Just before dawn on Monday, February 11 1963, Sylvia Plath turned on the gas. Upstairs, her children slept sealed inside their bedroom. On her desk lay a binder containing the extraordinary new poems that she had correctly predicted would make her name: her Ariel collection. Later that day, her husband, Ted Hughes, would find it there and resolve to have it published, setting into motion a decades-long effort of digging and sifting through the mass of writing Plath left behind for clues to explain the most famous literary suicide of the 20th century.

The first attempt appeared that weekend in The Observer: an essay by Al Alvarez, the newspaper’s critic and a friend of Hughes and Plath, accompanied by some of the new poems, which he described as “a totally new breakthrough in modern verse”. Alvarez said Plath “had been writing continuously almost as though possessed” in the months before her death. Momentum built quickly: Plath was soon a household name; her suicide, the defini...

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