Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath


This engrossing début novel depicts Sylvia Plath’s feverish artistic process in the bitter aftermath of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes—the few excruciating yet astoundingly productive weeks in which she wrote Ariel, her defining last collection of poems.

In December 1962, shortly before her suicide, Plath moved with her two children to London from the Hughes’s home in Devon. Focusing on the weeks after their arrival, but weaving back through the years of Plath’s marriage, ...

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Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath

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This engrossing début novel depicts Sylvia Plath’s feverish artistic process in the bitter aftermath of her failed marriage to Ted Hughes—the few excruciating yet astoundingly productive weeks in which she wrote Ariel, her defining last collection of poems.

In December 1962, shortly before her suicide, Plath moved with her two children to London from the Hughes’s home in Devon. Focusing on the weeks after their arrival, but weaving back through the years of Plath’s marriage, Kate Moses imagines the poet juggling the demands of motherhood and muse, shielding her life from her own mother, and by turns cherishing and demonizing her relationship with Ted. Richly imagined yet meticulously faithful to the actual events of Plath’s life, Wintering is a remarkable portrait of the moments of bravery and exhilaration that Plath found among the isolation and terror of her depression

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In a remarkable reimagining of Sylvia Plath's final months, Kate Moses offers historical fiction at its best. Through the scenes, thoughts, and conversations she creates, Plath's mind is deeply plumbed, revealing more about the troubled poet than we could ever learn through more conventional accounts.

For most readers, the events of Plath's life are legendary. As a young woman, she suffered from mental illness and tried to commit suicide. Ostensibly "cured," she married English poet Ted Hughes and moved to London. Within a few years, however, Hughes left her for another woman. Plath struggled to endure before finally taking her own life at age 30.

Written in a diary format, Wintering describes the events of December 1962, when Plath was settling into a London apartment, trying to nurse herself and her two young children through the flu and seeking help from her estranged husband. Interspersed with these chapters are early scenes of her marriage, when she was both embracing domesticity and regretting that her family's care took precedence over her life's work, poetry. Her conflict is that of many modern women, but Plath's isolation is severe, her pain palpable.

Wintering brings Sylvia Plath to vibrant life, and readers will find themselves hunting down copies of both Plath's and Hughes's poetry, regretting once again that this talented woman's life ended so tragically -- and so prematurely. (Spring 2003 Selection)

From the Publisher
“Beautiful and moving. . . . Significant. . . . [Written] with lyrical dexterity and great economy. . . . [Moses] is discerning and talented.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Lyrical. . . . Moving and beautifully sustained. . . . A heroic tale.” —Los Angeles Times

“Written in lush, luminous prose. . . . An altogether new portrait . . . revelatory.” —The Boston Globe

“Moses poignantly portrays the artist as struggling mother.” —Elle

“Fantastically rich, psychologically shrewd. . . . A triumph.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer

Penelope Mesic
This relentlessly intense novel concerns the last months of Sylvia Plath, whose suicide was the culmination of a feverish period during which she wrote the poems of her posthumously published masterwork, Ariel. Moses' effort is a brilliant, fervent book that deploys a million-dollar vocabulary with Napoleonic assurance. Nevertheless it is a work of fiction that maintains an uneasy relationship with fact. In fairness to the novelist, it is worth noting that Sylvia Plath was a poet who obstructed judgment, an enormously talented writer of spectacularly unfair poems in which she is obsessively precise about exactly how bad she feels, but careless about where she pins the blame. Readers of this novel may find themselves constantly trying to guess if particular words and scenes are culled from someone's memoir or the product of invention. And every time they wonder, they're drawn out of the narrative. This novel is in some ways a tour de force, a plausible re-creation of the way a poet of great gifts might have thought and felt. But there is a fatal reverence and portentousness that binds the work like a straitjacket, making us long for the time when Moses uses her considerable gifts to explore territory that is all her own.
Publishers Weekly
This exceptional first novel, shot through with a fierce poetic luminosity that almost matches that of Moses's much-written-about subject, covers the last few months of the poet's life as she cares for her sick children in the middle of a brutal London winter, struggling to write her last poems and recover from the defection of husband Ted Hughes. Moses is frank, in a long afterword, about her sources-which include Plath's letters and journals-and about what she has made up or merely surmised. But the key question is whether the book succeeds as a compelling piece of fiction, and the answer is that it does, triumphantly. Moses moves deftly back and forth in time, from the couple's last months in their beloved but moldering Devonshire hideaway through Plath's first suspicions of Hughes's infidelities to her arrival in London. Moses catches the quality of English life, particularly its austere inconveniences and its moody weather, with remarkable fluency, and her habitation of Plath's body and mind feels complete. At the same time, she offers scenes that show how awkward and bloody minded the poet could sometimes be. It is not a sentimental book, but rather one that evokes Plath's fierce joy in words and images and her huge motherly courage in the face of crippling adversity, with lacerating episodes like the one in which she makes a desperate call from a phone box in the rain while her children peer in at her uncomprehendingly. In the end one wonders not how Plath came to kill herself but how she survived so long. This beautifully written novel may offend literary purists, but most readers will find it moving almost beyond words. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
This novel is a fictionalized account of the last few months of the famous American poet Sylvia Plath's life. Moses has researched and studied Plath's work and life and has written a wonderfully dense and lyrical story, capturing her state of mind during the month of December 1962, two months before her suicide. Through flashback chapters, the novel concentrates on the two-year time period she and her husband, Ted Hughes, lived in a country home named Court Green where Sylvia could be an earth mother and a poet and Hughes could write. After their dream life dissolved when Hughes had an affair with an exotic woman friend, Sylvia moved to London. She set up housekeeping in W.B. Yeats' childhood home but was beset by illness, depression and isolation. In spite of this, she wrote some of her best poetry there, which was published after her death. Moses does a marvelous job of capturing her state of mind and even her poetic style. KLIATT Codes: SA-Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2003, Random House, Anchor, 313p., Ages 15 to adult.
— Nola Theiss
Library Journal
Since Plath's suicide in 1963, much of her life has been kept under lock and key by her late husband, poet Ted Hughes, and his family. Consequently, biographical treatments have been plentiful but have lacked a clear vision of their subject, reducing Plath to a mere specter. Now this accomplished and richly textured first novel gives Plath back much of her humanity, using the final and most productive months of her life as template. During this time, Plath was struggling psychologically while trying to raise two children in the midst of her husband's infidelities. The chapters move about in time and are structured around the titles and themes of Plath's posthumous masterpiece, "Ariel." Using her poetic vision, Moses evokes a powerful portrait that is typically missing from other works and excels when describing Plath's day-to-day struggles and triumphs. The only thing lacking is a better understanding of Plath's creative process. Nevertheless, this is an emotionally riveting work. Highly recommended for most fiction collections.-David Hellman, San Francisco State Univ. Copyright 2003 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The last days of poet Sylvia Plath, as seen by a co-editor of the anthology Mothers Who Think (as well as co-founder of’s feature of the same name). Plath’s tragic end has been so horribly romanticized that it has almost overshadowed the life and work that led up to it. A poetic prodigy, Plath (1932–63) won a scholarship to Smith College and began publishing verse while still a student. Her first mental breakdown (vividly described later in her novel The Bell Jar) came during her junior year at Smith, but she quickly made a name for herself as a poet and, in 1955, won a Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge. There, she met and married English poet Ted Hughes, with whom she had two children. Moses concentrates her entire story on the winter of 1962, when Plath was facing the recent collapse of her marriage (Hughes had fallen in love with another woman) along with the first full flowering of her success as a major poet. Having published her first book of verse (The Colossus) in 1960, Plath had now begun writing in a more intensely personal style, composing works that depicted and arose from the failure of her marriage. As Plath moved back and forth between her house in Devon and her London flat, her life became increasingly scattered and disorienting. First-novelist Moses convincingly portrays the stress that finally overcame the poet as she went about her daily routines—recording for the BBC, looking after her children, receiving visits from literary friends and from her mother—haunted by her husband’s rejection of her and by her growing discomfort at the necessity of constructing her poetry from the raw elements of an increasingly unhappy life. We don’t see the suicide, but bystory’s end it is clear that Plath has painted herself into an emotional corner leaving no other way out. Rich and harrowing, told with none of the sensationalism or cheap sentiment that has undermined so many accounts of Plath’s life and end.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400035007
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/14/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 797,954
  • Product dimensions: 5.37 (w) x 7.67 (h) x 0.71 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Moses

Kate Moses was born in San Francisco in 1962 to a British father and an American mother and grew up in various parts of the United States before returning to California to attend college. She subsequently worked as an editor in publishing and as literary director at San Francisco’s Intersection for the Arts. In 1997 she became one of the two founding editors of’s Mothers Who Think Web site, which led to the American Book Award—winning anthology Mothers Who Think, coedited with Camille Peri. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and their two children. Wintering is her first novel.

Good To Know

In our interview with Moses, she shared some interesting facts about herself:

"I'm a seventh-generation Californian, and my great-great-grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, daughter, and myself were all born in San Francisco -- my mother, daughter, and myself all at the same hospital."

"I decided I would be a writer when I was four years old, while sitting at my mother's feet as she sewed on her mother's old Singer sewing machine and told family stories with her mother and sisters (my grandmother and aunts). As little snips of fabric snowed down on me and I listened -- unobserved -- to the stories told by the women in my family, I suddenly realized that's all I wanted to do with my life: to tell stories."

"I have never been to a writing workshop, retreat, or residency program. The only writing class I ever took was as a sophomore in college, and I ended up dropping out of school for the semester and getting an Incomplete for the class. After college graduation I talked my way into a job as an editor at a small literary trade publishing house called North Point Press in Berkeley, California: My strategy was to learn to write, surreptitiously, by working with 'real' writers. I published my first short story when I was 23; the story was part of a fiction competition and was published with my photograph. Someone recognized me in the grocery store and I was so appalled to have my imagination made so public and personal that I didn't submit another piece of fiction to a publisher until Wintering, 14 years later."

"Though childhood convinced me that I was going to be a writer, motherhood is what gave me my subject. I don't think I had anything worth writing about until I started re-experiencing the world through the eyes of my children; it is the assembly of the self -- through childhood, through relationships with other people, through parenthood -- that fascinates me as a writer as well as a reader."

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    1. Hometown:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Date of Birth:
      April 9, 1962
    2. Place of Birth:
      San Francisco, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of the Pacific, 1984

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
"Morning Song"
December 12, 1962
5:30 a.m.

Gold seeping under her eyelids. Sleeping pills worn off, effortlessly obsolete as breath, their expiration reeling her fast from the silty floor of sleep to the surface, awake. It's morning, or almost: a slow December sun rises through her curtainless bedroom windows, snagging on her rumpled bedcovers, dragging its faint eastern light across her face. Her borrowed single bed is thoroughly churned, coverlet bunched and askew, leaving her exposed in nothing but a nightgown on one unblanketed side, the flannel stiff with cold. She has grown accustomed to tense, motionless drug-sleeps these last months, bedclothes still tucked with hospital precision between mattress and box spring when she wakes. Pinning her still as a crated statue to her bed, binding her in taut cotton like a mummy, like a dangerous patient. Like a patient, more accurately, paralyzed with fear. Trapped in her bedding: it's a feeling that's been not entirely uncomfortable. Not much else has held her since summer.

But something today is changed. More than her untroubled night, her turning in sleep as easily as a fish. Could one call what she's beginning to feel, coming awake just now, ruby light radiating through the fine tissue of her closed eyes, happiness? Not that, but something close, though more hollow, tentative, and just faintly perceptible: serenity? Curiosity? Amazing: she's flown in a clean trajectory straight from the blank infinities of sleep to something one could characterize as pleasant. Normal, like other people, waking on normal days. Expectant; anticipating good to come. Compared to her usual dawn aftertaste of despair, this sensation seems positively optimistic, untethered as an escaped balloon -- a feeling almost like the first days of falling in love.

What has happened to her customary morning dread, the sharp stink of her panic? Where is her more orthodox heart with its quick metallic ticking, the grinding in her chest? Her mind searches for it, that familiar hemorrhage of fear, the known morning ritual of materializing terror -- the terror of what she doesn't know as much as what she does -- that has greeted her upon waking since July. She listens: as if it might be recoverable, lost for a moment here in the covers, lurking still in the chill air of the heatless room. It's gone, though, for this morning, receded like the tide for these quick seconds of semiconscious assessment, of her life coming into focus.

Then she remembers: she's in London. Yeats's house with its blue enamel plaque by the door. It's hers -- her new home in the city. She's out of the rural purgatory of Devon, the red muck and bawling animals and isolation of her crumbling ancient farmhouse, home now in a poet's flat that seemed fated for her. All hers -- she didn't have to share credit with anyone. But there he is, inevitably: Ted.

He'd met her at the train station the day she'd come house-hunting last month, an inscrutable shadow shambling along behind through three dank, unacceptable maisonettes. Though it was later, after he'd escaped their latest failure into the tiled entrance of the Chalk Farm tube, his black back hunched in his coat and descending into dark as she watched him leave, another step, the ring of his boot on the stair, so quickly it was over --

It was later, on her own, when she'd seen the sign on her way to her London doctor's office, her infected thumb oozy and pink, rotting apple swollen, pulsing out its distress on her hand. Hurrying over the footbridge and down the Georgian arcade of Gloucester Avenue, her thumb in its bandages aloft and signalling her defeat, then around the corner and suddenly flats to let next to the blue sign. Address: 23 Fitzroy Road.

As if she'd conjured it: two years ago, she happened upon a freehold for sale on this same street before they'd ever dreamed of Court Green, of its acres of volunteer daffodils and cool twelfth-century walls, of their son born in a gush under its birded thatch, of their gardens, their fingers stained red with Devonshire loam. Two years ago in London, she raced home with Frieda in the pram to their tiny apartment off Chalcot Square -- just a block away from where she lies now in her cold bed -- bursting to tell Ted: what a benediction (if they could have only afforded it) to live on Yeats's street! Then three months ago in Ballylee, on the last shattering trip together, having climbed the spiral stair to the Irish poet's tower and thrown three pennies for luck, casting them eyes closed into the river sluicing the bridge below, she'd wished for something she then didn't know how to name -- something, something she needed to fall into place, her life to right itself, her writing, her disintegrating marriage, something she needed to stop, Ted -- she thought then it was Ireland for the winter that she needed. The far sea, its purifying salt and slow clouds, its ginger-scented turf fires in the grate, something equal to Ted's plan of flight to Spain; that's what she thought she'd been wishing for. But she was wrong. Their trip was a disaster. They left Ireland separately, Sylvia returning alone to Devon and the children. Ted wired her a few days later from London. For six years she had feared, even fantasized, shuddering at her garish imaginings, that someone would lure him away. Now someone had. He had come back just once to Court Green, to get his things; if she sued for divorce, he said he wouldn't stop her. He had left her. Her marriage was over.

There is no doubt in her mind: it was this house she'd wished for, unknowingly, from Yeats's tower. This house is going to be her salvation. God, she's made it. She braces for the chill and peels the blankets back. Her mauve wool bathrobe is retrieved from its position of abandonment on the coverlet, tugged over the shoulders of her eyelet-edged floral nightgown; her feet pivot to the hardwood floor. The cold hits her footsoles like a slap. Appropriate, this robe, its color: as if wrapping herself up in a bruise. Her heart feels light enough on this day that she can snatch a quick glimpse of objectivity, even endorse a little self-mocking criticism. In the corner beyond the bed, out of the children's reach, huddles one of the squat electric heaters she brought from Court Green. She tugs its cord out of the wall and scoots it, hugging her bathrobe to her, across the floor toward her desk.

She'd known this house was her omen as soon as she saw it; she's been counting on it (while the leasing agent sluggishly pondered her references) for a month. Jokingly, back at Court Green after finding the flat, she'd pulled out a volume of Yeats's plays from the bookshelves in the front parlor and told Sue the baby-minder she was looking for a sign. She needed benevolent spirits; she needed all the protection she could gather to herself. The page fell open, her finger marking a line in The Unicorn from the Stars: Get wine and food to give you strength and courage, and I will get the house ready.

In the fall orchard at Court Green, seventy-two trees hung with apples. She had borrowed a neighbor's long-handled picker and harvested all she could, a canvas sack slung across her breastbone, a three-legged ladder moving with her through the orchard, propped against the gnarled old trunks. Victoria cookers ripe in September, picked with Ted in joyless silence before the final Ireland rupture; then Pig's Noses and russeted Bramley's Seedlings in October, all layered now in straw in the wine cellar at Court Green but for the bag she filled for London. The honey from her new bees, also, she extracted, leaving the bees enough to winter over, supplemented with plates of sugar syrup, pie tins slow with Tate & Lyle left beneath the bare-branched fruit trees. Potatoes and onions as well dug up, the potatoes scrubbed, the dry platinum hair of the onions braided in a day-long session before the movers came. Just prior to leaving, with Sue amusing the babies and toting the last loads of storybooks and toys out to the Morris Traveller, she carried her clippers and an old pillowcase across the front lawn and cut a treacherous armload of holly. It was downstairs now, arranged in her pewter vase in the unpainted parlor, its red berries plump and shiny, the white-tipped leaves still green and supple, sharp as razors.

The houses lining the mews this dawn behind Fitzroy Road are edged in pink, suspended in a pastel nimbus of foggy illumination as the sun creeps beyond their rooftops. At her desk before the window, Sylvia sits in the sunrise quiet, her room, her papers, her flannel nightgown washed in thin blue light. She's risen today as she has every day since Ted left her in Ireland in September: While her two children sleep in their cribs, she has gone to her desk before sunrise, a habit begun as a way to give form to her suddenly nebulous days. Sleepless with the unknown, scenes from her marriage unreeling like a nightmare movie in her head, she needed a defense to stave off the creep of her misery.

It started as a helpful suggestion from her practical Devon midwife. With her husband gone and no help with the children, mornings before Frieda and Nicholas woke were Sylvia's only time to think or to write. Being alone had transformed so menacingly: with two babies in diapers, solitude had once seemed such a luxury. It had become, this fall, more of a sentence.

She wasn't sure, at first, that she could either think or write: her mind paced like an animal, desperate to flee, to connect, too frantic to do either. But something happened in those predawn mornings at her desk, some alchemy that distilled, concentrating her pain, dripping her fury into a purified essence, her own hot eau de vie. She had been struggling to write like this for years. Then Ted left, and the real muse moved in. Her poems had been flaming up, sparking, dangerous, for months. There was no sign of them stopping.

Blessed Sue the baby-minder -- she'd arrived when Sylvia, too, was burning white hot, back at October's end, after a comedically unsuitable (comedic only in retrospect) string of temporary nannies -- dour or disapproving or far too dear, one lasting all of an afternoon. The daughter of her Devon midwife's friend, a young nurse on break from her children's hospital job in London, Sue had been a godsend, a lifesaver. With Sue in the house watching the babies, Sylvia had not only been able to recover from the chronic viruses that had kept her feverish since summer -- the endless flu, the sinus infections -- but had also been able to work for unbroken hours during the day: twenty poems finished since Sue arrived, thirteen of them book poems. And with them the book: the manuscript of her second poetry collection, complete. The poems as well as the London flat found, Nicholas weaned, Court Green packed up and closed, she and the children successfully moved to London: all this with Sue's help. And it was cheerful Sue who kept Sylvia as well as the children company, who cock-horsed Nicholas on her knees and admired Frieda's puzzle and erased the gloom with her chatter while Sylvia prepared dinner or tea each day. Who made it obvious that what Sylvia needed was not a cold, professional nanny but a mother's helper in the truest sense: maybe an au pair, a young, smart, energetic girl like Sue, someone to help with the children and the house, but someone, also, to help Sylvia keep her own loneliness at bay. In Yeats's flat, Sylvia has settled both children into the largest of the three bedrooms and put a desk in her own. This leaves a third bedroom for an au pair, to be hired as soon as possible, as soon as Sylvia can find a suitable girl.

That to do, and finish moving in: painting the walls and the floors. Unpacking the boxes in the kitchen: the copper wedding cookware, her mother's Bavarian dish set brought from Wellesley last summer. Sewing curtains and pillows on her second-hand Singer machine. Hanging the few prints and etchings she's brought, putting up bookshelves. Ordering a double bed, perhaps more furniture if the flat still looks bare after her new chairs and straw carpets arrive. Painting the three bureaus delivered yesterday -- blue, she has decided, is her London color, inspired by months of watching dawn light: smoky dark blues, teals, navies, midnights. No more red: red was Court Green. The pink-washed walls trimmed in glossy white. The deep red carpet on the stairs, the Indian rugs in her study and the parlor and the bedrooms, the corduroy curtains she'd sewn. The few precious strawberries from plants not killed by late frost. The hearts-and-flowers she'd enameled on the children's furniture, on the used beehive given to them in June, on her sewing machine. Court Green was the home they'd made with their own hands. Of course it was red; it was the interior of her heart. It gave her a stab to think of it --

She wouldn't think of it now. Blue was for London. She'd already bought the paint.

She'd bought the paint, gone to the Gas Board and the leasing office, pleaded again with the post office for an earlier telephone hookup -- it might be weeks without a phone in the flat -- run errands and marketed in Camden Town, even put some hurried order to their piles of disheveled belongings. All this, again, accomplished with help: Sue had stayed one more day after their arrival in London. Without some sort of backup, caring for the children and finishing the move will absorb most of Sylvia's energy for weeks. She only prays that she and the babies stay well; as it is, she'll be too preoccupied to write until they are firmly settled into the flat. This, then, is her moment of satiation, the thrumming lull, the wing beat of a poet at rest. It was almost Christmas as well, a thought not nearly as grim as it had seemed a few weeks ago. There was shopping to do for the children, decorations -- the holly was a start -- to be made or found.

And she has a deep need, admittedly, to create this order. After the protracted months of not knowing how her fate would play itself, stunned by the melodrama her life had become, feeling herself flinch at every new, sordid revelation, she knows now where she stands: her husband has become a liar and a cheat, a man she doesn't recognize. He has killed their marriage. He's carried it away, limp in his hands, and forked it over with dirt; she'll never find it again. She'll go back to her home in the spring. Who would know then, who could remember -- daffodils waving their yellow heads by the thousands on the April hillside, lilac blowing over the nettled yard in May -- what death happened there? The blood, by then, the gory evidence, would be gone, faded from sight. Now, in December, she has a wintering place, perhaps somewhat dormant as it is, but alive to all she has planned. She is a writer in a sleeping indigo city of writers, waiting for everyone else to wake up.

She's impressed, sitting at her desk, astounded even, at her own tranquility. Since July -- since she first confronted Ted about his affair -- she's been counting the days, the hours, for a moment like this: to feel herself rising above the ugly episodes of her recent life. It's her poems and this move that have done it, that are spoon-feeding her the self-confidence she needs. They are her nectar, her royal jelly; she'll emerge from this stronger than she was. She feels like a warrior queen, poised, victorious in her bathrobe.

No noise, yet, from the nursery. No grumbling squawk and cot rattling from baby Nick or birdlike treble chatter from her two-year-old girl. She'll take this moment of peace, then, if that's what it is, and put herself totally to rights. Before her, on and about the desk, are files of poems, all she's written during the fall as well as some of those that followed her first collection published two years ago. She picks up a string-tied packet that she dropped in haste yesterday onto a stack of unpacked boxes. Wrapped in brown paper is a spring-clasp binder with stiff black boards, purchased while she rushed about yesterday in the Morris wagon. Slipping the binder free and resting it against her lap, she lifts the top file from the stack before her on the desk, slides the sheets from between the file's manila leaves. She holds in her hand a manuscript, a stack of poems half an inch thick, composed on the reverse side of a variety of papers: crisp pink Smith College memorandum sheets; a handwritten draft of one of Ted's early plays, The Calm; and the opening chapters of her own first novel, which will be pseudonymously published, British edition only, just after the new year -- The Bell Jar.

She's been thinking about this new collection of poems, their sequence, which to include, for nearly a month. Savoring the process, drawing it out, this pleasure of creating order, creating a truth, a logic and drive, out of their present seeming randomness. She knows certain things now: how many total -- forty-one, just as in Ted's brilliant second collection, Lupercal, the one that made him famous; this numerical scorecard is less an ego indulgence than it is purely superstitious, salt tossed over her shoulder. She knows, too, something about the movement of the poems as a body, how they rise like a startled flock, flying as one, wheeling, spreading chaotically across the sky, finally alighting in the same tree. She knows the story she wants them to tell. It is her story. It is where she wills herself to go; it is an incantation. She's giving shape to her life, past and future, with these poems. Like the arrangement of cards in a Tarot deck as they are turned up, it is not just the poems but their relation to each other that matters. She knows where she wants to begin.

The first poem is "Morning Song"; its first word is "love." She likes that, likes that it's a London poem. It seems symbolically right: she's wearing, this minute, the same flannel Victorian nightgown -- threadbare now, a London draft blowing up the hem, standing the hair on her unshaved legs on end. As in the poem, her baby, now two of them, will wake soon, calling to her with their twinned morning songs. It started with love, the life she wants to order; she resists the coming of bitterness into her head, of Ted, of how frightened and bereft she has been, how brittle, on some subterranean level, she knows today's elation to be -- she wants this moment, the sun blooming hesitantly through the window before her, her room filling with moody winter light, her manuscript complete in her hands, solely to herself, untainted.

It starts, then, with love: the mornings with her infant daughter in the cramped bedroom off Chalcot Square, Ted writing at first on the ridiculous rickety card table the Merwins had loaned, set up in the vestibule. It was his own little womb, she teased him. Too narrow for anyone to get by with Ted crouching enormously in his chair before his papers, facing the walls he had painted a deep vermilion. But that first London apartment was her birthplace also: she labored Frieda in their giant six-foot-square bed, an event -- not the birth itself, but the existential act of giving birth to her child, a complete and separate being -- she could see, then as now, as nothing but the beginning of her real existence. Becoming a mother: it was the galvanizing moment of her life. She would never do anything else to touch it, this ineffable transforming act. It drew her like a flame; it was a sound she couldn't help turning toward, literally also.

The poem itself she wrote much later, almost a year after, during that strange February of mounting anxiety: the second baby lost so swiftly, Ted's accumulating success and she secretary to his mail and calls, still not writing herself with predictable ease. The dismal prospect of an appendectomy and a week in hospital. In blue jeans and a rumpled shirt left over from Smith, the poet's wan wife, pushing a pram sans makeup. She thought, then, she was losing everything -- her unblemished marriage, Ted, the words she could not seem to uncover -- and she clung with a desperation she believed she had long ago exorcised. Not the desperation of a supplicant, but of a Fury. It was a month of red and white, a valentine mocking her, something she was part of and not part of, like her poem: the bloody clots, the walls in that claustrophobic apartment, the Irish hair, and the seductive voice on the phone, the lipstick -- not hers -- she was so sure of, and where was he? The red leather cover of Ted's Oxford Shakespeare. How dare he? She ripped it up: the tattered pages floated down, like snowflakes -- but it wasn't snow. She'd been waiting every year for snow in England; she waited still. She wanted snow's erasure, its lustration.

And yet, something vanished like snow: Ted came to the hospital, parting the crowds of stubby nurses, cradling more paper in his giant hands. Carrying offerings priceless as new life! -- her wished-for yearly contract from The New Yorker, the newsprint cone of nodding tulips, thick steak sandwiches on crisp, unsullied butcher's wrap tied with twine. He'd come; it was all forgotten. She could see now, in the camera obscura of her mind, the scene played in mirror image: her own face as he approached her hospital bed, his hands full. Impossible, but she knew it as she knew the cries of her babies: her face peeled back to innocence, her eyes wet, the tears shimmering, incandescent, prismatic, rolling down her face. Ecstasy, her face. All joy, her life. They were reunited. Her marriage had not been damaged. She had never been so glad to see him.

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Table of Contents

1 "Morning Song" 1
2 "The Couriers" 7
3 "The Rabbit Catcher" 24
4 "Thalidomide" 34
5 "The Applicant" 40
6 "Barren Woman" 48
7 "Lady Lazarus" 64
8 "Tulips" 83
9 "A Secret" 85
10 "The Jailor" 91
11 "Cut" 104
12 "Elm" 107
13 "The Night Dances" 116
14 "The Detective" 123
15 "Ariel" 129
16 "Death & Co." 142
17 "Magi" 152
18 "Lesbos" 158
19 "The Other" 164
20 "Stopped Dead" 169
21 "Poppies in October" 172
22 "The Courage of Shutting-Up" 174
23 "Nick and the Candlestick" 180
24 "Berck-Plage" 183
25 "Gulliver" 190
26 "Getting There" 194
27 "Medusa" 201
28 "Purdah" 213
29 "The Moon and the Yew Tree" 219
30 "A Birthday Present" 227
31 "Letter in November" 233
32 "Amnesiac" 237
33 "The Rival" 242
34 "Daddy" 248
35 "You're" 255
36 "Fever 103[degree]" 258
37 "The Bee Meeting" 261
38 "The Arrival of the Bee Box" 265
39 "Stings" 273
40 "The Swarm" 275
41 "Wintering" 280
Postscript 284
Author's Note 285
Acknowledgments and Permissions 289
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Reading Group Guide

“Beautiful and moving. . . . A novel about ambition, motherhood, identity, and love.” —The New York Times Book Review

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Kate Moses’s Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath.

1. A novel about an actual historical figure is different from most works of fiction. Moses says that she has invented “characters’ thoughts and conversations and the fictional particulars attributed to real events otherwise known only in sketchy detail” [Author’s Note, p. 286]. In her book about Plath, Janet Malcolm states, “In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination” [The Silent Woman, p. 155]. What questions do these two statements raise about the relationship of fiction to fact, especially as it relates to the experience of reading Wintering?

2. Is Wintering meant to stand alone as a novel, or is it meant to be read in necessary relation to Plath’s poetry, her journals, her biographies, etc.? What prior knowledge of the subject, if any, does the novel presuppose on the part of the reader?

3. On page 135 Plath thinks, “What had she gained by Ted’s leaving but her voice? What did she do now but listen to the beat of her own words, feel them and hear them as they formed—audacious, supple, ruthless, dazzling—in her mouth? . . . Her poems were lifting off the page. They hung in the air like a risen soul.” Does it seem true that the breakup of her marriage, with all its grief and anger, was the precipitating cause of Plath’s extraordinary breakthrough? If so, what does this suggest about the nature of her gift?

4. Kate Moses has designed her novel to coordinate chapter by chapter with the sequence of poems that Plath planned for Ariel. How does reading each poem with its corresponding chapter of Wintering affect the reading experience? What ideas, images, and emotions connect the poems with the chapters that share their titles? (See note about Ariel below.)

5. Critic George Steiner has said of the poems of Ariel, “Sylvia Plath’s poems have already passed into legend as both representative of our present tone of emotional life and unique in their implacable, harsh brilliance. . . . These poems take tremendous risks, extending Sylvia Plath’s essentially austere manner to the very limit. They are a bitter triumph. . . . She could not return from them.” Does the novel show Plath in a state of suicidal despair? Do you think her suicide was inevitable? Do you think Plath thought that was the only course of action available to her?

6. What does Court Green symbolize for Plath, with its ancient grounds, daffodils, and apple trees? In the chapter called “Barren Woman,” how does Plath compare herself with Assia Wevill, who has come to visit in Devon? What is the meaning of Assia’s dream, narrated on page 62? How do this chapter and the previous one create a sense of foreboding?

7. Wintering is an imaginative reconstruction of Sylvia Plath’s life during a time of extreme stress and creativity; her journals from this period were destroyed by Ted Hughes. Given this fact, does Wintering stand as a useful, even necessary attempt to re-create the aspects of Plath’s experience now lost from the historical record?

8. What happens to Plath in the cathedral? What does the light remind her of [pp. 75–76]? How does her confrontation with her mother help to explain the psychological pressures she is under? What are the juxtapositions that make the chapter titled “Lady Lazarus” so powerful?

9. How does the novel represent the life and marriage of two poets? How does Moses convey the intensity of the imaginative life and what poets need in order for their writing to thrive, as well as the danger of competition between them?

10. Many of the twentieth century’s major women writers—Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Gertrude Stein—had no children. Yet for Plath, Moses writes, “the existential act of giving birth to her child, a complete and separate being—she could see, [was] nothing but the beginning of her real existence. . . . She would never do anything else to touch it, this ineffable transforming act [pp. 9–10]. How does Plath’s motherhood reverberate through the novel, and how does it affect her work as a poet?

11. Comment on the novel’s structure, particularly on Moses’s practice of dating each chapter. Why might Moses have decided to end the novel on December 29, 1962, rather than on February 11, 1963, the day of Plath’s death? What is the tone of the final chapter?

12. Anne Stevenson, one of Plath’s biographers, writes that Wintering is “an admirably just and unexaggerated work of psychological empathy. . . . Everyone who seeks a valid, impartial explanation for Plath’s suicide should read this book.” What aspects of Plath’s life and state of mind, as depicted by Moses, pull the reader most powerfully into sympathy with her plight?

13. Does the novel invoke the reader’s sympathy for Ted Hughes, who is often seen as the villain of the Plath story? If so, how?

14. Harkening back to George Steiner’s reference to Plath’s “essentially austere manner,” comment on Moses’s prose style and use of imagery. Whose point of view does the narrator take? Why?

A Note about Sylvia Plath’s Ariel

The table of contents of Wintering reflects Plath’s intended order and inclusion of poems for Ariel, had she lived to see the collection into print. Instead, Ted Hughes rearranged the order and replaced fourteen poems with thirteen others of his own choosing. In Plath’s version the final poem was to be the bee poem “Wintering,” which ends with the stanza, “Will the hive survive, will the gladiolas / Succeed in banking their fires / To enter another year? / What will they taste of, the Christmas roses? / The bees are flying. They taste the spring.” But the published version of the book ends with the darker poems of early 1963, including “Edge.” Ariel was published in 1965 with Hughes’s selection and sequencing of the poems. For readers who wish to read the poems in the sequence Plath intended, the twelve poems missing from Ariel can be found in The Collected Poems.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 8, 2004

    One of the best written novels in years

    This is a stunningly well written book. Moses has a sophisticated melodic writing style that is a true joy to read. The book, about the last several months of Sylvia Plath's life, is not nearly as depressing as you might think. Moses does a great job of imagining the workings of Plath's mind. It certainly sparks an interest in her poetry as many poems are referred to in the text, and the chapter titles are the titles of poems from Ariel. You end up despising her husband, Ted Hughes, by the time you finish.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 3, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Dark psychological novel

    Although the book was "dreary", and shed a bad light on how we used to handle depression, it was a good twist on the life of Plath. Yes, yes, yes, it's a novel, but it used the times and the history of the talented poet and gave us a story to put with the poetry/poet. Not a bad read, but not real interested in diving back into this dark "season".

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2003

    brilliant, intense, astonishing writing

    _Wintering_ is one of the most careful, beautiful, and intelligent entrancing books I have ever read. I was so immersed in the world of it, I was still 'reading' even when I put the book down. The extreme, unique images that proliferate Moses' writing are as gorgeously discomforting and intense as Plath's own poetic metaphors. </P> <p>I do not even know how to describe how beautiful is the writing, the words are like notes in a symphony. Sometimes inspired 'wrong' notes make a reader/listener shiver, and sometimes miracluous phrases come together so melodically they leave the reader with chills. And it is hard to differentiate between the two extremes. In this way, the writing may mimic the mood swings of bipolar disorder, but where the depressive and manic flux is so quick the melodic shift sometimes happens in one word.</p> <p>Moses' novel is well-researched, better researched in fact than the biographies of Plath that I have read thus far. Perhaps this is because Moses has much more access than previous biographers who wrote while Hughes was still alive, and who wrote toward 'fact' -- even as these facts were mostly fictionalized by interpretation. Or perhaps Moses is simply an amazing, careful, writer. </p> <p>Interestingly, while a work of fiction, Moses' portrayal of Plath feels much more real than do the fictions created by biographers. Not that Moses' intent is to render facts or reality. What she does render, however, is really Plath through the 'red eye' of her poetry. Moses' _Wintering_ seems written from a deep love and her words pour forth as words do to a lover. The novel is intimate in that way -- the words render much more than precise 'detail' for the writing itself feels vulnerable, as painful and intense as an ill-fated (yet enduring) love. </p> <p>Each chapter takes the title of one of Plath's _Ariel_ poems -- those of her own ordering and not of Ted Hughes' edited arrangement. The chapter also take on the tone of the poem like a transposition of the poem into prose. The details are not necessarily the same, but in some way they are eerie reflections of the poem. I recommend reading Plath's _Ariel_ poems along with this book for a fascinating intertextual experience. </p> <p>The novel imagines the last months of Plath's life, and ends before the suicide. This is also true to Plath's wishes that the _Ariel_ poems end with 'Wintering'. (Hughes added poems written afterwards.) </p> In response to the first review here -- would only women (no men) be interested in reading this book and does it matter -- I am perplexed. I've never heard anyone wonder (or worry) that only men (and no women) would read any certain book. I want to say flippantly who cares? But then I want to know <u>who</u> cares?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2003

    One Poet Inside the Life of Another

    This is a magnificent book that is at once beautifully poetic and harrowingly real, even if it a fictional treatment of Sylvia Plath's last few months. The language is wonderfully lyrical yet stark, and is enforced by Moses' rich vocabulary and ablity to communicate the atmosphere of an invented setting exceptionally well. If the reader can keep himself from wondering whether or not certain events happened in actuality (this is, after all, fiction), 'Wintering' is easily an emotionally compelling read. Moses will be called a novelist, but is clearly also a poet. The consensus seems to be that this is a novel written for a female audience, but anyone with an appreciation for literary beauty will enjoy it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2003

    Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath

    Plath-land revisited. Here is the poetic langage and the sensitive re-telling of a tale oft told. Sylvia lived the life dreams were made of, but nothing was ever quite right. This novel captures the slightly 'off' quality of her life, and the author has the skill and talent to recreate her thoughts imaginatively in her own language.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 20, 2003

    Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath

    The author is herself steeped in the poetics of Plath. This makes for a magical read at first, but soon becomes mind-numbing. The book weaves randomly back and forth between two enchanting locations: the poet's country home in rural England (near Exeter) and her final London apartment, where once had lived the poet Yeats. Each chapter is headed with a title taken from a late poem by Plath, and the enchantment of the titles enriches the novel. The book sheds light on the poems, and was obviously inspired by them. this a book that would only be read by a woman? Does that matter?

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