Sylvia Plath’s grave is a charged site: a focal point for grief, tribute, anger. For our latest blog post, writer Michael Crowley shares his perspective on the gravesite as a Heptonstall resident. We ask all festival-goers to respect the site during your visit; for more information please read our Graveyard Protocols.
Writers’ graves are popular haunts. Of all the people we have never met, we believe we know them the best. Some graves become shrines, performative spaces for the living. People come to meditate awhile, to leave votives, to take selfies. There is a particularity about Sylvia’s grave in that people bring their admiration but some also, their anger. There has been, and continues to be, a series of desecrations of the headstone, attempting to remove the surname Hughes, of Ted Hughes, her husband from whom she was separated at the time of her death. On one occasion, the headstone had to be removed to be repaired.
The acts are an invasion of a private, family life, in a village graveyard with repercussions beyond the concerns of the perpetrators. There are two authorities regarding the grave: the family and the Church and when Calder Civic Trust wrote to Sylvia’s mother, Aurelia Plath, for her opinion on installing a signpost to the grave, ‘she objected to anything of the kind.’ She replied that Sylvia’s writing and her life were public but the grave is private and for the family.[i]
It is odd and presumptuous for people to have an opinion about an inscription upon another family headstone, but for some the opinion is not enough. Villagers are appalled at the damage done, but I have come across folk, from elsewhere, who applaud the attacks and boast of knowing the offenders. To a degree, it might be copycat behaviour and a wider popular culture that implores us to publicise our opinions at every turn, to give vent to our feelings. For those with loved ones buried nearby, Sylvia’s headstone is not the most important one in the graveyard, but the desecration of her grave, is an attack on the graveyard.
People who live in the village and beyond, and have affection for the place, mostly because of its architectural history. There are two churches in proximity, a rare octagonal Methodist chapel, a Wesleyan school and an Elizabethan school building that will be a new museum to be managed by the community. The village is proud of its association with Sylvia and Ted, two of the most important poets of the last century. The vision of a permanent Plath Hughes exhibition at the museum is blue sky thinking on the management board. Anecdotally in the village, whenever they come up in conversation, the talk is about ‘they’ rather than one camp or the other, and how great they are. A few of us tidy the grave from time to time and periodically offerings have to be removed, because their decay and the Heptonstall wind turn them into widespread debris.
Some perceive Sylvia as a victim as much as a poet. This is a mistake. She struggled as all writers do, with her craft, at the same time to find a place as a woman writer at a time of a male dominated poetry establishment. Not only that, she fought to re-shape poetry, to push the boundaries of verse and of subject matter. And yes, she struggled with her health for a long time, but regardless of the context of her death, in the artistic sphere, against all the odds, she won. The coming Festival will I hope, be a celebration of that victory.
[i] Jay Jones, The Wind Pours by Like Destiny: Sylvia Plath, Asa Benveniste and the poetic afterlife. Note XVIII.
Michael Crowley is a Heptonstall-based writer and dramatist and secretary of Heptonstall Historical Society. He is the author of two novels, two collections of poetry, and numerous plays as well as non-fiction. His second collection of poetry, ‘The Battle of Heptonstall’ (Smokestack Books), was published in 2021. At #PlathFest Michael is leading a (sold-out!) workshop on The Natural World as Metaphor.
For more information on how to visit Plath’s grave during the festival and the policies we’ve put in place to ensure we’re being respectful to the local community, please read our Graveyard Protocols.