The Ghost of Plath’s Double Exposure

Sylvia Plath is famous for her poetry and for one novel, The Bell Jar. It was published in the UK in 1963 but not in the US until 1971. Plath did begin another novel. Her husband told us so. In 1977, in the introduction to Johnny Panic and The Bible of Dreams, a collection of Plath’s journals and stories, Ted Hughes wrote that she had “typed some 130 pages of another novel, provisionally titled Double Exposure. That manuscript disappeared somewhere around 1970.”

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath

We know how the life, if not the novel, ended. In December 1962, after her marriage with Hughes had broken down, Plath moved herself and their children from the family house in Devon back to London. She moved into a flat at 23 Fitzroy Road, a house once occupied by the poet W. B. Yeats. In the early morning of 11 February 1963, Plath put some bread and milk in the bedroom of their children, Frieda and Nicholas, opened their window to let in a small breath of air, then sealed the door with damp cloths. Plath went downstairs and sealed herself similarly in the kitchen. She put her head in the oven, turned on the gas, and killed herself.

During the last months of her life, Plath found her Ariel voice and wrote the poems that confirmed her reputation, including Lady Lazarus, Daddy, and Edge. She also, as she had done since she was a child, kept her journal. One volume of these journals, like the novel, “disappeared“. Another volume was destroyed.

Hughes wrote: “Two more notebooks survived for a while… 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.” (In his foreword to 1982 edition of The Journals of Sylvia Plath.)

The 1962 notebook and a typescript. Both “disappeared”. What does that mean? As Plath and Hughes were still married at the time of her death, and she died without a will, Hughes became the heir to Plath’s estate, and all her belongings. Over the years, he was often accused of withholding certain papers, just as he had burned the journal.

Ronald Hayman, in The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath, says that Judith Kroll saw an outline of the novel, titled Doubletake and later, Double Exposure. Like so much of Plath’s work, the writing had its origins in biography. Hughes had begun an affair with Assia Wevill while Plath was in Devon, and his infidelity hurt her bitterly. Plath wrote to a friend that the novel was “semi-autobiographical about a wife whose husband turns out to be a deserter and philanderer”.

There are rumours about the disappeared manuscript. It’s been said that Esther Greenwood, the protagonist of Plath’s much-loved novel, The Bell Jar, turns up again in Double Exposure. It’s been said that the rare books collection at Smith College in Massachusetts, where Plath studied, has a secret copy of the typescript under seal. Plath’s mother, Aurelia, also claimed that her daughter had told her about the book, while Plath’s husband accused Aurelia (after Aurelia was safely dead) of stealing it: “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.” (See the 1995 interview with The Paris Review.)

Missing Plath novels do turn up occasionally. In 1999, a team working in special collections at Emory University in Georgia, which acquired the library of Ted Hughes, discovered two chapters of an early novel called Falcon Yard. Falcon Yard is the place in Cambridge where, in 1956, Plath met (and, famously, bit) Hughes. The novel would have fictionalised their life together. It was never completed.

The draft of Double Exposure may have been destroyed; it may have been stolen; it may have been lost. It might lie unfound in a university archive. Certainly, some of the files at Emory are closed until 2022, but that is probably to protect the privacy of Carol Hughes, the Poet Laureate’s second wife. (Researcher Michael, in the comments below, gives a link that seems to confirm this.)

The disappeared typescript was a draft of a novel, not a finished work. Would Sylvia herself wish us to read Double Exposure in its raw state?

She burned many manuscripts. But not this one. Or that missing journal.

“Her blacks crackle and drag.”

18 thoughts on “The Ghost of Plath’s Double Exposure

  1. Wren

    My name is Wren. I am a 46 yr. young woman who has always revered Sylvia Plath. I have read and reread all of her work. I loved the Bell Jar as I too had a similar experience as a youth in a barbaric asylum. No, I am not crazy and neither was Sylvia, despite what many think. I too am a writer who’s life has many similarities to those of Sylvia. I too, have suffered the unbearable heartache of being married to a man I loved completely only to find out after years of marriage that he was being unfaithful.
    Although many people now a days have no clue who she was, I find Sylvia Plath to be one of the most important people to ever have been a writer. Her poetry is unrivaled and has inspired my style and uniqueness of the art. She was one of the first women in poetry to express her darkest emotions, fears and thoughts without shame or inhibition. I admire her bluntness and honesty. I cherish her work, my favorite poems being ” November Graveyard ” and ” Daddy”. I too had non-present father and I can relate to her pain caused by his lack of presence in her life.
    I only wish she hadn’t killed herself over the pain of her husband’s infidelity , as the world needs and hungers for a writer of her caliber. I was not even born when she killed herself, but now that I am a mature woman, I would give anything to sit with her over a cup of tea or perhaps a gin and tonic as she might have preferred and put my arm around her and consoled her over the pain Ted Hughes caused her. I would have told her to not give into the pain , but rather to channel that anger and betrayal into more powerful , expressive poetry. Alas , I will not have a chance to do that as she made a permanent decision to end her suffering. I do however, wonder why the love of her children was not enough to insight endurance of this sometimes hellish life we call existence, but perhaps they reminded her of her philandering husband too much. I can only speculate and that is the saddest thing of all, to lose the chance of ever meeting her and telling her what a difference she made in my life.
    I am a writer. I am a woman. Sylvia Plath made a huge difference in my life and my work. I can only hope she found the relief she was searching for in the afterlife.
    May God bless her soul.
    Renee Morvant (Wren)


  2. Macanoly V.Q.

    I haven’t read little about Sylvia, but just what I needed. I have been into a para-psychological experience with Sylvia, that I couldn’t tell about, but to publish on, and subsequently there were another fascinating experiences about somo of her writing, even one of Sylvia Plath unknown is published under her name in my poetry book in Español “Escenas” “You made warmth while I speak and I don’t need my fireplace…” (Sylvia Plath), and some others about. I am glad to be quite honest and truth to her. To preserve her writing, because me, as a writer could take advantage of it. But, I am truly honest to preserve a memory that isn’t mine, a wonderful mind which does not advantage on another one, and does write in her own.


  3. Michael

    I’ve read that Ted Hughes had a trunk sealed until 2023 at Emory University (where his archive is housed), it’s possible that the missing journals and this manuscript are still there.


    1. Horatia Post author

      Possibilities, Michael, yet we’re not far away from certainties… Will be fascinating to see what is in that box at the Atlanta library a few years from now, and whether it contains the Plath papers that Hughes once said he had burned. Thanks for your comments.


    1. Horatia Post author

      Interesting article. Thanks for taking the trouble to post. I wonder whether that caveat about Carol Hughes is definitive, or hearsay. If true, we’ll be waiting a little longer than 2023 before “whatever has been hidden will lie in the open”, as Hughes promised Aurelia.


  4. Michael

    It seems it’s definitive.

    Restrictions on Access
    Special restrictions apply. Access to selected files is restricted without the written permission of the copyright holder. Other selected files are closed for a period of twenty-five years (2022) or the lifetime of Carol Hughes, whichever is greater. See series scope notes for further details of specific materials covered by these restrictions.

    Special restrictions: Use copies have not been made for audiovisual material in this collection. Researchers must contact the Rose Library at least two weeks in advance for access to these items. Collection restrictions, copyright limitations, or technical complications may hinder the Rose Library’s ability to provide access to audiovisual material.


    1. Horatia Post author

      Thanks for the sterling research. I’ve updated the article to reflect your findings.

      Makes you wonder — what on earth is in there?


      1. MIchael

        I’m hoping Double Exposure, the two journals and anything else that maybe unaccounted for. I’d wondered exactly what it is that Carol Hughes needs to be protected from, but recently, letters to Ruth Barnhouse (Sylvia’s psychiatrist) were discovered to exist, and the contents evidently contain domestic abuse allegations against Ted. It’s possible he didn’t want Carol exposed to that side of him. However, if that were truly the case, you would think that he would’ve included the lives of all his immediate family rather than just Carol’s before that trunk were to be opened. The whole thing is very, very perplexing.


  5. Horatia Post author

    If Mr Davids (who knew Ted Hughes well) is right, then the poet’s “sense of appropriateness and archival integrity” would suggest that any Plath papers have gone to Smith, not to the sealed box in Emory. So Double Exposure, the two journals, and the many uncollected Plath letters out there may not be what we find. Hughes’ own journals might be what’s in there. Or Assia Wevill’s, perhaps?


  6. Michael

    I don’t think Assia’s Journal is in there since its contents (granted, from what I recall it was only paraphrased to avoid possible lawsuits, Assia apparently even read what was finished of Double Exposure ) were paraphrased in “Lover of Unreason”.
    I think Johnathon Bate, who recently published an unauthorized biography, had access to Hughes’ journals but could only paraphrase from them because the family withdrew their endorsement of his biography due to disagreements over the content.
    If Johnathon Bate and the authors of “Lover of Unreason” had access to the contents of this trunk, they haven’t said anything, and I don’t think even the family *could* grant them access to that trunk, even if they wanted to, since it was time-sealed by Hughes. So there are three possibilities I’m seeing from my vantage point:

    1) Ted Hughes destroyed the diaries and Double Exposure
    2) The Diaries and/or manuscript(s?) are in the trunk and Davids’ letter is a red herring
    3) The Diaries and/or manuscript(s?) are at Smith

    Normally, I would say it seems that option one would seem to be most likely at this point, but in an article I linked a few months ago above, Diane Middlebrook quotes a draft of a letter to Jacqueline Rose (I believe this is from the book she wrote titled ‘Her Husband’):
    “hid the last journal—about 2 months of entries,” rather than destroying it. Hughes frames this news as a secret confession: “I have never told this to anyone”.
    According to the article, that letter was dated in 1990.

    I searched around the internet a little bit more, hoping to find a little more on this theory that there’s a sealed copy of Double Exposure held at Smith and I came across this:

    I was searching the Forum archives awhile ago for references to Double Exposure or Double Take, supposedly the working title of Plath’s last novel. There was a post (I think it was by Elaine Connell, but am not sure; excuse me, Elaine, if I don’t remember correctly) saying that 120 pages of that last novel manuscript were in the Smith College Plath Collection, sealed, and no one knew when they would be unsealed.

    I contacted Karen Kukil at Smith and asked her about the manuscript, and she said “Funny thing, for the last couple of years people have been asking about that” and she had no idea why, as Smith does not have that manuscript, doesn’t have any idea where it is (or isn’t), and if and when it ever comes to light, it wouldn’t automatically belong to Smith because it was not included in the original purchase: if it’s found, Smith would be bidding for it along with anyone else who wanted to acquire it. I told Karen I’d write to the Forum and clarify that Smith does not have the Double Take/Double Exposure manuscript.

    Judith Kroll
    Austin, TX, USA
    Thursday, May 1, 2003


    1. Horatia Post author

      Well, well, well. That’s a surprising find, Michael, and thanks for sharing. Seems to have taken many scholars by surprise. So the archivists at Emory opened the trunk in 2003 and didn’t tell anyone? Or mark the papers that they integrated into the main collection as to their provenance? Startling. We may never know why they did that. But you’re right, there’s no lost journal in there, no draft of the manuscript that first caught my attention — Double Exposure — and we now don’t have to wait until 2023 to know that for certain. The question remains, therefore. Where are they? Destroyed or still in someone’s safe keeping?


      1. Michael

        One thing that keeps me from saying the manuscript and diaries were destroyed is that, there is a draft of a letter I believe to Jacqueline Rose (she wrote a book about Sylvia Plath, Diane Middlebrook mentions this letter in her book ‘Her Husband’) dated 1990 that says something to the effect of: ‘I hid the last journal, I haven’t told this to anyone.’

        Where he hid it, if he’s telling the truth? Who knows.


  7. Jess Greenwood

    Sadly I don’t think we will ever see Double Exposure. Assia Wevill had access and read through all of Sylvia’s work. She even stole some of her work to be used in support of her child in the case she herself committed suicide. I am sure that Assia destroyed it, as it displayed her extremely unfavorably.



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