Saturday, 4 April 2020

100 Good Things About Growing Old #35 - Further Chances to Revisit the Icons of One's Youth

Years ago, in the sixth form (circa 1970) we read poems by Sylvia Plath.  I always found them rather too difficult, although I did buy my own copy of "Ariel", which surprises me somewhat, as these days I either borrow from libraries or look online, at Poetry Foundation.  I found Sylvia's actual life more interesting, and bought a copy of "Bitter Fame" (pictured below), in the 1980's.   

Since then, new material has been published which was not then available.
One item is this, my first "Lockdown Reading" book:

Lockdown Reading:  969 pages

This has been on my "to-read" list since it was published in 2018. I took it out of the library in late January this year, and had already renewed it three times, thus reaching my limit.  Then lockdown closed the library, and I have it for an indefinite further period.

The book is long, but easy to read.  In fact, it reads like an epistolary novel.  It follows the life of Sylvia from shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes until the week before she took her own life (in February 1963).

The introductory piece by her daughter, Frieda Hughes, is touching and illuminating.

It's Sylvia's voice, though, Sylvia's story, and how mesmerising, how vivid, how kaleidoscopic her view of life.

Sylvia's phenomenal energy, her love of food, her love of life (yes, she does come across as having loved life), her love for her mother, for Ted, and for her daughter, Frieda, all shine like beacons.

Most of the letters are addressed to her mother, Aurelia, but with additions, and without the censorship practised in the original "Letters Home" (published in 1975).  Aurelia, (as the linked, quite horrible and extraordinarily scathing, reviewer points out), wanted to present a particular view of her late daughter. The new 2018 book is a no-holds-barred version.

Yes, Sylvia did have a difficult relationship with her mother, (who doesn't?)  and sometimes her selfishness is breathtaking.

She is at times sycophantically the small daughter, craving her mother's indulgence.  At other times she is variously patronising, dismissive, critical, extremely demanding, and even controlling.  (At one point she gives her mother a list of hints on how to make a living as a short-story writer).

At the end, her poor mother is absolutely desperate, forseeing disaster after Ted's departure, leaving the raw, wounded and vulnerable Sylvia alone with a baby and a toddler. Aurelia, anguished, telegrams to the midwife in North Tawton, (Sylvia being still in Devon in October 1962),  begging her to visit Sylvia "now, and get woman for her.  Salary paid here."  This is a voice of maternal anxiety with which, as a mother of grown-up daughters, I can totally empathise.

Sylvia replies to her offers of money and support with absolute fury. "Will you please, for goodness sake, stop bothering poor Winifred Davies!  You have absolutely no right or reason to do this, and it is an endless embarrassment to me .... Will you kindly leave her out of it?"  and more in the same vein.

Sylvia then goes on, in the same letter, to rant about Ted's "insanity and irresponsibility", reports that she has cooked roast beef and apple cake and entertained the bank manager's 14 year old son (who has read Ted's poems at school).  She thinks she is "well-liked here, in spite of my weirdness" and is convinced she will be able to achieve everything if only she can get a good nanny and a London flat.  Everything, energy, food, mania, delusion, it's all there, as it is in so many of her letters to her mother.

I think her mother knew best, but as with many mothers of daughters, she was told not to interfere.

Aurelia knew the real Sylvia, who, as others found to their cost, maintained a front of being the golden, all-achieving, popular American girl.  Underneath, as her poems disclose, she has sharp hurts which will never heal, and very dark thoughts on death.

In spite of it all, I like Sylvia.  I still find her poems on the difficult side, and this is because she was so much cleverer than me.  Had I met her at university, she would have terrified me.

But I like her a whole lot more than Ted.  I never was a fan of his work, and the revelations that have emerged over the years about his personal behaviour have made him even less appealing.  I've written before on this blog about how more recent work has revealed just how unpleasant Ted was.  At the time of Sylvia's death, the prevailing narrative, as exemplified in the biography "Bitter Fame", was that Sylvia was completely mad, and Ted a man provoked beyond endurance.

How untrue that was, is revealed by Professor Sir Jonathan Bate, in his "unauthorised" biography I refer to in that post.  I'll give just two examples:  Ted's sexual adventures with the woman for whom he left Sylvia, Assia Wevill, were so extreme that he ruptured her.  And on the night that Sylvia died, he was in bed with a third woman.

It's always been known that Assia killed herself in the same manner as Sylvia, and, far more shockingly, also killed her four-year-old daughter, Shura.

How toxic does a man have to be, to have that happen twice in a lifetime?

Even after all that, Ted managed to maintain his status as the woebegone, bereft husband, and became the poet laureate.  The women who scratched out the name "Hughes" on Sylvia's headstone in Yorkshire, were dismissed as mad feminists, further examples of what a decent man has to put up with.

As far as I am concerned, however, Ted is most damned by his own words.

Another book that wasn't available in my long-ago youth, is a collection of his own letters (pictured above, published 2007).  I actually bought my own copy of this book, some years ago, but have not been able to read all of them.  Unlike Sylvia's letters, which amuse, grip, enthral and describe, Ted's are much less interesting.  In many he comes across at times as a lacklustre individual.

(To Sylvia, various letters October 1956):  ..."I have done nothing.  Almost nothing. I composed a rather silly plot for a TV play ...."  "What I have done today.  A great deal of nothing..."  "This afternoon, stupefied, I lay on my bed in a half dream from three until seven ..."

Later, after the split, he is cruelly matter-of-fact to his sister Olwyn. (Late summer 1962):
"The only help I need is cash - in an account of my own only concern is to swell a private account" .....   

As two of my friends now in their late sixties have attested, a private bank account in which to salt away an escape fund is the first requirement of the errant husband.

And even more cruelly to Olwyn, September 1962:
" Yes, it's just like her to employ a snoop ...(on his affair with Assia).

Then, tragically, in view of what actually happened:
"You're right, she'll have to grow up - it won't do her any harm".

That did it for me.

I have sifted through his later letters, but not with the enthusiasm I have for Sylvia's.  His long missive to Anne Stevenson, giving his own version of many of the events written about in her biography, "Bitter Fame", is interesting as an alternative view, but does not exonerate him from being damned with his own words in places.  His letter to his son Nicholas, dated 1986, when Nicholas would have been about 24, is astonishingly black and gloomy about life.  Nicholas took his own life in 2009 (two years after the collection of Ted's letters was published).

I find my attitude to Sylvia's poetry has not changed since my sixth-form days: it is still difficult, and dark.  But my attitude to her as a person has had much light shed.

To go back to the idea of what it would have been like to have been her contemporary at university: yes, she would have been scarily energetic and bright, but how bracing, and what good advice she gave!

Here is her letter to her friend from Wellesley, Lynne Lawner, dated October 1957. Lynne has arrived in Cambridge (England, not Massachusetts) in October,as Sylvia did two years before, and she has complained that she is "freezing, sick and uncertain". 

Yes, anyone who arrives at Cambridge in that season feels frozen, and the first term at a new university does leave one sick and uncertain.  Sylvia is bracing; "Well, so was I. Cambridge is worth this ....."

Sylvia remembers the feeling of being out of one's depth:   "If you are now feeling as ignorant, unread, unintellectual as I did ... you would do well to discipline yourself .... simple discipline helps a bit...." 

If only someone had told me this in October 1972, when I arrived at a different university on the freezing Eastern side of England, feeling ignorant and out of my depth.  I failed to discipline myself, and have paid the penalty throughout my life since. 

Her final words are even better:  "Practical advice about the miserable cold. Wear stockings ... and wool kneesocks over them .... Get a hotwaterbottle and pre-warm your bed at night ..." 

And don't skimp on the gas meter, and go out and buy proper food, don't rely on the ghastly college offerings.  Wonderful stuff.

But maybe in real life, such a laser personality ("death-ray", as Ted unkindly described it) would be too much.  Anyway, fifty years later, and without the need to discipline myself to respond academically, I have a second chance to visit this literary icon.


  1. It's lovely to see all my fave bloggers coming out to play! Interesting what you say about failing to discipline yourself. I didn't got to Uni, although I had the brains, we didn't have the money in our working class family to go and I had to leave school at 15 to earn a crust for our family income. My Mother, to this day, tells me regularly that I never made the best of myself. I did very well as a Civil Service Audio Typist and had my own rented flat by the time I was 17 (nobody in their right mind wanted to continue living with their parents back in the day). Marriage and children in the intervening years and now back to 'singledom' which is suiting me very well in my 'golden' years. I was having a video conversation with my sister, who is divorced now too, about how it always seems to be the men who come off better when the relationship goes wayward (merely going on our own personal circumstances and not generalising in any way). I always thought Ted Hughes was a complete animal towards Sylvia and how she must have suffered through her all-consuming love for him. In my eyes, he was an egocentric bully. Have you seen the film 'Sylvia' with Gwyneth Paltrow? I know she's an acquired taste but she really is good in it. The last scene is heartwrenching. Some good news, I have a new grandson now, born 2 weeks ago but who I haven't 'met' yet but am getting regular pics and reports via FB from my daughter-in-law. Happy Sunday to you and sorry for being so long-winded. Stay safe and well.x

    1. Not long-winded at all, Nana. You have made many points I can empathise with, and agree with. As we are all confined to our homes, there is plenty of time to think about them, anyway! Yes, I was lucky enough to go to uni on a full grant, but being the first person in the family to go, and once out of the hothouse atmosphere of a girls' grammar school, I had no idea how to make the best of it.
      Yes, animal is the word I would use to describe Ted. I've seen the film, I thought it was excellent. Gwyneth did a good job as Sylvia, and looked the part, too.
      Many congratulations on your new grandson! How wonderful. We have had to cancel three family visits to daughters already, and don't know when we will see them again. But Whatsapp videos are good! All the best. x