‘A letter always seemed to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend,’ wrote Emily Dickinson. Yet part of the lure of letters – and life writing generally – is a sense of the corporeal, the promise of discovering the writer herself. As Jacqueline Rose suggests, writing about biography and Sylvia Plath in the London Review of Books, it is tempting to imagine access ‘not just into the inner recesses of the poet’s thought, but through the veils, behind the closed doors of her past’.
Perhaps suicide intensifies this desire. Rose suggests ‘it is a paradox of suicide that the murderer, who lives on for ever, is the one who didn’t survive’. In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), she probes the antithetical after-effects of this. Plath ‘haunts our culture’, Rose writes, but is caught between execration and idealisation, hovering in ‘the space of what is most extreme, most violent, about appraisal, valuation, about moral and literary assessment’.