The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Vol 2, 1956 – 1963, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen K, Kulkil. Faber & Faber, 2018.
This huge volume (well over 1000 words, and too heavy for me to lift) contains heartrending, fiercely honest, falsely cheerful, and enlightening words from Sylvia to her mother, her brother, her friends, and most revealingly, to her psychiatrist, Dr Ruth Buescher.
The Foreword by Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Sylvia and Ted, sets the record straight, warning readers to withhold judgement, remembering that these letters are only one side of the story. She writes: ‘In my mind, the letters were written by my distraught mother in the throes of real emotional pain; her side of the argument was the only side, and that was the side that everyone was sure to take.’She acknowledges that both her parents contributed to the breakdown of their marriage: ‘My father may have reacted to a perceived lack of freedom and had his affair, but culpability lay with both of them. While my father does not come out of these letters as a saint, neither does my mother.”
In my novel ‘Capriccio’, based on the true story of Assia, Ted and Sylvia, I have tried to be impartial to the main players, portraying them as flawed human beings caught in the capricious web of destiny. Esther (Assia) is shown to be mischievous, selfish, vain, and incapable of freeing herself from the bonds of her obsessive love for Larry (Ted). She was also generous, kind, witty, and talented. Although I showed these positive qualities, readers often seize on the more sensational, destructive side of her character.
With Ted (Larry) for example, I was careful to show him as a loving father and a devoted son, as well as a disloyal and often cruel husband and lover. It seems his better qualities are often overlooked by reader seeking to confirm the established view of him as an out-an-out bastard with no redeeming features. As Frieda writes: Loving both my parents I was – I am – acutely aware of their humanity and fallibility, but these elements could be easily disregarded by others who had their own ideas and wanted to shape their own arguments. In my view, they are both flawed and impassioned human beings.
Ted Before and After
For years I have worried that I portrayed Ted Hughes too harshly. The last thing I wanted was for my novel to feed the demonising of this man, whom I see as a flawed human being, and whom I believe has been ill-judged by sections of the populace, always ready for blood. If I were in any doubt about my depiction of Ted Hughes (Larry Wilde in my novel, ‘Capriccio’) Sylvia’s letters confirm that my fictional portrayal is mild indeed, compared to Sylvia’s wildly accusatory words: “He has behaved like a bastard, a boor, a crook, & what has hurt most is his cowardice.”After Hughes left her for Assia, Sylvia calls Hughes “a gigolo, ‘vain & despicable’ ‘He is a vampire on my life, killing and destroying all’ (26 September 1962). She claims both he and Assia wished her dead:Ted has said how convenient it would be if I were dead. He keeps saying he can’t understand why I don’t kill myself. And yet in her earlier letters, Sylvia pays homage to Ted as the sweetest most thoughtful person in the world.I have had a rather glum winter & he has tirelessly stood by & cheered me up in every conceivable way.Poor dear, I’d like to know how many men would take over as willingly & lovingly as he has! At last she writes, with flashes of insight: He assured me, in a flash of his old self, that me & the children were what he really loved & would come back to & he was not going to London to lie about & had not touched another woman since we were married.
On the Marriage
Frieda writes: it was simply a case of two people having lived so closely that they imploded. It is hard to imagine that anyone looking into my parents’ relationship from the outside wouldn’t think it so claustrophobic that something must give, if they didn’t each develop a life outside the marriage.It seemed to me that the spark of my parents’ first meeting ignited a fire, which then burned so brightly in the microcosmic universe they constructed for themselves that they ran out of oxygen. Her mother, Sylvia admits: I think my marriage, though It had much good, was a pretty sick one.
What did Sylvia really think of Assia?
When they first meet, Sylvia appears to admire Assia: his very attractive, intelligent wife coming down for this weekend—they’re the ones who took over our lease for the London flat. Later, her hatred for her rival knows no bounds:What has this Weavy Asshole (her name is actually Assia Wevill) got that I haven’t, I thought: she can’t make a baby (and really isn’t so sorry), can’t make a book or a poem, just ads about bad bakery bread, wants to die before she gets old & loses her beauty, and is bored. Bored, bored, bored. With herself & her life. She literally moved into our London flat (after we left!). She came down here & wanted to move into my life. Well, the old girl has done me a big favor. Later Sylvia has the grace to acknowledge Assia for her honesty – She at least had the guts to tell her husband at the end – in contrast to what Sylvia saw as Ted’s lying and deception.
We have Frieda Hughes to thank for the inclusion of these fourteen letters from Sylvia to her psychiatrist Dr Ruth Beuscher. They are ravaging in their transparency, and their revelations of a mind slowly and painfully unravelling. These letters reveal the terrible pressure Sylvia put on herself to conquer her lifelong mental illness. To her psychiatrist, Dr Ruth Beuscher, Plath writes of the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst—cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies. Her daughter Frieda writes: She wants to ‘die and be done with it’; it is becoming too difficult. Frieda decided at the last minute to include these intimate letters: I decided to let people make up their own minds and, hopefully, find the kind of understanding my mother was working towards near the end, despite the return of the ‘madness’ that took her away.
Sylvia’s last letter, written a week before she died, ends: I am incapable of being myself and loving myself. This very last sentence, a testament to Sylvia’s maternal love, almost made me weep: Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea.