My final book from the Christmas list was Jonathan Bate‘s marvellous and heart-searching biography of Ted Hughes An Unauthorised Life. Ted Hughes, the poet, while living and writing was a target for feminists who could not see beyond his desperate and difficult relationship with Sylvia Plath, to the extent that they (the activists in the feminist movement) were prepared to deface, more than once, her gravestone which read Sylvia Plath Hughes. Time and again the Hughes was chipped away.
But as Jonathan Bate shows in this biography, and anyone who had any inkling of the complexities of Sylvia Plath’s own mental fragility already knew, there was a great deal more to the failure of that marriage and its appalling ending than simply that Ted Hughes destroyed her talent.
In fact, the two poets were their best critics, and much was owed by each to the other. Ted Hughes clearly understood at the time of the break up of the marriage, that there was room for reconciliation and even possibly a move towards living together again, but Plath’s mood swings were impossible to predict, one day she would indicate a positive attitude to having him in her life, the next day or even minute he was too hateful even to have nearby.
Ted Hughes lived the rest of his life with this open wound, an emotional burden that would neither heal nor lighten. It was this as much as anything else, the “thereness” of Sylvia, in his second major relationship with Assia Wevill which held back the bond that should be between a couple.
Assia was still married to David which complicated matters. Assia was jealous of Sylvia and Ted could do little or nothing to lessen it, because Sylvia was still so much a part of him, not least because of the two children, Frieda and Nicholas. Even when Assia had a daughter, Shura, things did not go well and she eventually left him. Ultimately reprising Sylvia’s death but with the added horror of taking their daughter too.
There can be few more heart-stopping moments than the description of Assia and her daughter lying upon a blanket in front of the gas oven.
When Else opened the door, she was almost overcome by the gas fumes. Mrs Jones summoned a male neighbour from upstairs. He went into the kitchen of the darkened flat, switched on the light and saw the bodies of mother and child. He turned off the gas, opened the windows and called the police. Another neighbour, who happened to be a nurse, was called down. ‘Mrs Wevill was lying on some blankets on the floor on her left side’, she said in her police statement, ‘and her daughter was lying on her back, with her face inclined towards her mother’. There was no pulse in either of them and the pupils were dilated. ‘The little girl was much colder than her mother’. It had not taken long for the fumes to overcome the sleeping child, whom her mother had carried into the kitchen. A post-mortem would reveal that Assia herself had taken whisky and the sleeping pills she had obtained from Haworth.
Haworth, the moors and the Brontes all figure in the lives of both Sylvia and Assia and obviously, Ted Hughes. In his collection of poems written in collaboration with Fay Godwin, published under the title Remains of Elmet, the ghosts of the two women linger in the shadows. Although this collection is said not to be autobiographical, this is shadow-play. In the collection of photographs there is one printed beside the poem ‘Hardcastle Crags’, this was a favourite spot of Edith Hughes, Ted’s mother; another photograph shows a place, Abel Cross, where Olwyn and Ted had camped as children; and then printed below a poem called ‘Open to Huge Light’ is a photograph of two bare trees at Top Withens. One of the most treasured photographs of Sylvia, which Ted Hughes had in his possession was of her on one of these very trees, taken in happier times when they has gone out with Ted’s Uncle Walt to find Wuthering Heights.
It was not until the publication of ‘Birthday Letters’ that Ted Hughes felt able to publish his version of the relationship with Sylvia. A natural reticence, coupled with a sense of discretion meant that he had never tried to expose their marriage or any intimate details. He had suffered and been vilified by many, but had remained obdurate and silent on the subject in public. In this final publication he revealed all.
But the most interesting passages in Jonathan Bate’s book are about Ted Hughes work, in the ways in which it revealed his life. His connection with nature, his spiritual sense which was not necessarily religious, but suffused his poetry and his relationship with T S Eliot, a friend, editor and publisher and further back still, his real blood relationship through his mother’s side, with Nicholas Farrar, the founder of Little Gidding. [Lenten Poetry posted 28 March 2014]
So there lies the central axis of this story: Little Gidding a place of poetic connections: Herbert, Eliot and Hughes.