. Of course many readers are dead smart these days and demand a little less misogyny from their literature. But. But. But. It is still happening.


Our Feminist Playschool : I’m a Feminist. I write about feminism through the lens of parenting. I push myself to consider all intersections, connections and disconnects inside the issues I explore. I am one of those Feminists: white, educated, anglo, urban, well-traveled and heterosexual; I do my best to work against the limits of our society that suggest that these things are the ‘right’ things. I want to unravel and reshape the world around me. I am a gentle-parent and take to heart the writing of bell hooks that reminds us: the oppression of children is a component of the patriarchy. I reject the notion that one can’t be a radical feminist AND an attached-parent. I am raising an ally, I am raising a feminist. [@HisFeministMama] You can also find us at Syndications on the Rights of Women

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