Plath’s joy and des­o­la­tion

Vol­ume 2 of poet’s let­ters de­scribe mar­riage to Ted Hughes

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY PAUL ALEXAN­DER book­world@wash­

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’s “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.

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 & 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 & de­spise” Hughes; and be­cause Hughes was “dan­ger­ously de­struc­tive . . . I feel both the children and I need pro­tec­tion from him, for now & forever.” She wrote a 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, Mass., 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 to­tal­ing about 18,000 words — was dis­cov­ered last year, it war­ranted na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion. In­cluded in “Vol­ume 2,” the let­ters, es­pe­cially those writ­ten af­ter the breakup, con­tain un­set­tling dis­clo­sures.

Hughes’s “lies are in­cred­i­ble & 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 moves she car­ried out with the help of an at­tor­ney in Lon­don. The le­gal sep­a­ra­tion she in­sisted on in Au­gust and Septem­ber — Hughes agreed to pay 1,000 pounds a year in main­te­nance — turned into a planned di­vorce by Oc­to­ber. That month, she an­nounced her in­tended 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 an at­tor­ney 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 Rd. in De­cem­ber. Now that she was in the same city with 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 Feb. 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.

Paul Alexan­der is the author of seven books, among them “Rough Magic” and “Salinger.” He teaches at Medgar Evers Col­lege and Hunter Col­lege in New York City.


Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes as a happy cou­ple “ready to start” a cross-coun­try Amer­i­can camp­ing trip in July 1959. Three years later. Plath wrote to her mother that she hated and de­spised Hughes.

THE LET­TERS OF SYLVIA PLATH VOL­UME 2 1956-1963 By Sylvia Plath. Edited by Peter K. Stein­berg and Karen V. Kukil. Harper. 1,088 pp. $44.

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