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I’ve been researching love stories for a project I’m working on. One particular relationship that fascinates me is the one between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It has so many elements to intrigue. Genius, passion, betrayal, suicide, infamy. Obviously, I’m not alone in this curiosity. Many films, articles, university courses, etc. have explored their work and complex relationship.
Before I really delved into it, I assumed Ted Hughes was a bad man. In 1963, following their estrangement, Sylivia Plath famously gassed herself when her children were only babies. At the time, Hughes was already expecting another child with the mysterious Assia Wevill. Assia also gassed herself only six years later. It was a brutal act. She also took the life of her four-year-old daughter.
Given the evidence, the conclusion is natural. Ted Hughes was an emotional torturer of women. Someone who abandoned his children. A callous cheater who left nothing but despair in his wake.
Then I read something that made me waiver. In October last year, the New Statesman published the “Last Letter”. It moved me to tears (not difficult to do), but it’s truly a heartbreaking piece. Alerted to his estranged wife’s tragic plan before the act by the expediency of the Royal Mail*, he was unable to alter her fate. The poem recounts the experience and the ensuing anguish he felt after her death.
Reading it, I considered the possibility that I’ve misjudged Ted. Perhaps the issue was his penchant for depressive women. Perhaps he hadn’t driven them to madness. Perhaps they were there already.
So I’m taking a much-needed break from Paradise Lost to learn more about this man. To give him a chance. Last night I started Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath – A Marriage [Paperback] by Diane Middlebrook.
Afterwards, I dreamt of a garden. I take that to mean that the jury is officially out.
* I lived across the street from a post office in North London for years and I can attest to their proficiency. A strange quirk for a country where it can take weeks of solid effort to have your telephone connected. And I won’t be cliché by bitching about the trains, but they really do suck.