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Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters

Posted on Nov 21, 2008
book cover

By Regina Marler

(Page 3)

      He also offered increasingly penetrating analyses of the creative process, as shaped by his own engagement with—and artistic avoidance of—his psychic dramas. In another letter to Merchant, he confesses a belief that “whatever we work at, in the way of imaginative creation, operates as a conjuration, a ritual summoning of all energies associated with the subject matter—from levels that our normal activities can rarely tap. And those energies are good or bad for us—helpful or destructive—almost in the style of demonic entities—according to our subject matter, & the moral-imaginative interpretation we make of it.” 

        From my experience editing “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell,” I can attest that the hardest part—after deciphering your subject’s handwriting—is shaping a fluid narrative from the surviving manuscripts, a plausible “life in letters.” This is the story you defend from your publisher’s red pen. But Christopher Reid regards his task differently. In his introduction, as we’ve seen, the editor posits the “Letters” as part of the Hughes revival—a counterattack against four decades of sniper fire. Crucially, he also makes it clear that his book is not “a biography in disguise. … The story is above all that of Hughes the writer.” 

      This gets Reid off the hook in three ways: He isn’t required to present a biographical introduction or adequate chapter introductions; he doesn’t have to shape a biographical narrative from the surviving letters; and he isn’t obliged to present what he or the Hughes estate might regard as extra-literary material—for example, letters to Hughes’ several girlfriends after (and overlapping) Assia Wevill and later, during his marriage to Carol Hughes. The women are speaking out (to biographers, in memoirs, on the Internet) now that the charismatic Hughes is gone, but Hughes—as presented by Reid—is silent. We have, for that matter, no letters here to Carol Hughes, his wife of 28 years.

      It may be that Reid feels that Hughes’ letters to his long-term girlfriends are of no literary importance—a valid decision if it is based on an examination of whatever letters may survive. Or such letters may be omitted in deference to the feelings of Carol Hughes. Why not state this openly? Few critics could argue that Hughes’ relationships with women have no bearing on his poetry, which frequently hinges on the male-female dyad playing out in mythology and life. But a reader from an alien planet—and maybe only a reader from an alien planet, given the publicity surrounding Hughes—would assume from these “Letters” that Hughes’ indiscretion with Wevill was a single regrettable mistake, not part of a lifetime pattern or a personal philosophy. 


book cover


Letters of Ted Hughes


By Ted Hughes


Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 784 pages


Buy the book


      One of these girlfriends, Brenda Hedden, is mentioned in a footnote, but during a period safely between Wevill’s death and Hughes’ 1970 marriage to Carol Orchard. The larger story—untold in the “Letters” but explicit in Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Hughes—is that she overlapped both relationships. Another letter here that would have revealed this has the relevant paragraph neatly deleted. If a Hughes revival has any chance, it has to admit the whole truth about the man. He’s already waist-deep in controversy. Too late to guard his fishing tackle now. 

      There are other hints of editorial whitewash in the “Letters.” Reid includes an angry and aggrieved letter to A. Alvarez, a friend of both Plath’s and Hughes’ who had published the details of the poet’s suicide, but he does not include the ferocious, less articulate follow-up letter from Hughes, which would raise blisters on the hands of anyone who touched it. Both letters are quoted in “The Silent Woman.” Perhaps Reid felt that the first letter adequately got the point across. And just as well, for Reid’s larger purpose, since the second letter suggests a bullying streak in Hughes.

      Reid also includes a kind and sensible letter to Aurelia Plath, written July 1, 1968, about the possible film adaptation of “The Bell Jar” (the film was released in 1979; there is a new one in preproduction) and publication of the book in America: “As for publishing it over there simply as a book—again, I think not. I imagine you seeing it on the bookshelf of everybody you know, as it would be, and it seems to me I should ask you not to think about whatever the book might earn for the children—the money is as likely to do them harm as to do them good.” 

        Interestingly, there are no further letters here from Hughes about his later financial decision to go ahead and publish “The Bell Jar” (with its brutal depictions of many living people) in America over Aurelia’s objections and despite her feelings. Reid doesn’t even footnote the eventual outcome. I’m not faulting Hughes for changing his mind, or for his decision to publish, but including this letter alone misrepresents his conduct as executor and the nature of his relationship with Plath’s mother, who developed such resentment toward Hughes that she kept a file of unsent letters to him, now in the Sylvia Plath archive at Smith College. 

        Nor does Reid include a stunning, accusatory letter to the poststructuralist critic Jacqueline Rose, discussed in “The Silent Woman.” Rose had the temerity to advance a lesbian interpretation for a critically resistant passage in Plath’s poem, “The Rabbit-Catchers.” Hughes responded with rage, suggesting, among other things, that Rose’s joie de texte was likely to deeply damage Plath’s children (then in their 30s). Any editor fond of Hughes would be tempted to omit the letter. He sounds like a wing-nut. But he also remarks movingly on his merciless treatment by Plath critics, a particular formulation found nowhere else in the “Letters”: “Critics established the right to say whatever they pleased about the dead. It is an absolute power, and the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination. They move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between the living and the dead. They extend over the living that license to say whatever they please, to ransack their psyche and reinvent them however they please” (quoted in Malcolm). 

        The varied and exciting archive of drafts, letters and working journals that Ted Hughes sold to Emory a year before his death (his remaining papers have just been sold to the British Library) contains a sealed footlocker, not to be opened for many years. This is roughly what Reid has given us in the “Letters”—so much, but with a sealed footlocker shoved into a back corner. To honor Hughes, Reid seems to argue, is to protect him from another generation of harpies and detractors, to keep his less than commendable traits out of public view. 

        My advice to future editors: Let the sky fall. You may release a “gigantic, upheaval transformation” rather than a model of editorial decorum.

Regina Marler is the editor of “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell” and “Bloomsbury Pie: “The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom,” both published by Pantheon. She is working on a re-examination of the life and loves of Edgar Allan Poe.

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By brenda hedden, April 7, 2010 at 12:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Jill Barber’s version of my relationship with Ted Hughes is fictitious. The authentic account is found in Hughes’s many letters to myself at the time.  This record proves it was a positive and successful transition.  As Hughes writes of his many visits to Sussex to see me, Jill Barber’s imagined construction is exposed as absurd.

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By Paracelsus, November 24, 2008 at 11:49 am Link to this comment

Well if you are going to end it all, I think it is always the polite and nice thing to do if you go out with a song.

Also be considerate enough not to make a big mess. I like how Jean le Carré‘s character in A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym, drew down the dénouement to his own life: he wrapped a towel around his head before shooting himself so as to spare his landlady any additional aggravation in cleaning up his leavings. So much of time suicides do the inconsiderate act by inconveniencing others in their thanatic quests. For example, Anna Karinna of Leo Tolstoy slowed down a locomotive when she contrived her exit. It must be the holidays for I have taken a journey down a moribund path, much like the forest trek that Virgil took with his sightseeing guide. Enough of of that, I am going to listen to some happy music.

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By Paracelsus, November 23, 2008 at 3:04 am Link to this comment

A Second Thought

He doesn’t sound like a nice guy at all.


I had believed him when he told me in 1977: ‘If you f*** another man I will never see you again.’ His sex drive was unquenchable and he was definitely attracted to unstable women. He told me with glee of how he had driven a previous lover, Brenda Heddon, to near madness.

When he broke off their relationship, he would wake up in the morning to find her hair twined around the front doorknob and the doorhandle of his car.

He loved women to be obsessed with him, even if he did not love or care for them any more.

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By diamond, November 23, 2008 at 12:59 am Link to this comment

Whenever I read any of Hughes’ forewords to Plath’s writings, or essays he’s written on her poetry, which seem, on the face of it, to be so civilized and so objective, I remember what Hughes is supposed to have said when he turned up at Helder and Suzette Macedo’s “totally devastated” after learning of Plath’s suicide:  “Helder,” he said, “you must know it was either her or me” . Even taking into account grief and shock this is a cruel and curious thing for him to have said. The Macedos were Hughes’ friends and seem to have remained his friends so it’s hard to imagine they had any reason to make this up.
  To say Hughes had a hidden agenda in nearly everything he writes about Plath is to understate the case. Whatever he discusses he is simply pursuing his vested interest in finding that Plath was in love with death.  Would a woman who was in love with death have taken a tonic to help her appetite? Would she have sought medical help when she realized how ill she was? So much of what Hughes writes about Plath in the guise of literary theory is sheer nonsense when seen in the light of compassion and commonsense. Racked with guilt after Plath’s suicide he wrote to her mother in 1963 that his affair with Assia Wevill was “madness” and even went so far as to claim that if there is an eternity he “would be dammed in it” for what he had done.  He probably meant it at the time, but it has to be remembered that he continued to sleep with Wevill for at least five years after this.

  What really lifts this story into the realms of the fantastic is what eventually happened to Assia Wevill.  After Plath’s suicide, Wevill was defiant and contemptuous of critics of her relationship with Hughes, but it couldn’t last. She moved to Devon and into Court Green after giving birth to Hughes’ daughter (while still living with her husband David Wevill); but by the end of 1967, “Ted had decided that the only way to engineer some peace for HIMSELF was for Assia to move back to London”. Wevill had wanted marriage but Hughes refused to commit himself.  Wevill went back to work as a copywriter in London, put on weight and had to live with the fact that Ted Hughes had another woman in his life: Brenda Hedden, another married woman and mother of two pre-school age children. With bitter wit Wevill described Hedden as “an emaciated Marilyn Monroe”.  The novelist Fay Weldon, who was Wevill’s friend at this time, remembers that Assia’s life revolved around Ted Hughes’ phone calls. 

  By 1969 Wevill, like Plath before her, was seriously depressed. She had put all her hopes into buying a house with Hughes on the outskirts of Newcastle but when she phoned him to discuss it on the last day of her life, there was an argument on the phone. Not surprising when Hughes was planning to marry Carol Orchard, a woman many years his junior, after refusing to marry Wevill for five years. The most likely explanation for the argument is that Hughes told her about the upcoming nuptials. Elizabeth Compton Sigmund also believed that Plath suicided after Hughes told her that Wevill was pregnant.  Apparently this pregnancy was later terminated.  After putting the phone down Assia Wevill sent her German au pair out to do some shopping, gave her daughter Shura sleeping tablets in a drink, took some in whisky herself and lying down with Shura in her arms, she turned on the gas. She was forty years old.

It never ceases to amaze me that people talk about Plath’s selfishness but not about Hughes’ egomaniacal behaviour. No one was more responsible for the myth of the death crazed harpy of Court Green than he was. And no one was more responsible for Plath’s suicide. He felt as if he was in court and only one of them could be found guilty and by God it wasn’t going to be him. Losing one woman to suicide could be bad luck: losing two to suicide starts to look like carelessness. Or something worse.

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By troublesum, November 22, 2008 at 4:32 pm Link to this comment

Three of the greatest poets of the confessional school - Plath, Ann Sexton, and Robert Lowell - all committed suicide within a seven year period.  Their penetrating examination of self ended in self loathing and disgust for life.

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By Paracelsus, November 22, 2008 at 1:08 pm Link to this comment

I don’t now true this is in the case of Sylvia Plath, but many suicides comfort themselves in sorrow they cause their friends and relations. It is a sort of vengeance. I find it interesting that many women faced with the same troubles would endure for the sake of the children. I suppose Ms. Plath had her depressions and her bruised ego, but her solution was a selfish one. A good many artists and poets have a certain narcissism that impels them to think that they are unique their deuil, their grief. Narcissism is the thorn we must accept for the fruit of the muse, I suppose. I think though I could respect Plath more if she was blatantly evil in narcissism, then to take a path that reflects shame and guilt upon her husband, Ted Hughes. After all if Picasso could be ungrateful and vile to his ex-lovers, then I see no reason for Plath not taking the same path. I could respect her audacity, her ego manic pluck for being a bad girl. True her children may hate her, and Ted Hughes would have a good sheen to his aura, but the people concerned would not be plagued by especial grief of a suicidal mother. They could go on without the horrid chains they have now.

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By troublesum, November 22, 2008 at 10:39 am Link to this comment

Allen Ginsburg’s letters were also published this year and may be of more interest to people here, but I think it’s probably hopeless to get these people interested in poets or poetry.

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