Sunday 22 September 2019

Sylvia Plath's haunting letters document the rise and fall of a literary marriage whose dissolution destroyed a genius

Autobiography: The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963, Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil Harper, hardback, 1,088 pages, €43

From bliss to desperation: Plath with her children from fellow poet Ted Hughes, Frieda and Nicholas
From bliss to desperation: Plath with her children from fellow poet Ted Hughes, Frieda and Nicholas
From bliss to desperation: Plath with her children from fellow poet Ted Hughes, Frieda and Nicholas
The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963 by Sylvia Plath, edited by Peter K Steinberg and Karen V Kukil

In the literary world, there have been writers who marry - Percy and Mary Shelley, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. But few, if any, literary couples are as well known for the end of their marriage as Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. That's because Plath used Hughes' "desertion," as she called it, as source material for poems in Ariel, the posthumous collection that made her one of the most widely read poets of the 20th century.

The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 2, deftly edited by Plath authorities Karen V Kukil and Peter K Steinberg, serves as a chronicle of the Plath-Hughes marriage. Volume 1, published last year, covered Plath's youth and education, concluding with her four-month courtship with Hughes, whom she met at Cambridge University in February 1956. Because Plath was an ardent letter writer, Volume 2, coming in at more than 1,000 pages, assiduously documents the joy and success of the marriage's first six years and the anguish and drama of its final six months that resulted in Plath's suicide one frigid morning in February 1963.

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It started out so blissfully. During their first year of marriage, Plath often wrote to her mother about Hughes: "I really am convinced he is the only person in the world I could ever love." And: "[I]t is simply impossible to describe how strong ... and brilliant he is." And: "My joy in Ted increases every day." On their first anniversary: "I can't actually remember what it was like not being married to Ted." Two years later: "Ted and I are so happy, and healthy - our life together seems to be the whole foundation of my being."

She also gushed about his support during the birth of their daughter, Frieda, in 1960, and after Plath's appendectomy a year later: "To see him come in at visiting hours ... with his handsome kind smiling face is the most beautiful sight in the world."

The enthusiasm continued, with some caveats. Plath told one friend that Hughes would "bash my head in" if she tried to "boss" him and mentioned "violent disagreements" to her mother and "rousing battles" to her brother, Warren. In late 1961, the couple bought Court Green, a sprawling thatched-roof house on a small estate in Devon, and settled in just in time for Plath to give birth to Nicholas in January 1962. The Hugheses had sublet their London flat to David and Assia Wevill, another literary couple (though less accomplished). After the Wevills visited in May 1962, Ted and Assia struck up an affair that Plath discovered in July, and Hughes left Court Green in August to live in London.

Then the fawning stopped. To her mother, Plath wrote: "I hate and despise [Ted]"; and because Hughes was "dangerously destructive ... I feel both the children and I need protection from him, for now and forever." She wrote to her friend, Kathy Kane: "Ted has deserted us... I can't tell you the terrible sadistic footnotes, they are too involved and elaborate and poetic." And to her psychiatrist, Ruth Barnhouse, she confessed: "I think I am dying. I am just desperate."

Barnhouse had treated Plath at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts after Plath's nervous breakdown and suicide attempt in 1953, an ordeal that was the basis of Plath's autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. The two were regularly in touch for the next decade. The letters Plath wrote to Barnhouse would be her most revealing. When the existence of 14 surviving letters - long, detailed dispatches totalling about 18,000 words - was discovered last year, it warranted national media attention. Included in Volume 2, the letters, especially those written after the break-up, contain unsettling disclosures.

Hughes' "lies are incredible and continuous," she wrote, adding, "Any kind of caution or limit makes him murderous." Indeed, Hughes could be violent. "Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage [in 1961]: the baby I lost was due to be born on his birthday... He tells me now it was weakness that made him unable to tell me he did not want children." She also wrote that Hughes hated their son, Nicholas. "He has never touched him since he was born, says he is ugly and a usurper." Finally, Hughes wanted to be free of Plath. "He told me openly he wished me dead," she wrote. "He was furious I didn't commit suicide, he said he was sure I would!"

Plath's next move was carried out with the help of a lawyer in London. The legal separation she insisted on in August and September - Hughes agreed to pay £1,000 a year in maintenance - turned into a planned divorce by October. That month, she announced her intention to get a divorce to her mother, friends and Barnhouse.

For years after Plath's death, Hughes told friends that he and Plath were on the verge of reconciliation when she died. But Plath's letters tell the opposite story. She was resolute in her decision to get a divorce. She was working with a lawyer to make sure it happened. She was "ecstatic" that Hughes was gone. She also decided to move on from Court Green. She planned on relocating to Ireland, where she could recover in peace far from Hughes, but her mother lobbied against it and surreptitiously encouraged Plath's friends to dissuade her.

It worked. In early November, Plath elected to move to London, not Ireland. It would be a fateful choice to relocate to 23 Fitzroy Road in December. Now that she was in the same city as Hughes, he was constantly dropping in, and she was continually learning, from him and friends, about his romantic exploits. Plath could not get on with her life. By February 4, in the last letter she wrote to Barnhouse - and the last included in the new volume - she lamented the "return of my madness". One week later, she killed herself by gassing herself in the kitchen oven. She was 30.

In often haunting detail, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2 documents the rise and fall of a literary marriage whose dissolution ended up destroying a genius.

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