In the February 2018 issue of The New Criterion I wrote that
Plath did not just love her brother Warren, as she reiterates in these letters, she impressed upon him how both of them were part of a family enterprise that their mother had established. This eighteenth-century sense of fealty is quite astounding and not quite like anything else you can read in the lives of modern American writers.
I called Volume I of Plath’s letters Pamela redux, after the Samuel Richardson novel, since it seemed to Plath that her virtue had been rewarded, that a marriage to Ted Hughes fulfilled all of her aspirations. She had held out for a hero commensurate with her high ambitions, and a man, she believed, committed to creating a large family. She wanted at least four children, she declared, and was still planning on having the next two when Hughes declared independence—no longer wishing to be the home husband who had shared in the care of two-year-old Frieda and baby Nicholas. In the seven months leading to Plath’s suicide, when the estranged couple engaged in their tormented struggle to establish new lives for themselves, she continued to write to her mother in Massachusetts and implore Warren or his new wife to join her. She had made a life and career for herself in London, and to her a return to the States signaled defeat. But she needed her family, although not her overly protective mother. Plath did not want smothering in mother-love, though, ironically, her own smothering behavior is part of what drove Hughes away, he said. He told her, Plath reported, that she was the “old womb.” His desertion devastated Plath not merely because he had been unfaithful with Assia Wevill, but also because he claimed never to have wanted children and had suffered their existence until he had reached a breaking point.
Hughes was not exactly the seducer Robert Lovelace, the villain in Samuel Richardson’s tragedy Clarissa, but Hughes is the character who makes Volume 2 of Plath’s letters seem like Clarissa redux. Richardson’s heroine is bound by a family content to see her conventionally married, and Lovelace, like Hughes, promises the heroine an escape to a more fulfilling life in their marriage. Lovelace spirits Clarissa away only to incarcerate her in a house of ill repute—not exactly the same as Court Green, the country home Hughes was insistent on purchasing, but close enough insofar as Plath came to believe that he had turned her away from London, the city she loved, to become, in effect, his prisoner, while he remained free to come and go—off to London and his ladies.
Plath saw herself as a character in a novel. She was constantly projecting plots of what her life would come to, and she planned novels that were close to the bone of her own experience.
The comparison to Clarissa is not fanciful. Plath saw herself as a character in a novel. She was constantly projecting plots of what her life would come to, and she planned novels that were close to the bone of her own experience. Hughes, finally, felt he had to break out of her narrative. He had first come to her in all her doubts, when she was recovering from the abandonment of the man she called her “French lover,” Richard Sassoon. If Plath was more worldly than Clarissa Harlowe and no virgin, Plath nevertheless had the same virginal eagerness and trepidation about what her suitor portended. Like Lovelace, Hughes was “no common observer of what he had seen.” Indeed, Lovelace, like Hughes, “had a tolerable knack of writing and describing” which “showed him to be a person of reading, judgment, and taste.” These impressions are not Clarissa’s alone. They are what her sister and father have said, and they are similar to the way Plath’s mother and brother welcomed Hughes. And yet the Harlowes have “heard from time to time reports to his disadvantage with regard to morals.” As Plath put it, less delicately: she had been given to understand that Ted had been the biggest seducer in Cambridge before she met him, but she believed that her moral example and diligence had helped to reform him.
If both volumes of Plath’s letters resemble a Samuel Richardson epistolary novel, it is because so much of what happens is psychological, with a brew of written-over feelings that the letters describe rather than dramatize. In the foreword, Frieda Hughes tries to make of the letters a different story. In describing her parents’ breakup, she concludes: “My father may have reacted to a perceived lack of freedom and had his affair, but culpability lay with both of them.” This just won’t do. “Perceived lack of freedom” is a delicate way to put her father’s grievance against her mother. All through their marriage, he wrote as he liked, and went to London and other places when he chose. Plath had hoped he would take to America and stay there when she was offered a teaching position, but as soon as he made his complaints, they were off again to England, without one objection voiced in Plath’s letters or journals. Just as she acclimated herself to London, he again expressed dissatisfaction and said he could only be content in a country home. Plath, who had come to adore the city, not only indulged his desires, she did so in celebratory fashion, throwing herself enthusiastically into Devon life, taking an interest in the locals that far exceeded his own. In what way did Ted Hughes feel constrained? It is hard not to see from these letters that he wanted what is often called an “open marriage.” No wonder, then, that Plath seemed inordinately possessive, placing upon him a burden as the father-lover she writes about in letters to her therapist, Ruth Beuscher, here published for the first time. Plath admitted “my relation to Ted was in many, many ways, gravely regressed more & more I was calling on him to be a father & hating myself for it.” She feared her husband’s loss, she told Beuscher in another letter, likening it to her loss of her father when she was eight years old. She depended on Hughes “more & more, making him both idol & father.”
Plath was demanding, no doubt about it. But her demands derived from the compact she had made with Hughes, as two great poets bent on conquering the literary world. Plath had set them on this course by becoming not only a wife but also an agent and even a secretary, typing her husband’s work. Without her, he would not have won his first prize and publisher. It is simply inconceivable that he would have matured as quickly or as successfully on his own. And she felt the same about her own work. She needed Hughes to challenge and inspire her, to take her away from mother and from the safe and complacent campus life she could have enjoyed at Smith College. He made her more daring. For several years—those covered in this volume—she had no reason to suppose that her vision of home, family, literary enterprise, and dynastic drive was different from his own. Perhaps she was inattentive to the signs of a restless husband. But he was her superman, and he did not speak up. Instead he slunk away to another woman and, as a result, left her with a void she found hard to fill, since no other man seemed to compare to the Ted Hughes she had been drawn to and then developed. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? He was her man, not his own. He could not fulfill her own heroic vision of him. A disappointed Plath realized he wanted to become something less than he was, feted by a series of women, beginning with Assia Wevill, who becomes in Plath’s imagination the femme fatale, the Lamia, who would ruin the man Plath had so strenuously supported.
Plath levels a number of charges in these letters that require sorting out. Wevill can seem in her barren unworthiness (Plath keeps saying Wevill cannot conceive) a figment of the poet’s imagination. Wevill later gave birth to a daughter by Hughes, but then killed her and herself in grief over his unwillingness to commit himself completely to her. Those who knew Wevill—like Al Alvarez—told me about her Plath obsession, sleeping in the poet’s bed and living among her effects. According to one of Wevill’s friends who spoke to me, men found her eroticism disturbing. She could cast a spell. In one incident her friend described to me, one of her professors, the mildest of men, rose in rage when she sat next to him, calling her a bitch and walking out of her presence. That Assia was more than this incident and Plath’s letters reveal became evident in my correspondence with her loyal husband David Wevill, who did not leave her when the affair with Hughes began. Hughes’s own letters show, in turn, a respect for David as man and poet, and the difficult choice between the two men Assia had to make.
A raging Plath, reacting to Hughes’s departure from Court Green, depicts him in the blackest light, telling her he wishes her dead. He wants nothing to do with his son Nicholas—“the usurper” is what Hughes calls him, according to Plath. His own letters do reveal a preference for Frieda. Even more troubling is Hughes’s violence, which Frieda in her foreword tries to mitigate. Did her father really hit her mother, perhaps contributing to a miscarriage? she wonders. What really happened, she asks, “a physical beating? A push? A shove? A swipe?”
But what to make of Plath’s report of Hughes striking his older sister, Olwyn? This incident comes after Olwyn—nearly everyone’s villainess, including Frieda’s—calls Sylvia “Miss Plath” and, in effect, treats Plath as the usurper. Olwyn’s behavior, explains Ted’s mother to Plath, is due to her uncommon closeness to her brother, with whom she slept until they were nine and seven, respectively. To Sylvia, brother and sister had a quasi-incestuous relationship. That Ted Hughes physically abused those he loved cannot be wished away with doubting questions. More evidence may yet come to light if a full account of what Hughes did is ever allowed.
I say “allowed” because lurking in the interstices of this volume is the widow, Carol Hughes, who refused permission to quote from Hughes’s comments often inserted into the letters Plath sent to others. With some frequency, the editors of Plath’s letters note that Hughes’s words are “not transcribed.” His voice, missing from this volume, only makes Plath’s view of him darker. Why the Hughes estate—and that means Carol Hughes—thought it to her advantage to refuse permission to include her husband’s comments is a mystery but also part of her stubborn unwillingness to cooperate with Plath scholars and editors. She has adopted her husband’s malign view of biographers and most Plath scholars.
Just how poorly Carol Hughes has served her husband is apparent in Christopher Reid’s highly selective edition of Ted Hughes’s correspondence, which has a bearing on how we assess Plath’s letters. Reid was Hughes’s editor at Faber and served, in effect, as an authorized biographer, whose words in the introduction to Letters of Ted Hughes are suspect: “My biggest debt of gratitude is to Carol Hughes, who asked me to edit this book. She has watched benignly and patiently over the entire operation, giving advice and encouragement, answering my innumerable questions and offering judgements, while leaving me unimpaired editorial freedom.” What this kind of acknowledgment usually means is that the carefully chosen biographer or editor self-censors and is vigilant, in this case, not to disturb the widow whose “judgements” he had to navigate. When the Hughes biographer Jonathan Bate had a falling-out with Carol Hughes, Faber forthwith canceled its contract with him.
We have no idea from Reid’s selections what may have been left out in Hughes’s letters about Plath, especially since the editor notes that three or four volumes of Hughes’s correspondence could be assembled. Even worse, Reid excerpts some of the letters, so that it is impossible to appreciate the full context of what Hughes is saying. At a recent Plath conference in Belfast, Hughes scholars expressed envy at the Plath letters for their unexpurgated fullness and commented that they need complete editions of Hughes’s correspondence.
So a reviewer can only work with what Reid vouchsafes. For the period between July 9, 1962, when Plath learns of her husband’s infidelity, and February 11, 1963, when she takes her own life, Reid produces six letters. And this paltry selection includes two redacted letters, one written in December 1962, two months before Plath’s death, and another on February 10, the day before she died. Even with this meager allotment, we have some purchase on what to think of Plath’s epistolary version of events.
In a July 11 letter to Beuscher, Plath describes a brutal Ted Hughes writing off the marriage and saying: “How he wanted to experience everybody & everything, there was a monster in him, a dictator,” to which Plath appends “Und so weiter” (and so forth). In a letter to Olwyn (which Reid identifies only as “late summer 1962”), Hughes reported, “About 2 months ago, just as the climax was arriving, I dreamed Hitler came to me, furious, demanding that I carry out the commands instantly.” What to make of this Reid does not know or is unwilling to say. But you can put to rest the image of an out-of-control Plath.
Olwyn had always indulged Ted. Only Sylvia had brought him up to the mark. And he could not abide her witness of his weakness, instead telling Olwyn about “the awful intimate interference that marriage is.” At the same time, he wrote to a newly married relative: “Marriage, of course, is a bloody monster, but it eats up many little snakes.” When Plath and Hughes took a trip to Ireland, where they hoped to sort out life after marriage, Hughes abruptly left her there without a word, telling Olwyn, “she knew more or less where I was.” More or less? He adds this dismissive comment on his wife: “You’re right, she’ll have to grow up—it won’t do her any harm.” His explanation of why he had to escape marriage has its place in a science-fiction novel when he notes “Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality.”
For a moment, shortly after Plath’s death, writing to friends, a remorseful Hughes took responsibility: “I was the one who could have helped her, and the only one that couldn’t see that she really needed it this time. No doubt where the blame lies.” To Sylvia’s mother, on March 15, 1963, he wrote, “But if there is an eternity, I am damned in it. Sylvia was one of the greatest truest spirits alive, and in her last months she became a great poet, and no other woman poet except Emily Dickinson can begin to be compared with her, and certainly no living American.” And so Lovelace after Clarissa’s death—in effect another suicide—calls her “a true heroine, whenever honour or virtue called for an exertion of spirit.” But ever afterward Hughes wobbled and spent his time supposing that Plath’s father complex, Beuscher, an overbearing mother, a misalignment of the stars, and then biographers, feminists, and other assorted culprits were to blame more than himself. What mattered most was what they did to Sylvia and what she did to herself, with not much space remaining for his own culpability.
Plath’s last letter to Beuscher, on February 4, 1963, and the last letter in this volume, written a week before the suicide, acknowledges the accumulation of anxieties that Hughes said deprived Plath of her independence and identity. But there is still more to factor in. She mentions the “return of my madness, my paralysis,” expressed as a “panic and deepfreeze,” a despair that comes upon her as a “cold, accusing wind,” even as she tries to begin again, bothered by a “damned, self-induced freeze.” It was one of the coldest winters on record in Great Britain, and biographers have mentioned as much in describing the poet with two young children in a frigid flat, with mountains of snow outside and busted pipes. But they don’t quite get at just how much this sun-seeking poet felt the cold close in on her. This second volume is filled with her complaints against the cold, exacerbated by the lack of central heating and an attack of chilblains. In one especially vivid passage, during her first halcyon days with Hughes, she records, in a December 20, 1956, letter to her brother Warren, how her toes and fingers are turning blue, and how she feels like “taking a hatchet & going out like the old foolish knights to stay the Cold. I picture a transparent bluish villainous character with a blowtorch of ice, a north windy voice & numerous instruments of contracting torture.” Foolish, yes, she ultimately concluded, to dare combat the spectral menace that finally came for her, in a weakened state, five years later.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 4, on page 78
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