The British Library recently bought Ted Hughes’ literary archive, which includes his letters, diaries, and drafts of poems. The £500,000 purchase was called “critical to the study of 20th century poetry” by Jamie Andrews, head of modern manuscripts at the library.
His diaries and letters will no doubt offer enquiring minds more insight into his relationship with his famous wife, Sylvia Plath. Plath and Hughes’ story is no secret among the literary as well as mainstream population. On some level it has, unfortunately, become more significant than the talent of either poet.
The Bell Jar
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
A Novel of Sylvia Plath
(St. Martins Press)
So many love a tragic love affair and Hughes and Plath offered just that. Ted had an affair with his mistress Assia Wevill while Sylvia battled crippling depression, eventually ending her life by gassing herself in her oven.
Plath has since become a poetry as well as pop culture icon. Her sad story is of interest to many, particularly moody teenage girls. I was one of those girls, holding The Bell Jar close and highlighting passages I thought were especially poignant.
Plath’s most autobiographical novel traces college student Esther Greenwood’s battle with depression and eventual nervous breakdown in the early ‘50s. It begins with the brilliant first line so characteristic of Plath’s dark, smart prose: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”
After Esther wins a magazine contest that gives her an internship in New York for a month, she realizes that she should be having the time of her life, but feels empty instead. Esther is a blend of skepticism, drollness, and courage. She is cynical about the expectations of women in her generation, which included getting married and having children—something she rejects.
When she returns home from her internship, she likens her depression to being trapped beneath a bell jar. After several suicide attempts, one quite serious and unforgettable that involves Esther crawling under the house after taking close to 50 sleeping pills, she is hospitalized and receives electroshock therapy.
Initially, The Bell Jar flew under the radar because Plath withheld her name from the book, choosing instead to use the pseudonym, “Victoria Lucas”. Plath committed suicide after its first publication in 1963. The novel didn’t bear her name until 1966, after which it took on literary recognition.
The book does not get into her relationship with Hughes. That comes later in biographies like The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath and Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, a Marriage. Hughes refused to talk about his marriage to Plath, but during the year of his death published Birthday Letters—a poetry collection which addresses their mythological relationship and Plath’s suicide.
Hughes and Plath met and were married in 1956. The two lived and worked in Northhampton and Boston Massachusetts before moving to Hughes’ native England. While living in London, Plath gave birth to the couple’s two children, Nicholas and Frieda. Soon after, Hughes began having an affair with Wevill. Plath and Hughes separated in 1962, but Plath ended her life before the two ever divorced.
While living abroad, Plath published her first poetry collection, The Colossus. Since then, several books of her poetry have been published including Ariel and The Collected Poems, which earned her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In addition to her poetry, her journals and letters have been published. The Bell Jar is her only published novel.
Despite her literary feats, Plath’s rocky relationship with Hughes has long been of interest to the public, sometimes eclipsing her writing. The Bell Jar was made into a 1979 film by Larry Peerce, and a remake is said to be in production now, starring Julia Stiles as Plath. The most comprehensive film made about Plath, her work, and her failed marriage, however, is the 2003 Sylvia.
Written by John Brownlow and directed by Christine Jeffs, Sylvia recounts the relationship between Hughes (Daniel Craig) and Plath (Gwyneth Paltrow) beginning with their meeting at Cambridge and ending with her suicide.
Plath and Hughes’ daughter, Frieda, was unhappy about the making of the film and withheld the rights to poetry that the film-makers requested. She charged them with making money off of her mother’s death, and said she was pestered by producers to help with the film. She told the Sunday Times:
“I wrote a letter to them saying ‘No I don’t want to collaborate’, and they kept coming back. Why would I want to be involved in moments of my childhood which I never want to return to? I want nothing to do with this film. I will never, never in a million years, go to see it.”
She even wrote about her displeasure in a poem of her own called “My Mother”, in which she writes:
They think I should give them my mother’s words
To fill the mouth of their monster
Their Sylvia Suicide Doll
The film doesn’t capture who Sylvia Plath really was. We don’t get to see much of what Sylvia wrote in her journals—the happiness she experienced and the love she felt for her children. But it is a beautifully shot, earnest attempt to depict a played-down look at Plath. Gwyneth Paltrow is excellent in the role. She not only looks like Plath, she gives an emotional and intense performance as the poet.
Because of the confessional nature of her poetry, Plath’s life and work were entangled, so it’s warranted that Plath’s depression is prevalent in her biopic. But that doesn’t mean she walks around with a black cloud above her head throughout all of the film. In fact, Plath’s sometimes upbeat exterior works in the film’s favor because when she does eventually fall victim to her demons toward the end of the film, it makes the impact of her suicide that much deeper.
Sylvia doesn’t go into depth about Hughes’ affair with Wevill. Many Plath fans think of Hughes as Plath’s proverbial murderer, that she ended her life because he had left her for another woman. Could it be that Plath suffered from depression long before meeting Hughes as referred to in The Bell Jar? And what would it be like to live with a woman who suffered such a terrible mood disorder?
Hughes’ silence concerning his famous deceased wife can be seen as dignified. Besides Birthday Letters we have little else to go on concerning how he felt about her life and death. As the executor of Plath’s literary estate, Hughes claims to have destroyed the last volume of Plath’s famous journals, which chronicled their last months together.
But if Birthday Letters was Hughes’ way of coming to terms with his famous wife and closing the door on their relationship, their story is long from over. Since his death, there’s been a slew of interest on the subject including Sylvia , Wintering—a fictional account of the last days of Plath by Kate Moses, and the upcoming remake of The Bell Jar.
Now with the British Library’s latest acquisition, Hughes’ life, which will forever be tied to Plath’s in the public eye, will surely inspire further speculation and interest in the couple. Despite being upheld as one of the greatest poets of his generation, Hughes will forever be known as Sylvia’s Plath’s husband.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article