Women’s History Month: The Rose Remembers Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath

Willie Lieberman is a third-year student in the History honors program specializing in European Studies. 

The Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library is shining a spotlight on female authors to celebrate Women’s History Month. Two of the most important writers of the 20th century are Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Sylvia Plath (1932-1963). Virginia Woolf was a vital contributor to literary modernism, and Sylvia Plath’s bold works inspired generations of feminists. The two never met, but these women’s lives crossed in more ways than one. They both pioneered the confessional narrative and often utilized this method to convey their experiences as women. Ultimately, they lost their lives to the impact of mental illness.

Sylvia Plath clearly admired Virginia Woolf and possibly saw herself in the author. The Rose Library has Sylvia Plath’s personal copy of Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (1927), one of her most popular and acclaimed novels. 


Image 1: Plath’s copy of To The Lighthouse

Plath heavily annotated her copy, and her handwriting is seen below.

Image 2: Plath’s handwritten annotation

It seems that Plath may have annotated sections that spoke to her personal life and troubled relationship with her husband.

Image 3: Additional annotation

Plath’s husband was Ted Hughes who was a prolific poet himself. The Rose Library is home to both his papers and his personal library, which is how we obtained Plath’s copy of To The Lighthouse.

Image 4: Plath’s signature and the Ted Hughes Collection bookplate

Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes inspired many of her poems, especially those in her final collection Ariel that was published posthumously in 1965. The Rose Library holds an uncorrected proof copy of Ariel annotated by Plath’s close friend and fellow confessional poet, Anne Sexton.

Image 5: Ariel (1965)

Image 6: Anne Sexton’s signature

Sexton annotated sections that she believed referred to Plath’s rocky marriage to Ted Hughes or lines that showed Sylvia’s mental state in her last work before her suicide.. Below, Sexton underlined such passages, adding “freedom is death.”

Image 7: Sexton’s annotation

Perhaps the most notable of Sexton’s annotations is for Plath’s poem “Ariel.” Plath named the book after this poem, so this was clearly a central or important poem to her. Sexton’s addition reads: 

“Suicidal cauldron of morning is both an image of rebirth and a place where one is cooled, and the red solar eye in Freudian terms is the eye of the father, the patriarchal superego which destroys and devours with a single glace”

Image 8: Sexton’s “Ariel” annotation

Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf suffered hardships in their lives, but despite their pain they became two of the most revered writers of the 20th century. Their lives were cut short, but their legacies remain strong as their works garner widespread readership well into the twenty-first century. The Rose Library is proud to celebrate these women and their accomplishments during Women’s History Month.