A Peanut Cruncher’s Defence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

‘A Peanut Cruncher’s Defence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ first appeared in volume 5 of Kill Your Darlings. It is reproduced here in full with the generous permission of Kill Your Darlings.

The peanut-crunching crowd

Shoves in to see

Them unwrap me hand and foot –

The big strip tease.

  – Sylvia Plath, ‘Lady Lazarus’

I wept in March 2009 when the headlines baldly declared that Nicholas Hughes had suicided. I’d never met Nicholas Hughes. We never exchanged emails or shared friends. We didn’t even have a cursory Facebook acquaintance. He would never have known of my existence, but he would have been aware (perhaps painfully so) of people like me. The people his father Ted Hughes derided in the poem ‘The Dogs are Eating Your Mother’. The ones who picked over the story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath as if it were a juicy carcass, and who took sides with irrational ferocity. Like the death of Princess Diana, something in the Plath/Hughes story arouses many people’s atavistic instinct. They have become projection posts for primal hopes and fears and, in Hughes’ case, straw tyrants for the betrayed and the silenced.

In my own personal fantasy about Plath and Hughes, Nicholas and his sister Frieda transcended the bile and fury surrounding their parents to create successful, happy lives for themselves. I knew a little about Frieda and respected her strength in carving out an artistic career despite the long shadow of her parents’ literary reputations. Of the adult Nick Hughes I knew nothing. He was the liquid-eyed, bald baby in the black and white photographs in his parents’ biographies; the revered life-force of ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, one of my favourite Plath poems. That he had chosen to kill himself suggested my fantasy of contented adulthood was hopelessly misguided.

This fantasy, in fact, now made me feel dirty. What must it have been like to be the object of such prurient interest your whole life? To be faced with the ‘peanut-crunching crowd’ eager after every fresh ‘fact’ about one’s parents? Ted Hughes worked hard to keep the cold nose of public interest out of his children’s faces. When Al Alvarez serialised part of his book, The Savage God, in The Observer, Hughes was incandescent with rage. Alvarez was a friend of both Plath and Hughes, and one of the earliest critics to recognise Plath’s ability. (Plath’s poem ‘Letter in November’ was allegedly inspired by her attraction to Alvarez.)

In his essay, Alvarez spoke candidly about Sylvia’s suicide and the bare facts surrounding it: that Plath and Hughes had separated (precipitated by Hughes’ affair with Assia Wevill in 1962) and that Plath was terribly lonely. That she was battling the catastrophic winter of 1963 alone with her two children in a London flat. That she left milk and bread for Nick and Frieda, opened their windows to the frigid air, stopped the gap between their bedroom door and the floor with towels and then placed her head in a gas oven. When Alvarez published the first of his two-part essay, these ‘facts’ were unknown to Plath’s children: Hughes had carefully guarded them from this potentially devastating knowledge. Hughes demanded that The Observer withdraw the remaining piece (they acquiesced). He severed the friendship with Alvarez.

I am somewhat ashamed that I am one of the voyeurs that Hughes needed to protect his children from. I was never one of the militant Plath ‘protectors’ who repeatedly chiselled the ‘Hughes’ part of her name from her headstone in Heptonstall. Nor was I one of the placard-waving protestors who dogged Hughes’ public appearances, chanting slogans like ‘You killed Sylvia’. My interest has an altogether quieter tone, but nonetheless one that helps to keep the Plath/Hughes industry rolling along. (Incidentally, an industry that Hughes – as the executor of Plath’s literary estate – did very well from, financially-speaking. This fact is tremendously helpful for us peanut-crunchers. It allows us to feel less exploitative).

It would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the public fascination with Plath and Hughes as mere licentiousness. We continue to be fascinated with Plath and Hughes because we recognise in their story something about our own; the struggle for what Hughes would later term ‘own[ing] the facts’ of our own lives. The paradox of this bitter contest for ‘ownership’ is that the Plath/Hughes relationship came so close to being that rarity: a union that nurtures the artistry and creativity of both parties rather than forcing one to sublimate their ambitions to the other. Perhaps the ferocity of response from feminist peanut-eaters reflects our despair with the mammoth difficulty of achieving this very thing.

***

The court of public opinion has been mightily tough on Hughes. It’s not hard to manufacture a case against him. Philandering husband who drove his genius wife to suicide at the age of 30. Self-interested, censoring editor of her literary estate who corrupted her vision of Ariel and hacked and slashed at her journals to present a sanitised version of Plath and himself. Further ‘proof’ that Hughes was an inveterate bastard is provided by the fact that Assia Wevill eventually suicided, having despaired of Hughes making good on his promise to set up house with her. Not only did she take her own life, Wevill fed sleeping pills to the couple’s daughter, Shura, and gassed her too.  Revelations from later lovers like Jane Barber and Emma Tennant suggest Hughes was hardly a paragon of marital fidelity in his second (and lasting) marriage to Carol Orchard.

Ted Hughes became an obvious target for the burgeoning feminist movement. Robin Morgan, in her famous poem ‘Arraignment’, flatly stated ‘I accuse Ted Hughes’, while Germaine Greer claimed that feminists never had any intention of dealing with him. Hughes’ vacillation between dignified silence and obtuse ‘record straightening’ probably didn’t help: on one hand he wanted to further Plath’s literary reputation, but on the other he resented the public speculation about their lives together. It was in 1989, in an exasperated letter to The Independent, that Hughes wrote: ‘I hope each of us owns the facts of her or his own life’.

This statement is at the centre of the Plath/Hughes myth and its status as a postmodern fable-nightmare. Anyone who has gone through the bloodbath of a bitter relationship breakdown knows how difficult ‘owning’ those facts can be. Whether in a family court, within one’s social group or simply in the recesses of one’s head, the past is fiercely contested. One rakes over it, apportions blame here, takes responsibility there, establishes the various he-saids and she-saids, and falls into pits of grief and fury along the way. Hughes’ predicament was more complex than most because no matter what he said or did, Plath would always have the last word. Her suicide was unanswerable. His intermittent attempts at public explanation were doomed because he lived and she did not. As Janet Malcolm so elegantly argued in her 1989 study of Plath/Hughes scholarship, Sylvia Plath would always be ‘The Silent Woman’. As such, she remains a powerful totem for anyone who feels that they’ve come off second best in their battle with a partner or the broader culture.

But what precisely did Hughes mean by ‘owning the facts’? That others have no right to speculate on what is uniquely ours? Perhaps. But if that is what Hughes meant, he snookered himself by appropriating so many of the ‘facts’ of Plath’s life, thereby inviting and possibly demanding the very contestation he decried.

The appropriation started with the publication of Plath’s Ariel poems in 1965. When Plath died she left the manuscript in a particular order. The manuscript began with the joyful ‘Morning Song’ (about Frieda’s birth) and ended with the tentatively hopeful ‘Wintering’, in which the preserves stand ready against the season’s deprivations and the bees wait for spring. Hughes re-ordered the volume so that it ended with ‘Edge’, the last poem Plath wrote. ‘Edge’ opens with the lines: ‘The woman is perfected / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment, / The illusion of a Greek necessity / Flows in the scrolls of her toga, / Her bare / Feet seem to be saying: / We have come so far, it is over’. So Ariel came to be seen as a prophetic, extended suicide note. Hughes also removed several poems that might have been interpreted as critical of him such as ‘The Jailer’ and ‘Purdah’.

This pattern of omission and exclusion, politely termed ‘editing’, occurred again when Hughes released The Journals of Sylvia Plath, in 1982. The foreword coyly states that omissions were made to reflect ‘concern for those who must live out their lives as characters in this drama. There are quite a few nasty bits missing,’ and to downplay Plath’s eroticism ‘which was quite strong’. But Hughes’ editing extended well beyond mere omission. He destroyed one journal and allowed another to ‘disappear’ . The  destruction, as he explains in the foreword, occurred ‘because I did not want her children to have to read it (in those days I regarded forgetfulness as an essential part of survival)’. As a father, Hughes could well be forgiven for ‘disappearing’ these facts; as Plath’s editor and literary executor he had a mighty conflict of interest.

When asked by the The Paris Review in 1995 to justify his editorial incursions with the Ariel manuscript, Ted Hughes offered two explanations: that the Ariel manuscript was unpublishable in America in the order in which Plath had left it; and that she had always re-ordered her poems, in search of new connections and better sequences.

There are no doubt truths in Hughes’ reasoning, but there remains a troubling elision. After all, in a little commented-on phrase in The Paris Review interview, Hughes makes it clear that ‘Faber in England were happy to publish the book in any form’.  Why, then, did Hughes not simply allow Faber to publish in England using the text as Plath had left it? Was it so important that the poems have immediate American release? What is most unnerving, most suspect, is the authority with which Hughes claimed to ‘speak’ for Plath. In the foreword to the first edition of the journals, he discusses Plath’s ‘real’ and ‘false’ selves:

Sylvia Plath was a person of many masks, both in her personal life and in her writings. Some were camouflage cliché facades, defensive mechanisms, involuntary. And some were deliberate poses, attempts to find the keys to one style or another. These were the visible faces of her lesser selves, her false or provisional selves, the minor roles of her inner drama. Though I spent every day with her for six years, and was rarely separated from her for more than two or three hours at a time, I never saw her show her real self to anybody – except, perhaps, in the last three months of her life.

Could it be that Hughes felt he could discern these selves better than Plath herself, and so was doing what was ‘best’ for the poems and for Sylvia? Even assuming that Hughes was right in saying that Plath’s ‘real self’ only emerged in the months before her death, this is precisely the period for which Hughes is least authorised to speak: he was not with her. The insight Hughes claims about Plath’s ‘real’ and ‘false’ selves emerges repeatedly: when he edited her collected poems, he placed all the poems that pre-date their relationship under the heading ‘juvenilia’. In the foreward to Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Hughes describes Plath as undiscriminating in her search for publication, leading her to write ‘false’ short stories rather than focusing on ‘real’ poetry. Again and again, Hughes refused copyright to writers with ‘false’ versions of Plath. Taking issue with Linda Wagner-Martin’s  1988 biography, the Plath estate required cuts amounting to around 15,000 words. Scholar after scholar bunted up against Hughes’ determined ‘ownership’ of the facts of Plath.

The confidence with which Hughes claims to understand the ‘real’ and ‘false’ Plath is even more staggering when contrasted with the slightly bumbling, blind version of his young self that Hughes presents in Birthday Letters. The penetration Hughes claims about Plath is nowhere to be seen in his refracted poetic self. In this book the young Hughes is inept and unworldly. He eats his first peach at 25 and is astonished by how delicious it is. In ‘The Shot’, Hughes ruefully writes that ‘In my position, the right witchdoctor / Might have caught you in flight with his bare hands, / Tossed you, cooling, one hand to the other, / Godless, happy, quieted. / I managed / A wisp of your hair, your ring, your watch, your nightgown’. The young Hughes was unable to comprehend the depth and complexity of Sylvia’s fears and panics. Unaware, even, of how profoundly and permanently Plath was affecting him. The sense of having been steamrolled by something he could not control and did not understand is one of the unifying, driving themes in Birthday Letters.

The reading public, particularly women, smelled a rat in Hughes’ representation of Plath and her work. How many of us would be comfortable with our former partners making such authoritative, breezy public assertions about our ‘real’ and ‘false’ selves? No wonder so many readers wanted to rescue the ‘facts’ about Plath from Hughes’ grasp. The result was a see-sawing contest between Team Plath (represented by Alvarez, Plath’s mother Aurelia Plath, feminist scholars and biographers) and Team Hughes (Hughes, his sister Olwyn Hughes and the biographer Anne Stevenson) that too often reduced a mightily complex relationship into a simplistic and vicious argument.

The zenith of the struggle for ownership of the facts was the publication of Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, the Plath biography written with the co-operation of the Plath estate. Although Stevenson’s book didn’t deserve the evisceration it suffered, it was a decidedly unflattering portrait of Plath. The inclusion of nasty reminiscences of Plath by the Hughes camp was, at best, a lapse in taste. In the public relations disaster that followed the book’s release it transpired that Stevenson had come under relentless pressure from Olwyn Hughes, who also happened to be the literary agent of the Plath estate, to present the ‘facts’ a certain way.

Ironically enough, if Hughes had been a little less zealous in asserting his ownership of the facts, it might have served him better. In the collections Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers, Hughes speaks directly to his dead wife in poems that are alternately remembrances, imagined exchanges and love letters. In the chilling ‘The Offers’, Hughes imagines Plath returning from the grave three times in a series of tests. In one visit Hughes realises that Plath has ransomed him in the underworld: ‘It seemed you had finessed your return to the living / By leaving me as you bail, a hostage stopped / In the land of the dead / Less and Less / Did I think of escape.’ And for anyone who feels Hughes did not ‘own’ the facts in the sense of taking responsibility for what befell him and his estranged wife, there are the electrifying last lines of ‘The Offers’ where the ghostly Plath says to Hughes ‘This is the last. This one. This time/Don’t fail me’.

Hughes’ decision to share the ‘facts’ of his life in Birthday Letters brought him a psychological peace he had not known since Plath’s death. He wrote in a letter to a friend:

I think those letters do release the story that everything I have written since the early 1960s has been evading. It was a kind of desperation that I finally did publish them…I just could not endure being blocked any longer…If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a freer psychological life. Even now the sensation of inner liberation – a huge, sudden, possibility of new inner experience. Quite strange.

 

Ted Hughes died within a year of releasing Birthday Letters.

 ***

Ted Hughes has been criticised vastly for being a domestic tyrant who crushed Sylvia Plath and spawned her proto-feminist poems, such as ‘The Applicant’ and ‘Daddy’. But this reasoning ignores the day-to-day organisation of their lives and Plath’s own – at least initial – expectations of what a marriage was. At a time when women were expected to resign from paid employment on marriage, Plath’s journals show Hughes as encouraging and supportive of her creativity (although they did have spats about Plath sowing on his buttons).. After their honeymoon they returned to Cambridge so that Plath could complete her Fulbright scholarship. Back in America she attended Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop with Anne Sexton. Once again in England, and settled at Court Green in Devon, Hughes made Plath a great, solid writing table that would last her a lifetime.

When Frieda was born, Hughes looked after the baby in the morning while Plath wrote. At lunchtime, they switched roles. Hughes seems to have considered that the shared parenting responsibility between them was right and proper. The kitchen was Plath’s territory but Hughes hunted and fished for their meals. Plath’s journals suggest Hughes was not the fanatical scourer of bathrooms that she was, preferring to turn potatoes in the garden. While the household division of labour was along gender lines, the labour itself was organised so each party had uninterrupted access to their creative selves. I wonder how many other men of Hughes’ generation arranged their time in this way. Plath’s contemporary and controversial biographer Anne Stevenson recorded how her own first husband decried ‘roistering poets’, stifling her own creative impulse.

Not that Plath railed against the idea of domesticity. Rather, in her journals she makes repeated claim for the harmony of, even the symbiosis between, marriage and art. Reflecting on a relationship with a former boyfriend, Plath wrote in her journals: ‘I do not believe, as he and his friends would seem to, that artistic creativity can best be indulged in masterful singleness rather than in marital cooperation. I think that a workable union should heighten the potentialities in both individuals.’ Later she writes:

Now, if I were inclined to a career as a lawyer or journalist that would be all right. But I am not. I am inclined to babies and bed and brilliant friends and a magnificent stimulating home where geniuses drink gin in the kitchen after a delectable dinner and read their own novels and tell about why the stock market is the way it will be and discuss scientific mysticism…well, anyhow, this is what I was meant to make for a man, and to give him this colossal reservoir of faith and love for him to swim in daily, and to give him children; lots of them, in great pain and pride’.

There seems genuinely to have been no competitiveness between Hughes and Plath – or at least none that was rancorous. Plath often wrote of her admiration of Hughes, and his poetry; she also wrote of his superiority in their artistic pairing: ‘[T]hat’s why I could marry him, knowing he was a better poet than I and that I would never have to restrain my little gift, but I could push it and work it to the utmost, and still feel him ahead’. Plath, nonetheless, was stimulated by Hughes’ criticism of her work: ‘Ted is right, infallibly, when he criticizes my poems and suggests, here, there, the right word – “marvelingly” instead of “admiringly,” and so on’.

Yet their apparent domestic contentment does not seem to have been premised on Plath’s acknowledging Hughes as her intellectual superior. Whatever else he did or did not do, Hughes never wavered in his belief in Plath’s genius. A man who was anxious to retain his status as ‘The Poet’ in their relationship with Plath, a minor acolyte, would never have published Ariel or pushed her claims to greatness. Hughes seems to have had no problems engaging in intellectual partnerships with women, and later fruitfully collaborated with Assia Wevill, who was a talented illustrator and translator. Even Al Alvarez acknowledged that the power between Plath and Hughes flowed circuitously and that Hughes did not seem to mind playing second fiddle to his ascendant wife at times.

 Writing was wholly integrated into Ted Hughes’ and Sylvia Plath’s lives; it was the fulcrum around which they moved. As Hughes put it in the poem ‘Flounders’: ‘We / Only did what poetry told us to do.’ Sylvia Plath spent just one year teaching at her old alma mater, Smith College in 1957-1958, while Hughes taught at a boys’ school. Together they threw in their jobs to devote themselves entirely to writing.

Not only did Plath and Hughes integrate their own art into their individual lives,  each was deeply invested in what the other was writing on both on a critical and psychic level. In The Paris Review interview, Hughes remembered how

Quite suddenly we were completely committed to each other and to each other’s writing… our minds soon became two parts of one operation. We dreamed a lot of shared or complementary dreams. Our telepathy was intrusive. I don’t know whether our verse exchanged much, if we influenced one another that way – not in the early days. Maybe others see that differently. .. Throughout our time together we looked at each other’s verses at every stage – up to the Ariel poems of October 1962, which was when we separated.

They even wrote drafts on the unused side of each other’s poems. They read virtually everything the other wrote, and provided feedback until their separation. Tulips, bears, rabbit catchers, bees, fathers, poppies and daffodils became part of the catalogue of meaning between them. The poems, of course, stand by themselves as contained narrative, but there is an interstice (particularly between Birthday Letters and Ariel) where the writing and the poets are in dialogue with one another. Some of the connections are profoundly sad. In the play ‘Problems of a Bridegroom’, Hughes relates how a man runs over a hare on his way to London, sells the hare to a butcher and buys roses for his mistress with the money. In ‘Kindness’, Plath writes: ‘You hand me two children, two roses.’

The shared, mutually-sustaining creativity over the seven years of the Plath/Hughes relationship is striking. Writers have to clamber down into the purest, deepest parts of themselves to dredge up the ideas, the sense memories and the ancestral memory of which stories are made. This psychic travelling can be deeply destabilising for a writer’s intimates. At its most extreme, it can be a rival for the loved one, an intimacy from which one is powerfully excluded. Plath and Hughes were enmeshed in a companionable, fruitful artistic and romantic relationship for seven years before it soured. Their union produced Hawk in the Rain, The Colossus, Lupercal and the Ariel poems. After Plath’s death their connection continued to be a wellspring of creativity for Hughes out of which came Birthday Letters and Howls and Whispers. In this tension between the personal destruction and the creative bounty is located the peanut cruncher’s fascination.

 


 

 

One Response to “A Peanut Cruncher’s Defence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes”

  1. Beth Spencer says:

    Lovely piece. Thanks for your compassionate and thoughtful analysis. I didn’t know about Nicholas Hughes. That’s incredibly sad. It’s extraordinary how lives are woven together down the generations. best wishes with your writing, Beth

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