The Irish sojourn of Sylvia Plath
Published 24/09/2006 | 00:11
THE tragedy of an early death, particularly a suicide, is ghoulishly matched by the interest it provokes. Lives lived intensely then extinguished suddenly command great pity but also curiosity; regret but admiration, too.
It's rock 'n' roll; the glamour of something short and sharp eclipses the sorrow of it, and focuses public attention in a way that the gentle unfolding to old age can never do. This glamour clings to Sylvia Plath. People who don't read poetry read Plath. Teenagers who don't read anything read Plath. Her many fans show an intense, possessive adoration in which her life and work are never separated.
Minutely documented, picked over, speculated upon and analysed, there is little left of Plath's life that isn't public property. Yet the essence of this difficult, talented, haunted woman is elusive. The myth gets in the way. There is her myth, his myth - that's Ted Hughes - and the myth of their joint creation.
At Plath's funeral Hughes said, "Everybody hated her." But that can't be right. Many people took an energetic and practical interest in her: helping her write, support herself, stay alive. Shortly before she died, she persuaded the landlord of 23 Fitzroy Road, London NW1, a house where Yeats once lived, to let her the top floors for a year, although they were long promised to the basement tenant. She had a charm and energy that won her friends despite her demanding, neurotic temperament. Hughes also said on the day of her burial, "It was a fight to the death. One of us had to die." On the evidence, this seems more believable.
The antagonism generated by the converging of their lives just can't seem to be laid to rest. Even now there is barely an assessment of one that doesn't include the other. Who was the better poet? Most difficult to live with? Most to blame for the failure of the relationship?
Ultimately, even, who is really to blame for her death?
This isn't the story of Sylvia Plath's life, it's the story of a brief part of it: the time she spent in Ireland just before her separation from Ted Hughes; the lifeline she threw to the poet Richard Murphy, who was unable to catch hold, (and undoubtedly powerless to haul her in, anyway). It's also a bit of the story of the strange and compelling figure that Sylvia was, and the excitement she continues to spark.
Her life was painful almost throughout, often on an intense scale, yet in every photograph of Sylvia Plath she is smiling - a dazzling, white, American smile. Because it was the Fifties, and that's what women did: they turned bright smiles to the world, keeping demons and desires locked away. If Sylvia had been born just 20 years later, with all the raw anger of Punk at her disposal to express the rage and pain that took such effort to subdue, she might have made a go of it. But she was born in 1932, dead in 1963; her adult life lived before the liberation of the Sixties. So she suppressed, distorted, dissembled, smiled - ever the high-achieving all-rounder, the golden girl and homecoming queen.
But where the idealised Fifties woman existed to make the lives of men more pleasant, Plath had an intense ambition of her own. She was an excellent student, her talent recognised with scholarships, prizes, publication. She didn't just settle for participation, she had to demonstrate perfection. Forcing herself to excel at everything, the pressure she brought to bear on a fragile nature is astonishing. No wonder cracks appeared. After one mental breakdown, so remarkably documented in The Bell Jar, she moved to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, full of hope for new beginnings, determined to give expression to the emotions that seethed inside her.
That's where she saw Ted Hughes, and instantly had to have him. He was magnificent, talented, sexually magnetic, already a star, and a match for her. He was everything she needed to validate her, the trophy she owed herself, and her sexual equal. Back then, in early 1956, he was already on the road to glory, building up the twin legends of his poetic talent and his womanising.
They met at a Cambridge party. He tore off her headband and kissed her full on the lips, then on the neck. She responded by biting him on the cheek "long and hard", until blood poured down his face. The moment, despite endless retellings, still has a dark excitement to it. A shudder of passion that set the tone of their volcanic relationship, and her angry, pitiful, aggressive death.
Four months later, they married, in a ceremony in London so hurried it seemed unlikely they would get a licence in time. During their six-year marriage they were rarely separated for over 12 hours at a time. They fought with violent conviction, inspired and drove each other creatively, and made love, Sylvia said, "like giants".
They had a deep, wild connection that survived her suicide (Hughes described three "dream-meetings" with Sylvia, and the endless presence of the dead wife drove his lover Assia demented).
Perhaps such unions aren't meant to last. Certainly by the time Sylvia came to Ireland - her only visit here - the beginning of the end of the marriage was well upon them.
The visit was much shorter than she intended. It lasted five days, in September 1962. Plath and Hughes were the guests of the poet Richard Murphy, son of an Anglo-Irish army family, a charming, entertaining man then living in Cleggan, Connemara.
Hughes had recently begun the red-hot affair with Assia Wevill that ended his marriage, and longed to go to Spain with her. Ted and Sylvia had agreed a six-monthseparation; Plath decided to spend the winter in Ireland and had come to find a house to rent.
She was dejected and vulnerable, but - as usual - covering it with a bright countenance. She also seems to have hoped that Murphy might be bound to her. She needed a friend, a soulmate; a refuge from the loneliness anddegradation inflicted by Hughes's very public affair and the mocking reminders of her own failure. A tall order for any man, and Hughes was a hard act to follow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the men she turned to - first Murphy; later Al Alvarez, a Faber editor - were unmoved, unequal or unsuitable . . . maybe all three.
Physical descriptions of Sylvia focus on her energy, her vitality, her immaculate appearance. Undoubtedly she was attractive to men, although she didn't always see or feel that herself, but perhaps it was her inner qualities, her intelligence, passion and curiosity that transformed her. In looks alone, she was eclipsed by Assia Wevill, who had exotic beauty and an animal magnetism not unlike Ted's. William Trevor remembers Assia as looking rather like Sophia Loren; another friend, David Ross, was put in mind of the young Elizabeth Taylor, while Richard Murphy describes her Babylonian beauty. Born in Germany, from whence her family fled to Palestine to escape persecution, she was married to her third husband, the poet David Wevill, by the time she met Ted and Sylvia, whose London flat she and David were renting.
Ted and Sylvia had moved down to Devon after the birth of their second child, Nicholas, in an attempt to give their marriage time and space. Stuck for intelligent company, and caged by the harsh Devon winter, they invited the Wevills for a weekend, a weekend Assia began by announcing, in seductive tones, at the ad agency where she worked, "I'm going to seduce Ted."
It is unlikely that the roles of seducer and seduced can be distinguished here. The moment came around the Sunday lunchtime. Ted and Assia were in the kitchen, preparing food. David and Sylvia, whose second child was barely a few months old, were outside chatting, the sounds of the kitchen drifting towards them. Sylvia, David Wevill recalls, suddenly went absolutely still, then sprang up and ran into the kitchen. She did not return and at lunch was very quiet. That afternoon she seemed on edge and keen for the guests to leave. On the train home together, Assia made no secret of the cause of her distress: "Ted kissed me in the kitchen and Sylvia saw it."
Over the following months the affair picked up speed, beginning with self-conscious gestures - such as the blade of grass from outside her London office that Assia picked and drenched with Dior perfume, then sent to Ted, only to have him return it, together with a blade of Devon grass - and moving to gain critical mass when Sylvia, in a jealous fury, threw Ted's letters and manuscripts onto a bonfire. This gave him the excuse he needed, and he left for London and Assia. Neither bothered hiding their affair, orthe sexual charge between them. Ted's furious lovemaking delighted Assia, who told one of her work friends, "You know, in bed, he smells likea butcher."
(The effect on Assia's husband, David, was devastating, and one Friday in July - after she told him she was going to Waterloo Station to see Ted off - he swallowed a large handful of sleeping pills and laid himself out on the living room sofa, clutching a silver-handled Burmese knife. Assia found him there and rushed him to hospital, where she walked him around all night to keep him alive.)
Yet Ted didn't cut Sylvia out of his life entirely. He couldn't, and continued to journey back and forth from London to Devon, from Assia to Sylvia. This, then, is the emotional backdrop to those lost five days in Ireland.
Sylvia and Ted first met Richard Murphy at a poetry festival at the Mermaid Theatre in London in summer of 1961. They lunched together that day, talking of country life, fishing and the sea.
Sylvia, as was often the case, spoke more than her husband, but it was the "strong and silent" Hughes who made the more profound impression on Murphy. They listened, fascinated, as Murphy talked about the West of Ireland and his push to make a living taking tourists out to sea in a revamped hooker, the Ave Maria.
In the spring of the following year, Plath was judging at the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where Murphy had a poem, The Cleggan Disaster. Although the rules meant he had to adopt a literary pseudonym (he chose 'Fisherman'), he got a letter from Sylvia before the official verdict telling him that Years Later, the epilogue to his poem, had won first prize in the Guinness Awards. This was the same prize she had won the year before with Insomniac. It seemed an auspicious start to the friendship. Plath also suggested a visit to Connemara, saying she "desperately needed a boat, the sea, and no squalling babies" and that he seemed like a lovely personto visit.
Hughes, despite the separation, came with her, and they arrived one Thursday in September, after the tourist season, when Murphy could give them his full attention. They signed the visitors' book in the Pier Bar in Cleggan, giving separate addresses: Halifax in Yorkshire - his parents' home - for him, Court Green, the Devon house, for her. The next day, Murphy took them to Coole Park, Lady Gregory's estate, and Yeats's Tower at Ballylee. As Richard's old van chugged along, Sylvia sat in front with him, talking about his marriage and hers, while Ted sat in the back. Richard had been married to Patricia Avis, also a writer, and had spent much of the marriage feeling "bound to prevent her from having a nervous breakdown as a result of the strain of being married to me". He didn't succeed, and she requested a divorce.
At the Tower, Ted, egged on by Sylvia, carved his initials into the copper beech tree alongside those of Yeats, because, she said, he was more deserving than some of the other names up there - Synge, Bernard Shaw. When Sylvia and Ted noticed a moss-covered apple tree, and as one - much to Murphy's disapproval - they insisted it be shaken and the apples be gathered up to make apple tarts through the winter.
From there, the strange little troop paid an afternoon visit to Murphy's Aunt Bunty in Milford, where Sylvia was warmly welcomed, and Richard feared that Ted, with his West Yorkshire accent, would be sent to the kitchen to take tea with the servants. Richard Murphy showed Sylvia framed prints of Rangoon in 1826 hanging on the wall of the stairs, and these were to later appear in her poem The Courage of Shutting Up.
But by that night Richard was feeling the strain. The poison of a marriage in shreds was starting to spill over; though each was "marvellous company", and an inspiration, his guests were not getting on together, even though they neither quarrelled nor spoke sharply to one another. He rang Thomas Kinsella and asked him to come down from Dublin to "break the triangle into a square". Next day, while waiting for Tom, Richard took his visitors out in the boat to Inisbofin, Sylvia lay prone on the foredeck, breathing the sea air with deep, ecstatic gasps. Years later, Richard heard from the islanders that Sylvia had made a good impression, Ted a bad one. Even there, miles from the literary and social round-keeping of London life, the two were pitted head to head, compared and judged.
Over the few days, Richard found himself the confidant of both Ted and Sylvia, though neither was telling all. Ted said the marriage, which had been hugely creative for him, had become destructive and that he needed to get out, even just for a while. Sylvia spoke of separation, not divorce, saying she couldn't imagine either of them ever married to anyone else. Neither of them mentioned Assia.
Richard urged Sylvia not to divorce on account of an affair that might not last. He offered practical help, agreeing to help her find a cottage for the winter, although he was alarmed when, in her enthusiasm, she offered to rent his and let him live in it. Instead he introduced her to a local woman, Kitty Marriott, from whom she arranged to rent a cottage from the November.
At dinner, the steady ripples of tension and mute attraction began to spread.
Ted, Sylvia, Richard and Thomas Kinsella sat down together, maintaining a flow of good conversation. Sylvia took her due part in this, but something else was driving her. She kicked Richard gently under the table. But whatever her intended message, he didn't, or couldn't, respond. "I didn't want to have an affair with her, or break up her marriage, or make Ted jealous, or upset Mary Coyne [his housekeeper; by default, the villagers]," he said.
Already an outsider - by birth, by religion, by accent, by the failure of his marriage - Murphy was on thin ground, but he walked it well.
Although had his attraction to Plath been strong enough, he would have found ways to make the impossible happen. Sadly for Sylvia, history was against her. The demands of her fragile nature were too close to Murphy's ex-wife, Patricia. He has said, "I didn't want to be overwhelmed by her genius, or to become as deeply responsible for keeping her alive in Connemara as I had been for keeping Patricia alive at Lake Park."
The next morning Richard returned from an early outing to find Sylvia alone at the kitchen table. Ted had gone to stay with the painter Barrie Cooke in Co Clare, without a word to his host. Sylvia planned to meet him on Wednesday for the return to London, leaving her three days alone with Richard.
The question of motivation, as nearly always, is a mystery, a whisper. Was Sylvia abandoned as she said, or had she hustled this opportunity? Did Ted understand? Was he tacitly giving his approval, hoping for an outcome that would somehow unburden him to follow his heart?
Richard's reaction was born of panic. He insisted Sylvia leave for Dublin the next day with Thomas Kinsella. She was enraged. Her warmth and enthusiasm changed in an instant to "strangulated hostility" and she unburdened herself to Mary Coyne, who was clearly inspired with the strongly protective feelings that were so often the reaction of kindly older women who encountered Sylvia. Of those moments, Mary Coyne said, "I never saw anyone so miserable. My heart went out to her."
Denied the escape that a lover might have provided, Sylvia returned to Devon, writing Richard a letter full of both thanks and recriminations, and withdrawing the offer to visit her. In doing so she mocked him and his fear of public opinion, saying that he couldn't stay with her because there was a little cripple hunchback who kept an eye on everyone who came to her house. It's a spirited response, a challenge to what she must have seen as his cowardice, but it was cruel, too.
Murphy heard from Sylvia just once more. In October, she wrote to say she was getting a divorce, and was writing each day from 4am until the children got up. Still expecting her to take a cottage in Cleggan for the winter, he waited, wanting to answer in person. Instead Sylvia changed her plans, perhaps feeling that Ireland had less, after all, to offer than she had hoped. She moved to London, to the flat on Fitzroy Road and in January of 1963 died there, by turning on the gas and putting her head deep inside the oven.
In life, the people of this story were connected by a skein of desire that briefly held them together in artificial proximity. In death, the common thread of suicide binds them tight. First Sylvia, then her rival Assia in a kind of dreadful homage to Sylvia, only with a grotesque one-upmanship that made her drag Shura, her four-year-old daughter by Ted, down too. Richard Murphy's wife, Patricia Avis, may also have taken her own life, she was found dead surrounded by alcohol and barbituate bottles.
Ted lived to 68, though it seems much longer. Only Richard Murphy and David Wevill, the peripheral figures of this dark drama, are still alive. The forces that drew these people together make the story like some kind of a haunting, a curse. Or maybe that's just the way that the dark places of certain souls cry out to certain others?
Invaluable references for this article include Richard Murphy's 'The Kick' (Granta; ?14.60) and Ronald Hayman's 'The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath' (Sutton Publishing; ?11.75)
You should also look out for 'A Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill' by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev (Robson Books)