22 January 2013


Sylvia Plath: 50 years later and the same bitter arguments rage on


Half a century after her death, the debate over the poet burns with ever-greater fervour, but it need not follow that if one is pro-Plath one is anti-Hughes


Hadley Freeman


Last week I referred to the upcoming 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan's influential study The Feminine Mystique. As it happens, another half-century anniversary will take place next month, one also involving an American woman, but of a much sadder shade: on 11 February it will be 50 years since Sylvia Plath took her life and gained immortality. As her widower, Ted Hughes, wrote in his skin-pricklingly beautiful 1998 collection Birthday Letters: "Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes / You will have paid for it with your happiness, / Your husband and your life."

Suicide attracts speculation and prurience like flies to rotting food. Most writers who have killed themselves – Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray and Virginia Woolf, for example – established themselves before they died. Plath's fame bloomed under the cloud of her death and no other writer's life has cast as much of a shadow over their work as Plath's, and it's a shadow that only darkens. Just as Marilyn Monroe is now seen as the archetypal tragic Hollywood blonde, so Plath has been flattened into the prototype of the mentally tormented poet, the betrayed woman, the tragic literary blonde.

So it's unsurprising that, half a century on, the arguments about her burn with ever-greater fervour, as proven by the extraordinary battle conducted last week in the Guardian's books section between Plath's friend Elizabeth Sigmund and a characteristically combative Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes's sister and the literary executor of Plath's estate. Then there are the academics and fans who argue among themselves at least as much as they do with the famously protective Plath estate. Time seems only to have aggravated the emotions, as well as the ignorance. A typical example of the latter came from one British newspaper columnist who tweeted last week: "In her memoir, will Ted Hughes' widow comment on the fact that wives 1 & 2 BOTH committed suicide? And No 2 killed child  #thisbothersme." Now, leaving aside that Assia Wevill (Hughes's lover, who killed herself and their daughter in 1969) and Hughes were never married, it is a safe bet that Hughes himself was a lot more "bothered" by the deaths of his wife, lover and child than someone who never knew them, no hashtag.

This is an all-too-typical attitude when it comes to Plath: that outsiders know better, maybe even feel more, than those she left behind, especially Hughes, who is often restyled as the Bluebeard of English literature.

Next month, another biography of Plath will be published, Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson, focusing on the early part of her life, before she met Hughes, "reclaiming her from the tangle of emotions associated with Hughes". A commendable aim, undoubtedly, but in doing so, Wilson returns to the old bitter arguments about how Hughes edited Plath's work after her death, asking, with heavy nudge-nudging: "At what point did editorialising mutate into the sinister act of censorship?" Wilson points out that old bugbear about Hughes not publishing all of Plath's early poems and can't seem to believe that perhaps Hughes was genuinely looking out for Plath as best he could posthumously. Few writers would want all of their work published. Hughes's censoring of her journals is given the usual short shrift; perhaps because Hughes is still, outrageously, blamed by some for Plath's suicide, he is not deemed entitled to privacy. (Vera Nabokov burned her husband's letters about their marriage, and fair enough.)

All of this comes back to a bigger argument: who a writer's work belongs to, their family or the public. When Plath's daughter Frieda Hughes refused to allow the makers of the film Sylvia to use her mother's poetry, some were outraged: "She claimed in an article on Britain's National Poetry Day that 'poetry is for everyone', only to deny access to her mother's words a year later when approached by the Sylvia film-makers,"fumed one novelist, as though Frieda Hughes's discomfort at Gwyneth Paltrow re-enacting her mother's suicide was tantamount to censorship. Similarly, the frequently voiced suspicion about Hughes destroying Plath's last journal always makes me marvel at the entitlement and egotism of some fans who think that uppermost in Hughes's mind when his wife died was the preservation of his reputation as opposed to, say, protecting his children. If Hughes really was so concerned with salvaging his reputation, then he was remarkably unsuccessful, seeing as the story of him and Plath is at least as well known as anything he actually wrote, presumably because a sensationalised story about a marriage is easier to read than poetry.

In my late teens I overly empathised with Plath in the way only an American young woman who found herself studying English literature at an English university can. But it does not follow that if one is pro-Plath, one is anti-Hughes. No one can know what really goes on in a marriage other than those involved, and the amount of intrusion – to say nothing of tragedy – endured by Frieda Hughes and her late father surely merits them some understanding and tact. Plath was killed by what she described as "the owl's talons clenching and constricting my heart". Hughes spent his life "permanently / Bending so briefly at your open coffin" (The Blue Flannel Suit). Mark the anniversary of Plath's death by reading her work: the rest, to borrow a phrase that Plath, Ted and Frieda Hughes all employed for their voyeurs, is for "the peanut-crunching crowd".




Saturday 18 March 2000

Love, loathing and life with Ted Hughes

New revelations show Sylvia Plath's view of the stormy relationship which ricocheted between love and hate

Katharine Viner


Sylvia Plath predicted on the day after she met Ted Hughes that their relationship would lead to her death, according to extracts from her diaries, which appear exclusively in the Guardian today and next week.

Plath, one of the 20th century's outstanding poets, committed suicide in 1963, aged 30, having separated from her husband and fellow poet Hughes only months before.

For the first time, the diaries reveal Plath's version of the explosive relationship that has fascinated the literary world for 40 years. They also contain a string of intimate disclosures that shed new light on the complexity of Plath's sexuality, her depression and her hatred of her mother.

After her first meeting with Hughes, at a Cambridge party, she wrote "a full-page poem about the dark forces of lust: Pursuit. It is not bad. It is dedicated to Ted Hughes."

Pursuit begins with the following lines: "There is a panther stalks me down:/One day I'll have my death of him."

Her diaries also reveal that, on the morning of their meeting, Plath had been to see a new psychiatrist. And straight after the party, despite their powerful mutual attraction - she bit Hughes's cheek until it bled - Plath had a sexual encounter with another man, a Canadian student, in his college rooms.

"I was just so damn grateful for his weight on me and his mouth which was nice, and begged that he scold me, and he just said I wasn't a whore or a slut like I said but only a very silly girl and he kind of liked me," she wrote.

Plath dropped the Canadian when Hughes started turning up outside her room in the middle of the night. The diaries show how Hughes would shout her name and throw stones at what he thought was her window - although he got the wrong one.

Hughes heavily censored the diaries 20 years ago, cutting out two-thirds of her words - much of them about himself. Only now are his omissions reinstated and the journals published in full.

He excised Plath's comment that he was "the biggest seducer in Cambridge", and suggestions that he was vain. For instance he removed: "Ted looked slovenly: his suit jacket wrinkled as if being pulled from behind, his pants hanging, unbelted, in great folds, his hair black and greasy in the light." Similarly cut was: "Who knows who Ted's next book will be dedicated to? His navel. His penis."

She went on to say, "This is the vain, selfish face and voice I first saw and the Yorkshire beacon boy, a sweet and daily companion, is gone ... the dirt is too deep for Halo shampoo and Lux soap, the raggedness too far frayed for the neat nip of the trimming shears."

In addition, Hughes had cut out references that Plath made to his depression, and some mentions of their sex life.

But the diaries also show that their complicated seven-year relationship was frequently happy. She wrote often about her joy in finding "the big, blasting, dangerous love".

That love began at that very first meeting. Plath described Hughes as "that big, dark, hunky boy, the only one there huge enough for me". He kissed her "bang smash on the mouth" and ripped off her headband and earrings - "hah, I shall keep, he barked" - before she bit him on the cheek. "Such violence, and I can see how women lie down for artists," she wrote.

Elsewhere she wrote: "Good lovemaking today, morning and afternoon, all hot and hard and lovely."

She confessed: "All day I have to run about, a hundred times, to kiss him in his niche or in his bath, to sniff his smell of bread and grapes and kiss his delectable places".

Plath was determined to make her living as a writer, and worried about her dependence on Hughes. But, in entries that cast her more as a 1950s homemaker than the feminist icon she became, she wrote: "Make him happy: cook, play, read ... never accuse or nag - let him run, reap, rip - and glory in the temporary sun of his ruthless force." She added: "My God, I'd love to cook and make a house and surge force into a man's dreams."

Plath had a tendency to very serious depression, and all her life she "ricocheted" between manic all-American smilingness and self-hating rage.

The last journal before her suicide, when she gassed herself in her London flat while her two toddlers slept upstairs, was destroyed by Hughes, whose next partner, Assia Wevill, also killed herself.

Another Plath diary disappeared several years after her death, assumed stolen. But the journal from 1953, leading up to Plath's first suicide attempt at the age of 20, provides shocking insight into the mind of a woman already spiralling out of control. She took an overdose of sleeping pills, was missing for two days and survived only because she took too many tablets and vomited.

In entries that were censored in the US by Plath's mother, Aurelia, Sylvia wrote brutally about her hatred for her mother, to whom she felt inescapably attached but whom she blamed for the death of her father when she was eight. She wrote: "I hate her hate her hate her ... I hate her because he [her father] wasn't loved by her. He was an ogre. But I miss him. He was old, but she married an old man to be my father. It was her fault. Damn her eyes."

This contrasts sharply with the cheery letters home that Plath was writing to her mother at the time. Plath also wrote about the occult experimentation that was a feature of her life with Hughes; her jealousy about her husband's female friends and her suspicions that he was having an affair; and the homophobia that Hughes, among others, expressed on meeting the gay American writer Truman Capote.



Sylvia Plath 'didn't want her mother to know she wrote The Bell Jar'

Writer's friend Elizabeth Sigmund says she would never have let novel be published under her own name while mother was alive

Sam Jordison


Sylvia Plath would never have wanted her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar published under her name while her mother, Aurelia Plath, was still alive, one of the writer's friends has said.

Elizabeth Sigmund, one of Plath's closest confidants, also accused the writer's former husband, Ted Hughes, and his sister, Olwyn Hughes, of deliberately missing the dedication to her from the first edition which was published under Plath's own name, in 1966, "because they didn't want anyone who knew Sylvia to have any contact with the press".

When The Bell Jar was first published in January 1963, it appeared under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, because, according to Sigmund, the author did not want to upset Aurelia or other people who feature in the book. Aurelia died in 1994.

That first edition contained the dedication "For Elizabeth and David" – referring to Elizabeth Sigmund and her husband, David, the science fiction writer. When the novel was republished under Plath's own name, three years after her suicide, the dedication was not included.

Sigmund said she wrote to the Times Literary Supplement when she realised that her name was missing, expressing her distress. She then received an apology from Charles Moneith, the chairman of Faber and Faber, who said they hadn't noticed there was a dedication. This, suggests Sigmund, was unlikely. "I don't believe they didn't notice it, because it was in an unusual place. It was directly opposite chapter one. You couldn't miss it."

Faber and Faber told the Guardian that it had nothing in its archive "which would support the view that Faber had any knowledge that Plath allegedly did not want the novel to be published under her own name in the event of her death. There's also nothing that would suggest that Elizabeth Sigmund was deliberately left off the dedication for our original hardback edition of the novel."

But Sigmund has now been able to produce further correspondence. After she wrote to the TLS, she received a letter from Olwyn Hughes, whom Ted Hughes had appointed as Plath's executor and literary agent following her death, which states that "Faber were probably trying to save paper."

When Sigmund wrote back to Monteith to ask him about this, he wrote: "That seems to me to be completely meaningless." He added: "I certainly never heard that Sylvia had expressed a wish that The Bell Jar should never be published under her own name. When we published it posthumously under Sylvia's real name, we did so with the express consent of Ted and Olwyn Hughes."

Sigmund said in an interview with the Guardian: "There are two sides to this, of course. Because it was a brilliant book, one is glad that it was credited to her. But also you have to regard her wishes. If she said she didn't want to hurt people's feelings, by having it published under her own name … I certainly think that Ted and Olwyn should have mentioned that. And then Faber would have had to make up their minds. But for Monteith to say that he'd certainly never heard that – it just seems that they were keeping it from Faber."

Carl Rollyson, the author of a new Plath biography, American Isis: The Life And Art of Sylvia Plath, supports the view that Plath would not have wanted the book published in her mother's lifetime. He said: "I think Sylvia certainly was very sensitive to all that."

He said there was "no love lost" between Plath and Olwyn Hughes, a view also held by Sigmund, who claims that "Olwyn hated her".

Olwyn Hughes admitted she thought Plath was "a monster". Yet she also expressed sympathy for the author.

"She was a very agonised lady. She had to battle to live every day – as you might think from The Bell Jar. When I read it after she died, I just wept."

On the matter of using Plath's own name on the book, she denied this was controversial. "What people want after they're dead. That just goes."

She said that by the time the book was first published under Plath's name, "everybody really seemed to know it was by her. Her friends all knew. There seemed no point in not publishing under her own name. Nobody was going to be able to keep the secret about who wrote the book for decades."  

Olwyn condemned Sigmund as "a rich inventor", contending that the missing dedication was simply "a Faber error.

"She [Sigmund] thought that was a terrible plot of Ted's. I don't know what that was about. It was just Faber left it off. These things happen in publishing."






Friday 18 January 2013

Interview: Elizabeth Sigmund, dedicatee of The Bell Jar – Reading group

Sylvia Plath's friend tells Sam Jordison about her memories of getting caught up in a family's tragedy

Sam Jordison


Elizabeth Sigmund was a friend of Sylvia Plath's and, along with her husband David, a dedicatee of The Bell Jar when Plath first published it under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. She contacted The Guardian when we started our Reading group coverage of The Bell Jar, because she had a remarkable story to tell.

I spoke to her on the phone several times. Here's what she said:

"I first wrote to Ted and Sylvia when they'd done a piece on Radio 3 called 'Two Of A Kind' … They were speaking about how they were both writers and they had this baby daughter [Frieda] and how they had to take turns at writing and babysitting.

"My husband then, David Compton, was a writer of science fiction and stuff like that – and we lived in a thatched house in Devon, in Fairy Cross near Bideford. I was looking after our own children so I wrote to them and said: 'If you'd like a holiday in the country, you can come and stay with us. I'll look after Frieda along with my children and you three can go off and write.'

"My husband, who was a complete cynic, said: 'You stupid woman, they'll never answer'. And I didn't hear anything for a year. But then Ted wrote to me out of the blue and said, 'We too are living in a thatched house in Devon and we'd love you to come and have lunch.'

"So that's why we went down to Court Green and had lunch with them. David and Ted were talking about money – as always happens with authors – and Sylvia asked me what I did. I told her I did a bit of canvassing for the Liberal party. (The prospective candidate in that bit of Devon was Mark Bonham Carter.) And Sylvia rushed across to Ted and shook him by the shoulders and said: 'I've found a committed woman!' Which I thought was very funny when I thought about the small beer that the Liberal party was. But we talked quite a bit of politics … And then we saw them repeatedly. My son was the same age as Frieda, and it grew into a really close friendship."

Dream of rural life

"One time when I went round to lunch with her, Sylvia took me round the house and said, 'I want five children - that's where the boys will sleep and that's where the girls will sleep.' She was growing her vegetables and keeping her bees, and she had a beautiful flower garden. She brought onions and potatoes as presents. She was very sure that Ted was happy writing, and she was writing and they had a really lovely woman called Nancy who worked for her and kept the house clean and tidy. She was living a life that she thought was ideal.

"In one of the letters she wrote to me later, from London, after the break-up, she said: 'Ted comes around to visit the children, but I can't help sighing for lost Eden.' And I think that's what it was for her. It was a very idyllic life. She had no idea that there could be someone like Assia who would come and try – deliberately – to break it down … That's part of the reason if hit her so hard.

Hughes's affair

Assia Wevill and 
Ted Hughes began an affair while she was married to the poet David Wevill and he to Plath. Plath discovered the affair in July 1962. In 1969, six years after Plath's suicide, Wevill killed herself and her daughter, Shura, also using a gas oven.


"Fay Weldon knew Assia. They worked in an advertising agency together. She told Fay that she and her husband were going to stay with Ted and Sylvia – and she said I'm going to have an affair with him. She was boasting. She was a remarkably beautiful woman. She was extraordinary.

"And when Assia had been to stay with Ted – with them, she rang up to speak to Ted pretending she was a man, putting on a very deep voice. Of course Sylvia was not having that; she knew who it was. She called Ted to come down and he was very, very embarrassed. When he finished talking to Assia, Sylvia pulled the phone out of the wall.

"She came up to see me with Nick [Plath's second child with Hughes] in his carrycot, in floods of tears and said: 'He's a little man, he's lying to me, I can't bear it'. And she stayed the night with us.

"And that was really the beginning of our friendship and how close we were."

Sylvia the person

"She was very interested in politics. She thought a lot about the military industrial complex and weaponry and that sort of thing. She and I talked about nuclear weapons and were very much on the CND side. Somebody wrote about her when she took Frieda on an Aldermaston march when she was a baby. She was wrapped up very well because it was a cold day, but this person said it was irresponsible and unkind to take a baby out in such cold weather.

"I introduced her to Mark Bonham Carter. He used to go frequently and talk to her. He was very upset when she died.

"Sylvia and I had a lot in common – it amused us both. I remember looking through her books when she was alive and saying it's interesting: we both have Jung's Dreams, Memories and Reflections and we both have Dr Spock On Raising Children …

"What I didn't know until quite recently was that her father was suspected of being pro-Nazi. My father left us when I was five to join the Blackshirts, which seems to me a curious coincidence. Of course, we never talked about it, because it never came up.

"She was a very fascinating person, extremely funny and generous. She came on my birthday – 6 July 1962 – and brought me a homemade birthday cake. She made all my friends who were having tea with us laugh and laugh describing how she lay in bed and watched swallows stealing her thatch to make their nest.

"She was a very special person."

The dedication

"She wrote to me and said, 'if you want I'll dedicate The Bell Jar to you, but it will be in a funny place because my decision has come rather late – opposite chapter one. Is that OK?' Of course, I said yes. But I didn't read it until she was dead. Which was quite dreadful. If I'd known her history I would have been much more wary of what might happen to her."


"I had a letter from her about four days before she died in which she said she was going to compere a 
poetry reading at the Roundhouse, she'd been invited to be on The Critics, and she'd be back at Court Green 'in time for my daffodils'. And she said: 'Thank God you're there.'"

"Then I went out on Sunday and got the Observer and there was their epitaph … I went to a friend's house and rang a friend and we were both crying on the phone saying 'what a dreadful, dreadful waste, what a dreadful thing'."

"Those last four days made a huge difference. I think from her letter to me she was beginning to find her feet in London, and to be a success. But in the last two or three days of her life, Ted's story Difficulties Of a Bridegroom was broadcast on the radio. All his friends would have heard it, and it was dreadful because he described driving to London and running over a hare … Well, Ted had always described her as being like a hare – as mystical and strange, a creature aligned with the moon. And in this play her runs over a hare, takes it to a butcher gets the money and buys some roses for his mistress … It's dreadful to think that she heard it.

"Also, I believe that she found out that Assia was pregnant. That would have really, really hit her … she thought that somehow she was safe so long as Assia was – as she described her in her poetry – a woman with a marble womb where no fish swims. She wanted to have that safety, that she was the only one with children. And she had flu, and the weather was dreadful … and it was just all too much."

"She was writing right up to the end. I didn't know about that of course; until it was published I didn't see any of it. It was so awful to read - the moon … her hood of bone - awful poems, desperate poems. It was terrible to read them; I still find it hard. I find it hard to relive that time and to talk about her, too. But it's got to be done."

The controversy

Sigmund Elizabeth is convinced that Plath would not have wanted The Bell Jar to be published under her own name while her mother was still alive. She also feels that Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Ted who became Plath's literary agent and executor after her death, caused the dedication to be taken out of the first Faber edition so she (Sigmund) wouldn't be able to speak to the press about the name change.


"Faber published The Bell Jar in 1966, with Ted and Olwyn Hughes's agreement, under Sylvia's name. And of course she'd always said that she never wanted it to be published under her own name because it would hurt so many people, including her mother.

"Also they cut out the dedication.

"I wrote to the TLS and said that I was very sad to see this because it was extremely precious to us. You know, from a very dear friend. And that I couldn't understand why such a reputable firm had done it. And Charles Monteith [the longstanding chairman of Faber] then wrote to me and said that he was really sorry – they didn't notice this. I don't believe they didn't notice it, because it was directly opposite chapter one. Couldn't miss it. Anyway.

"They put it back again in 1974 and reinstated the dedication. I can only think that Ted and Olwyn wanted them to cut it out because they didn't want anyone who knew Sylvia to have any contact with the press … And the press would have got onto that quickly.

"Olwyn Hughes, as I see it, I'm afraid is the fly in the ointment. She wrote to me about it, saying that Faber were 'probably trying to save a sheet of paper'. But when I put this to Charles Monteith he wrote back and said:

'I'm a little surprised, I confess, at some of Olywn's remarks. Particularly her remark that Faber were "probably trying to save a sheet of paper in their design of the book" which seems to me to be completely meaningless. I certainly never heard that Sylvia had expressed a wish that The Bell Jar should never be published under her own name. When we published it posthumously under Sylvia's real name, we did so with the express consent of Ted and Olwyn Hughes.'

"So there you've got it in black and white. But he doesn't explain how they came to cut the dedication out.

"There are two sides to this of course. Because it was a brilliant book, one is glad that it was credited to her. But also, you have to regard her wishes. If she said that so definitely: that she didn't want to hurt people's feelings, by having it published under her own name … I certainly think that Ted and Olwyn should have mentioned that – because Ted certainly knew. And then Faber would have had to make up their minds. But for Monteith to say that he'd certainly never heard that – it just seems that they were keeping it from Faber."


"What did Sylvia think of Olwyn? I hardly dare say. She said that Olwyn was absolutely obsessed with Ted. When they were first married she used to go and bang on their door early in the morning and say: 'You ought to be taking care of your guest. I haven't even had a cup of tea.'

"When Sylvia went up to stay with his parents and Olwyn was there, Olwyn was very affronted because the Hughes family treated Sylvia as if she were something special; being an American was regarded as very special. Sylvia was voicing her opinion about something and Olwyn got up and said: 'You're not the daughter in this family, I am and I wish you'd shut up.' And that was the first time Sylvia really knew that Olwyn hated her.

"When Sylvia died Ted knew that Olwyn hated her and he appointed her as the sole executor for her work. She was appointed as the agent for Ted and for Sylvia.

"It's a very tortured story I'm afraid."


"After Sylvia was dead, I saw him on his own and he was guilt-stricken and felt absolutely dreadful. He said: 'It doesn't fall to many men to murder a genius,' and gave me the book. But he was referring to her poetry more than The Bell Jar, I think. He looked absolutely wretched, like a beaten dog. He said: 'I hear the wolves howling all night' – because you know they're quite near Regents Park – 'which seems appropriate'.

"He asked us to go and live in Court Green because he wanted to sell it. He couldn't bear to go back. He said: 'The house is full of ghosts.'

"So we thought about it very hard and we agreed to go and live there. That was a really extraordinary experience, being in the house with her clothes there. And then he wanted to come back and live there after all …

"We bought a house in the village. It sounds odd but we kept a relationship with them. And with the children. Because Sylvia had said to me, when she was crying that night, 'if anything happens to me, you'll always stay close to the children, won't you?' I said nothing is going to happen – but of course I would. So I tried my best.

"It was obvious that at that stage, when she'd had such a big shock, that she thought about the bell jar again, coming down over her. I suppose she thought that there was always the possibility that she would take her own life. But then she got over that stage. Until the end.

"One of the reasons she felt so comfortable with me was that I had no designs on Ted. And I wasn't a literary or academic threat. I was just a friends of hers. Whereas a lot of people who were friends with her were friends with Ted.

"That's not to say I didn't like him. He was Yorkshire and I was Lancashire. We had something in common, you see, which made us friends. When he was just a friend, instead of being sought by women, he was a very nice bloke. But it was as if he was incapable of saying 'no' to the these women who gathered around him. He never tried anything with me – because neither of us were interested … I was Sylvia's friend and he knew that.

"When I think about it, I don't know what he was … Weak and stupid. But there was something about him that did fascinate people. Especially women. He was the most attractive man I've ever seen – I didn't feel it myself, but I saw the attraction. I saw it because I observed it.

"He was human. Once he took me and the children onto Dartmoor for a drive – there was a wonderful sky – it was dark and then there was a break in the clouds and right away Ted said: 'That's the eye of God.' It was magical. On those occasions, he was a nice person."

Hopes for 2013's anniversary

"I hope that people will concentrate on the brilliance of her work. And not constantly talk about her troubles, which were dreadful. Remember her as a living poet – not concentrate on her death."




Friday 18 January 2013

Interview: Olwyn Hughes, Sylvia Plath's literary executor

Ted Hughes's sister tells Sam Jordison how misrepresented she feels the story of her sister-in-law's death has been

Sam Jordison


I spoke to a number of Plath biographers and friends after speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund (including Al Alvarez, Carl Rollyson and Ronald Hyme). They confirmed the substance of what she said – in particular, that Plath had not wanted The Bell Jar to go out under her own name while her mother was still alive. Elizabeth also produced a scan of the letter from Charles Monteith explaining that Faber was unaware that those were Sylvia's wishes.

However, since it was almost 50 years after the event, and Faber were consequently unable to supply any further information, it became clear that the only person who really knew about the omission of the dedication to Elizabeth and her husband from the 1966 edition was Olwyn Hughes. Fortunately, she agreed to speak to me and set down her side of the story.

The following conversation comes verbatim, from my notes. I would just like to add that in spite of the force of many of her words, that Olwyn seemed good-humoured and peculiarly charming. It might help if you imagine the following spoken in a warm Yorkshire accent:

I want to ask about the name change on The Bell Jar?
She [Plath] was very worried about it because she thought it was going to upset her mother. It was a nightmare for her, actually. She got quite paranoid about it towards the end. And then she was disappointed when it came out and it didn't have a very good press.

Sorry, I meant the decision to actually use her name?
The decision to use her name was taken after her death, when everybody really seemed to know it was by her. Her friends all knew. There seemed no point in not publishing under her own name.

I've been speaking to Elizabeth Sigmund …
Oh God, have you? I mean gabble, gabble, gabble, gabble … Has she some new stories for you?

She was telling me about the dedication.
She [Plath] dedicated it to Elizabeth and her husband, because she didn't want the London lot to know – you know, her real friends. She didn't know Elizabeth very well, you know. Although according to Elizabeth … Anyway, we've had enough of Elizabeth … [Goes on to suggest that Elizabeth Sigmund's accounts of events were not always reliable.] What has she told you?

She was saying she was left off the 1966 edition …
Oh yes, that was a Faber error. She thought that was a terrible plot of Ted's. I don't know what that was about. It was just Faber left it off. These things happen in publishing.

She also said that she was sure that Sylvia Plath never wanted it published under her own name.
Well, yes. She didn't want to upset her mother. What it tells, The Bell Jar, is a watered down version of her own breakdown. And that was also very painful to her – quite apart from the fact that there's a passage in the book that's rather unpleasant for her mother to read, about the mother's snoring or something. Sylvia got very het up about the book because I think it was so self-revelatory. In a way she liked that – and in a way she didn't.

That's certainly what I think happened with ARIEL  – her whole trauma, her father's death upsurged. I think writing The Bell Jar provoked that … And all that traumatic material that came up in Ariel. I think it caused her a lot of aggro. She was a very agonised lady. She had to battle to live every day – as you might glean from The Bell Jar. When I read it after she died, I just wept.

But people don't realise. They didn't then, even. She didn't always show how troubled she was – but she had no inner calm at all. The Bell Jar deals with the beginnings of the trouble. Then she spent the rest of her life dreading its return.

Oh God.

The nonsense that has continued to be written about the story is shocking to me. Sylvia wasn't the innocent victim, or half so helpless as she's been made out to be. You just have to look at some of her poetry. She was just nasty in the last poem about her husband and father ["Daddy"]. She was vicious and I think a bit crazy. I watched her going through her torment and it was agony. But Ted was so taken with her. I don't know why. I don't know how she did it … Especially because I don't think that she could control the negativity in herself. You've got to remember the venom that Sylvia dished out.

I don't think anyone has taken into account how injurious the rubbish that's been written about her has been. What the feminists don't take into account was how much psychological trouble she was in. She was a very difficult woman with a very difficult personality. She was horribly unjust both to her mother and to Ted. And I'm sick of reading that he left her for Assia – that's all you get whenever his name is mentioned. Assia. But Ted didn't walk out.

It was actually a friend of Assia's who told Sylvia. She rang her up and thought maybe she was helping her, or wanted to warn her, or something, I don't know. But this person had no idea how on edge Sylvia was. That she wouldn't be able to cope with this information. And so when Ted next went down [to their house in Devon] she was in a rage and threw him out.

I wish the newspapers would get it right. He didn't even know that Sylvia would find out about Assia. He'd done everything he could to be very discreet. It was just one of those things … And of course Sylvia, when she did hear about it, it reminded her of all her terrors about abandonment and everything else. She wouldn't listen to anything but separation and divorce. But he didn't leave her for Assia. That's just not true. He was actually staying on friends' floors in London until he got a little place by himself. He certainly wasn't living with Assia.

Oh and she took all the money out of their bank account. She was a monster actually.

So what about changing the byline. How was that decision taken?
What people want after they're dead. That just goes. And nobody was going to be able to keep the secret about who wrote the book for decades. Besides it was a very good little novel.

She was disappointed when she was alive – she was worried about the Jennifer Dawson's novel The Ha-Ha – which was similar and got a lot more attention at the time. She hadn't the calm in her necessary to cope with it.

There was all that martyr talk, even after Ted's death … in America there were a couple of biographies that were terribly bad. They didn't take account of the fact that Ted had nursed the bloody woman for seven years. The patience that he had with her!

Of course, I didn't quite understand or realise that she was quite sick. We didn't know as much about psychology in those days. But let me tell you about one thing. Ted was meeting an old teacher once – and she just ran off. He had to run out onto the moors after her. She did that in front of his old teacher. Can you imagine? And he lived with it.

And when you read her journals – there were some very dark things in there … And there was a furore when they first came out that they were cut. And a few things were taken out – mainly at the request of her mother, but otherwise he did nothing. But there was this great furore and suggestion that there was an attempt to hide things. But what were the secrets?

Of course, nobody actually read the journals! They were too busy focusing on what they thought wasn't there. And if they did read it properly they'd have found a very damaged girl. A very mixed-up girl. You just had to look at the dreams she described. Her dreams were bad enough to spoil your own.

I understood then how powerful a grouping the feminists can be. And how it still goes on. This crap. No matter what goes on, you can't counter it. They just lie, and if they find themselves in the wrong, they just ignore it.

I'm collecting all the press I've got and giving it to Pembroke College. There was one thing, by someone from the Guardian that I found really upsetting … Katherine … I can't remember her name. All that martyr stuff. It was just a few days after Ted died that it came out and I thought aren't The Guardian ashamed of themselves? [We're unable to pin down the piece to which she's referring. There's an article by Katharine Viner on the Plath diaries from 2000, but this was 18 months after Hughes' death.]

I don't have any time for them, really the press. I don't normally talk to journalists.

I must be very fortunate ...
Hmm. Well. I wish you'd print what I actually say. You know I would love to talk to some journalist and they could take me seriously – and actually put down what I say.
That would be the first time.


Friday 2 November 2012


Choosing Sylvia Plath's poems


Carol Ann Duffy was given a copy of Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems for her 25th birthday.

Editing a new selection she has experienced afresh the electrifying excitement she felt on that first encounter


Carol Ann Duffy


Sylvia Plath Poems Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy

by Sylvia Plath


I was a few weeks past my seventh birthday when Sylvia Plath died on 11 February 1963, during one of the worst English winters on record. The snow, dangerously deep for children, grumbled and threatened in our ears as we fell backwards into its cold arms to make angels; in the mornings the bedroom windows were blind with ice.

In London, Plath had written to her mother in the US: "Thank goodness I got out of Devon in time. I would have been buried for ever under this record 20ft snowfall with no way to dig myself out." Holed up in a flat in Primrose Hill, in the former house of her admired WB Yeats, with two small children and no telephone, separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, Plath spiralled into the lethal clinical depression that had plagued her since adolescence. She was 30.

Although she had published her first collection, The Colossus and Other Poems, in 1960, and her novel The Bell Jar, which appeared just before her death, Plath's huge and lasting fame was to be posthumous – heralded by the publication of Ariel in 1965. She lived on as a poet in the most extraordinary way – "I am lost, in the robes of all this light" – not least as a heroine to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Here was a uniquely radical, stylised poetic voice which claimed for its subject something that had not previously appeared in "the canon" – the experience of being a woman. Plath wrote about gender, motherhood and marriage, of betrayal and suicidal illness, in poems illuminated – like lightning over the moors – by love and fury. She had been influenced, through the American creative writing workshop system, by the confessional poets Robert Lowell and Anne Sexton; but she saw herself as a poet for whom craft was as important as the exploration of self: "I think my poems immediately come out of the sensuous and emotional experiences I have, but I must say I cannot sympathise with these cries from the heart that are informed by nothing except a needle or a knife, or whatever it is. I believe that one should be able to control and manipulate experiences, even the most terrifying – like madness, being tortured, this sort of experience – and one should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind."

Plath, like all great poets, is ruthless in her pursuit of the poem. Although, as in the case of Oscar Wilde, say, or the war poets, we cannot think of the work without the life: she had a kind of lunar detachment that ultimately sets her poems free of herself. That is why they continue to have life. In his introduction to her Collected Poems(1981), Hughes writes: "Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like – if she couldn't get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy."

And of the Ariel poems, Seamus Heaney comments: "They are full of exhilaration in themselves, the exhilaration of a mind that creates in some sort of mocking spirit, outstripping the person who has suffered. They move without hesitation and assume the right to be heard; they, the poems, are what we attend to, not the poet."

I was given Collected Poems as a birthday present when I was 25 and, although I'd come across individual poems of hers previously (I remember quoting the weirdly honest "What a thrill – /My thumb instead of an onion" when I cut myself badly, preparing vegetables as a student; and it occurs to me now that my own poem "Valentine" has a DNA link to Plath's "Cut") this publication was to be my first true – and electrifying – encounter with Plath's poetry. I felt, then as now, as though I were reading a superior contemporary. Two years later, in 1983, I was fortunate to win the National Poetry Competition for my poem "Whoever She Was", a Plath-enabled piece about motherhood.

One of the judges was the Welsh poet Gillian Clarke, who was born five years after Plath, in 1937. Writing to me recently she said: "Until I read Plath, I did not recognise that the poems I had written, especially 'The Sundial', were poems at all. The experience of most women then – the generation of women who, if they were clever enough, went to university, got degrees, married and had children in their early 20s – was that they found themselves at home with babies, and saw their 'brilliant careers', their shiny new degrees, go down the plug. Anne Stevenson (who is older than I) as an American, already saw herself as 'a poet' when in university. In Britain, a degree in English was exclusively academic. The pre-Plath generation of British students had studied the old dead men and, marvellous as they were/are, they were a scold's bridle on any idea that women too could be poets. In speaking when she did, Plath fired the wild hearts of the last silenced generation of poets in Britain. We all began to speak in our own way, because suddenly someone was listening."

Women writers were listening to one another. Clarke began to publish her poetry in 1971, a year after the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. My own first collection, Standing Female Nude, was published 14 years later in 1985, when I was nearly the age at which Plath died. The senior women poets at that time included Plath's future biographer Anne Stevenson, Fleur Adcock, Elaine Feinstein, Jenny Joseph, Ruth Fainlight (a friend of Sylvia's), Patricia Beer and Elizabeth Jennings, with UA Fanthorpe, Liz Lochhead and Vicki Feaver coming into view – older sisters in poetry who had already cleared so much ground for my generation. One looked to the US and found the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Sexton and Adrienne Rich; to Ireland for the emerging work of Rich's admirer, Eavan Boland. Presiding over all these differing talents, indisputably, was Plath.

Plath, without the luxury of maturity, comes to us with her own poetic universe fully created. Her imagery is stunning, sometimes shocking or repellent, exhibiting a kind of courage that, ultimately, cost her dearly:


I have done it again.
One year in every ten 
I manage it –

A sort of walking miracle, 
my skin Bright as a Nazi lampshade, 
My right foot

A paperweight, 
My face a featureless, fine 
Jew linen.

Peel off the napkin 
O my enemy.
Do I terrify? –


Set alongside WH Auden's squirm-worthy and patronising review of Adrienne Rich's first collection, A Change of World (Rich's poems, he wrote, "are neatly and modestly dressed, speak quietly but do not mumble, respect their elders but are not cowed by them, and do not tell fibs"), here was Permission Not To Be Nice. Plath's private mythology is straddled by a "man in black", the dead father that many of the poems take aim at. Her motifs are moons and mirrors, candles and trees. Plath looks up at the moon, "Staring from her hood of bone", but her great last poems are pulling her down into the Earth. As Anne Stevenson commented: "Twelve final poems, written shortly before her death, define a nihilistic metaphysic from which death provided the only dignified escape." Hughes felt, however, that "she had to write those things – even against her most vital interests. She died before she knew what The Bell Jar and the Ariel poems were going to do to her life."

Poets are ultimately celebrators, of life and of poetry itself. A vocational poet like Plath gives life back to us in glittering language – life with great suffering, yes, but also with melons, spinach, figs, children and countryside, moles, bees, snakes, tulips, kitchens and friendships. There can be a chilling detachment about Plath's poetic personality – like Yeats, she casts "a cold eye / On life, on death" – but she also deploys a comic playfulness, a great appetite for sensuous experience, a delight in the slant rhymes and music of her verse, bravado, brio, a tangible joy in the unflowering of her genius.

In my selection for Faber, intended to sit alongside Selected Poems(1985), roughly chronological to shadow her progress, I have tried to walk through the landscape of Plath's poetry as though for the first time, 50 years older than I was when she died. In doing so I have experienced afresh the almost physical excitement I felt when I first read this bold, brilliant, brave poet who changed the world of poetry for us all.




A Dark Water - remembering Sylvia Plath in Hebden Bridge


Rachel Pickering reflects on her brooding West Riding valley and how its two great poets might have fared in the town of today


This February sees the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath's death. We're proud in Hebden to host the final resting place of the great poet but I can't help wondering what she'd have made of the fact that she is stuck here for good. The Ted Hughes poem The Stubbing Wharfe is part of the Birthday Letters collection about their years together. It describes their visit to Hebden in the late 50s. This poem is worth a read if you think Hebden has always been the most Guardian-y place in Britain, or if you have forgotten that Zeitgeist was once Jeff the Barbers. Or if you never saw that weird shop on Market Street that sold giant granny knickers (now Organic House).

To someone prone to depression, a valley which is almost permanently dark may not, in mid winter, have seemed a joyous place to put down roots and start a family. Even as Ted Hughes tries to sell to her the idea of setting up home here, it's clear that he loathes the place too. It wasn't New England; it certainly wasn't literary London or even the slightly more temperate Devon where the couple eventually settled. It was small townYorkshire, the original version, without lesbians (not official ones anyway), funky shops or cappuccino to soften the raw wind. Whatever glamour and success they'd known so far, it looked like Hebden was having none of it. In the gloom she quietly cries and he sips his Guinness: the place is claustrophobic and moribund.

Half way through the poem he has a kind of epiphany. Ironically, cheap housing is his trump card: "Elizabethan, marvellous, little kingdoms, going for next to nothing". But they were still a few years too early for the arrival of hippies in the late '60s, also drawn here by the cheap mill housing. Perhaps just ten years later the pair of them could have been part of some artist commune or done poetry readings on Open Mic Night just upstairs from the "gummy bar" where they sat.

Houses are a bit more expensive now, but anyone trying to persuade a reluctant partner to move here these days would have a whole arsenal of other attractions at their fingertips. An artist as well as poet, Sylvia Plath was made for contemporary Hebden Bridge. He could have nudged her towards the Handmade Parade or taken her to a Polish piano recital. If they had waited a few more years they could have avoided the Stubbing Wharf altogether and stopped off at the Trades Club for a bit of Cabaret Heaven.

Would any of this have helped? Samba bands in the ruined mills? Circle dancing in the abandoned chapels? Reiki? It's nice to think that now we could offer something more than a black nothing. But lately that old menace has started to creep back uninvited. Flood waters bubbling up from the drains, closing down cafes and wine bars, seem to be saying "stop showing off". Stinking mud is trying to put us back in our place, telling us to stop getting fancy ideas, like a bitter old relative stuck in their ways. Perhaps she could sense this as she sat weeping in the pub. You can dress the place up but some things never change.

Death is not far away throughout the poem. For Hughes, the place in the late 1950s had seen its best years and was nothing but a monument to the vibrant days of the industrial revolution. There is a haunting reference to what lies ahead for her: "A silent wing of your grave went over you" he writes of the moment she glances up towards the hilltops, to a future home. Not the dream house with acres of land that he had in mind, but the Heptonstall grave where she was buried 50 year ago.


Rachel Pickering  lives in Hebden Bridge, works locally and has written previously for The Guardian.





Sunday 14 October 2012


Ted Hughes's brother Gerald offers a moving evocation of their early life


Talitha Stevenson


Ted and I: A Brother's Memoir

by Gerald Hughes


Gerald Hughes's memoir of his little brother, Ted, has a muted, soul-swelling intensity, and the kind of holiness that requires no mention of God. Hughes's purpose is not priestly, though, or psychoanalytic, but botanical – to sift through old childhood soil which was fertile enough to grow a poet. 

In 12 concise chapters Hughes describes the years from childhood in Yorkshire to Ted's death in 1998. Brotherly love suffuses each memory, and Hughes's earth-scented descriptions of Yorkshire show a love of nature reminiscent of Ted's, as similar to it perhaps as their ears or hands to each other's. It was an inheritance received in different ways: Ted became a great nature-poet and Gerald a farmer in Australia. 

Gerald was 10 years older than Ted – a gap large enough to accommodate Ted's hero worship for which Gerald waited ready-made, with his rat-shooting skills, his knowledge of trout and the weather and of how to tie knots. Gerald's account of their early relationship is moving both as a portrait of sibling love and as one of a rural innocence that no longer exists. They didn't have Facebook, but "a message tree" on which they pinned notes to friends. 

Life in Hebden Bridge blooms from the page – a sepia-tinted world of tram rides, box Brownies, Royd's ices, and Sunday hats. "Whip and top were the rage", "Granny" owned a sweet shop, "Mam" was "selfless". The description is strewn with parenthetical wonders: "(Farmers always spoke loudly – from working in wide fields in windy weather)". Recollections are tiny blueprints for an emerging design: aged four, after burning himself, Ted exclaimed: "Fires can jump up and bite you." At six, he sighed: "What a dull old world it would be without wildlife." 

Gerald's tutelage of Ted "in natural country life" supplies the greatest pleasures of the memoir, its tone recaptured by Gerald's enduring fondness for its details. On one occasion the future poet laureate tore a page from his notebook and, under Gerald's supervision, practised shooting at it, his bullets landing, as his words would, in perfect formation on the page. 

During the second world war, Gerald was stationed in North Africa with the RAF, so Ted "came under the influence" of his elder sister, Olwyn, an "academic star". As Ted later remembered in a letter, his teacher pointed at a line in his notebook – it described "the frost-chilled snap" of a wildfowler's gun – and said, "That's poetry." Ted thought, "Well, if that's poetry that's the way I think so I can give you no end of it."

When Ted went to Cambridge, Gerald emigrated to Australia. Whether Ted experienced this as a betrayal goes unexamined, but his immediate idea was to join Gerald after university. This "well-formulated" plan was abandoned when Ted met Sylvia Plath.  

Even though they never met, Gerald felt "close" to Sylvia, receiving many letters from her and Ted. One of Sylvia's begins in a characteristic tone, both accusatory and self-belittling: "Ted had already sealed up your letter in his secretive way, but I made him open it up again to let me gossip for a bit." Ted was, Gerald remembers, "overwhelmed by his American family", their "opulence" and "social rounds". Estrangement was apparent on both sides: photographs showing Sylvia's first visit to her parents-in-law are full of smiles (Sylvia's face is the "tight ball of joy" Ted describes in Birthday Letters) but there is no doubt which of the group was not born in Yorkshire. 

A letter from their mother to Gerald a few years later contains a speaking non sequitur: "Sylvia is strong-willed, but I think left alone they are very happy together." "Strong-willed" was a euphemism designed to contain whatever behaviour led Mrs Hughes to believe Sylvia "resented" Ted's closeness to Olwyn.

That Sylvia's anxieties and depression were exacerbated by a cocktail of ineffective medication and an "awareness that Ted had become infatuated by another woman" – Assia Wevill – was inevitable. Gerald sidesteps the question of his brother's culpability by depicting him as a bystander: "Sylvia talked of divorce, but Ted balked at this, believing they could get back together." But Ted continued to love Assia, whom he later described in "Dreamers" wearing "Soot wet mascara, in flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,/ Slightly filthy with erotic mystery."

On the subject of Ted's love life, Gerald's humility, so vital to his portrait of boyhood, leaves the reader wishing he would risk more insight. Perhaps his evasions signal, like the doze of a benevolent grandparent, that certain complexities are beyond his understanding. Assia's suicide is merely reported by him as an uninterpretable fact. Ted's final marriage to Carol Hughes – a farmer's daughter – represented for Ted, and perhaps also for Gerald, a return to intelligibility. Ted felt "as if my real life had been suspended since the age of 16". A predestined muddle, perhaps, for a poet who looked like a film star.

Ted and I supplies ample explanation for Ted's belief that "Poetry is a way of contacting your family when they are gone". Ted's lifelong yearning for Gerald is heartbreakingly particular, and universal: who has not felt the need of a wise older brother? Ted was lucky enough to have one, and unlucky enough to be separated from him by half the Earth. Until death, Ted felt that if only Gerald lived nearby, "My life would not be half as crazy."



Pages about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on this site:


Sylvia Plath


Poem Morning Song, by Sylvia Plath


Poems on “Sylvia Plath reads” - here and here


Os meus livros sobre Sylvia Plath


Sylvia Plath: Ariel (The Restored Edition)


Sylvia Plath - Na Caverna do Barba Azul – Independente (2000)


Sylvia Plath: Lady Lazarus –Pϊblico (1992)


Zι Susto e a Bνblia dos Sonhos - Pϊblico (1995)


SYLVIA PLATH - o filme em Lisboa


HER HUSBAND - Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook - here and here and here and here


SYLVIA PLATH & TED HUGHES - Exhibition in New York


TED HUGHES - Collected poems - here and here


The biography of Ted Hughes, by Elaine Feinstein


Poems: Anniversary, For the Duration and Prometheus in His Crag, by Ted Hughes


Assia Wevill  (1927 - 1969)