Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath

Overview

This is the story of a woman forging a new life for herself after her marriage has foundered, shutting up her beloved Devonshire house and making a home for her two young children in London, elated at completing the collection of poems she foresees will make her name. It is also the story of a woman struggling to maintain her mental equilibrium, to absorb the pain of her husband's betrayal and to resist her mother's engulfing love. It is the story of Sylvia Plath.

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Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath

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Overview

This is the story of a woman forging a new life for herself after her marriage has foundered, shutting up her beloved Devonshire house and making a home for her two young children in London, elated at completing the collection of poems she foresees will make her name. It is also the story of a woman struggling to maintain her mental equilibrium, to absorb the pain of her husband's betrayal and to resist her mother's engulfing love. It is the story of Sylvia Plath.

In this deeply felt novel, Kate Moses recreates Sylvia Plath's last months, weaving in the background of her life before she met Ted Hughes through to the disintegration of their relationship and the burst of creativity this triggered. It is inspired by Plath's original ordering and selection of the poems in Ariel, which begins with the word 'love' and ends with 'spring,' a mythic narrative of defiant survival quite different from the chronological version edited by Hughes. At Wintering's heart, though, lie the two weeks in December when Plath finds herself still alone and grief-stricken, despite all her determined hope. With exceptional empathy and lyrical grace, Moses captures her poignant, untenable and courageous struggle to confront not only her future as a woman, an artist and a mother, but the unbanished demons of her past.

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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)

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.
KLIATT
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 Salon.com’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.
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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312283759
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/8/2003
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.78 (w) x 8.66 (h) x 1.12 (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 university. She subsequently worked as an editor in publishing and as literary director at San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts, and in 1997 became one of the two founding editors of Salon.com's Mothers Who Think website, which led to the American Book Award-winning anthology Mothers Who Think, co-edited 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.
London

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

Our Book Club Recommendation
With her first novel, Kate Moses has courageously and brilliantly imagined herself into the life of Sylvia Plath, one of the best-known poets of the 20th century. Wintering re-imagines Plath's daily life during the final, creatively explosive year before she took her own life at the age of 30. Reading groups will find Moses' version a thought-provoking journey into the world of poetic genius.

Wintering follows Plath through the months in which she wrote and arranged the incendiary poems that made up her collection Ariel, which was published after her death. Much of the novel takes place just weeks before Plath's suicide in February 1963. Her marriage to poet Ted Hughes is ending, and she is struggling to care for her children on her own. In Moses' portrait, Plath taps into her powerful muse just as her life hits this devastating low, and her poetry grows strong despite her sensations of "the terrible trapdoor of the world swinging loose."

Moses has taken the 41 original poems that Plath chose for Ariel and based each chapter on a poem, following the order the poet originally chose. Her method weaves together Plath's art and life, and will have many groups talking about the relationship between an artist’s biography and her creative output.

The effect is to focus not so much on events themselves but on Plath's seething emotional life, and the creative insights that sprang from this turmoil. Moses is particularly focused on Plath's day-to-day life as a mother of two small children, and the way in which her desperate love for them became an inspiration for her poetry: Another title might have been A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Mother.

Readers who have already encountered Plath’s poems from this period will find Wintering full of echoes of Ariel itself, in its metaphors and images: Groups may wish to read these poems alongside Moses’ novel. The author has distilled Plath’s powerful style, and her rendering of flowers and trees, children and houses, bodies and landscapes all vibrate with the same dangerous energy that characterizes Plath's poetry. This novel provides numerous opportunities to discuss that voice, Plath's remarkable verse, and the equally remarkable life that produced it. (Bill Tipper)

An Introduction from the Publisher
Wintering finds Sylvia Plath on her own with her two young children, elated by a move to London and her newly completed poetry manuscript despite the collapse of her marriage to Ted Hughes. Yet within days her resolve is tested. She and her children fall ill. She crosses paths with Ted's lover. And when she gives her poems to Ted to read, she is shaken by his reaction: He is not angry about her vicious mythologizing of their breakup, but stunned into silence by sadness and artistic respect.

Sylvia realizes her poetic triumph has come at a terrible cost. Teetering at the edge of an emotional precipice, she sends Ted on a mission through England's worst snowstorm in decades for items that she has imbued with the totemic power to put things right -- apples, honey, and red curtains left behind at her country home. As Wintering concludes, Sylvia clings to the one thing she believes can save her: hope.

Drawing inspiration from Plath's life and poems, Wintering is a deeply felt novel about artistry, marriage, motherhood, and self-understanding.

Discussion Questions
1. Sylvia Plath's Ariel poems are almost all written from the first person point of view, yet Wintering's narrative is told in the third person. Why do you think the author chose this perspective? What role does perspective play in the novel?

2. Describe Ted Hughes as portrayed in Wintering. Do you think he is fully committed to his marriage to Sylvia? How do you account for his decision to enter into an affair with Assia?

3. In Chapter 29, "The Moon and the Yew Tree", Ted hesitates to tell Sylvia what he really thinks of her poem. What are the consequences of his hesitation, and of Sylvia's refusal to acknowledge the darkness of her world view as she expresses it in her poem? What do Ted and Sylvia's choices in this chapter tell us about each of them, about their marriage, and about the idea of faith?

4. What symbolic role does the ocean play in Sylvia's imagination? How does it relate to her relationship with her mother?

5. What do you think is Sylvia's opinion of herself as a mother? How does Sylvia's longing for fertility -- both as a mother and as an artist -- impact her sense of self as she assembles her Ariel manuscript?

6. The telephone plays an important role -- almost that of a character -- in Wintering. How does the telephone affect Sylvia's sense of personal success and failure, and of "solving the problem of herself"?

7. There are various references to religion in Wintering. For example, Sylvia's voyeuristic desire to attend services at the church next to Court Green in Chapter 29, "The Moon and the Yew Tree"; her belief that "her god is dead, again" in Chapter 15, "Ariel"; her walk through the rainy churchyard in Chapter 12, "Elm"; her recalling of the famous lines about faith, hope and charity from I Corinthians in Chapter 19, "The Other"; her memory of an old Catholic chorale about the Christmas rose in Chapter 40, "The Swarm." What is the author telling us about Sylvia's relationship to organized religion? To faith?

8. The chapter titles in Wintering are taken directly from the poem titles, in Sylvia Plath's intended order, of Ariel and Other Poems. Yet Wintering's chapters do not necessarily refer in overt ways to their poetic counterparts. Think about the chapter titles and what the author might be telling us about Sylvia and her relationship to the story she is constructing through her manuscript. For example, what is the author saying about Chapter 3, "Thalidomide"? Or Chapter 10, "The Jailor"? Or Chapter 30, "A Birthday Present"?

9. In Chapter 1, Sylvia thinks of herself as a "poet at rest." The author tells us that the real Sylvia Plath began writing poetry again at the very end of December 1962, within days of the confrontation at Ted's borrowed apartment depicted in Chapter 40, "The Swarm." What does the novel tell us about why Sylvia would be moved to begin writing poetry again? Do you think the poems written during the last weeks of Sylvia Plath's life came from the same inspiration that produced her artistic output of the fall of 1962?

10. "The ones you love will leave you": this is the statement that Sylvia believes is her intuitive gift of understanding in Chapter 15, "Ariel". How does this relate to the themes of faith and fate that are threaded throughout Wintering? What relationship does it have to Chapter 20, "Stopped Dead," in which the myth of Arachne and Sylvia's viewing of the film "Through a Glass Darkly" are entwined?

11. We are told that the anagram Sylvia imagines at the end of Chapter 40, "The Swarm," tells her "you are ash." How does this symbolic statement relate to Sylvia's defiant independence in Chapter 15, "Ariel", when she rides at sunrise on the morning of her thirtieth birthday?

12. In Chapter 34, "Daddy," Sylvia's father appears only remotely. What is the author telling us about Sylvia Plath's notorious poem?

13. The locations depicted in Wintering are all real, and interestingly, most are on hilltops: Cawsand Hill in Dartmoor, the setting of Sylvia's ride on the horse Ariel; Court Green and its neighboring church and the local playground overlooking the village of North Tawton; Smith College; the Primrose Hill neighborhood in London. In an autobiographical essay the real Plath wrote for the BBC just weeks before her death, she stated that the pride of mountains terrified her, and she found the stillness of hills stifling. What do these hilltop settings, where so many of the most significant events of her life occur, tell us about Sylvia's character?

14. Sylvia Plath has long been considered a feminist icon. Yet Sylvia's relationship to most of the female characters in Wintering -- her mother, Dido Merwin, Assia Wevill, her neighbors in North Tawton and in Primrose Hill -- can be described as conflicted at best. "I so rarely get any girl talk," Sylvia says to Assia while talking in the garden in Chapter 6, "Barren Woman." What do you think of the statement about Wintering made by biographer Diane Middlebrook: "I've never read a more womanly book"? Do you think Sylvia is a feminist?

15. Wintering opens with an image of golden sight and a metaphoric ocean, and ends with a related image of golden sight and another imagined ocean. What is the author telling us with this pair of symbols?

16. One of the themes that runs through Wintering is that of different art forms responding to each other: fiction to poetry, poetry to film, poetry to music, poetry to visual art. How does the fictional aspect of Wintering respond to the poetry that was its inspiration?

17. Sylvia Plath's manuscript for Ariel and Other Poems, which she told Ted Hughes began with the word "love" and ended with the word "spring", has never been published. Now that you know how Sylvia Plath envisioned Ariel, does it change the way you think of Plath as an artist or as a woman? As a mother?

18. The author has chosen not to depict Sylvia's suicide in Wintering, ending the novel a few weeks before her death. Why? Plath biographer Anne Stevenson has written of Wintering that "Everyone who seeks a valid, impartial explanation for Plath's suicide should read this book." Does Wintering aid in your understanding of why the real Sylvia Plath killed herself?

About the Author
Kate Moses is one of the two founding editors of salon.com's "Mothers Who Think" website, and co-editor of the anthology, Mothers Who Think. She lives in San Francisco, California.

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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • 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. But...is this a book that would only be read by a woman? Does that matter?

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