In 1963, the poet Sylvia Plath, distraught at the break-up of her marriage to Ted Hughes, committed suicide. Six years later, Hughes faced more tragedy when his mistress Assia Wevill – who had lured him away from Plath – killed herself and their four-year-old daughter Shura. Elizabeth Sigmund, a close friend of Sylvia Plath, prompted by the Guardian’s account of Wevill’s death (Saturday Review, 10/4/99) recalls the aftermath of Plath’s suicide and the terrible events surrounding the death of Assia and Shura.In March 1963, I went with my young daughter, Meg, to visit Sylvia Plath’s small children in the flat in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill, where their mother had killed herself weeks earlier. I had been told that Ted Hughes’s aunt, Hilda, was looking after the children, four-year-old Frieda and one-year-old Nicholas. Before gassing herself, Sylvia had left food and drink for her children and made sure they were safe in their bedroom.
When Meg and I arrived we found that Frieda and Nicholas were being cared for by a young nanny, who told me that Assia Wevill had ordered Hilda out of the flat, and had moved in herself. I learnt that Assia and Ted were out, and when I asked where they were the nanny said “She’s having an operation and will be back soon.”
The “operation” was an abortion, and when they returned to the flat Ted came into the kitchen and handed me a copy of The Bell Jar, which had been recently published and was dedicated to me. He looked distraught and said “At night I hear the wolves howling in Regent’s Park, it seems appropriate”.
I realised that Sylvia would have known of Assia’s pregnancy, and that the thought of Assia giving birth to Ted’s child might have offered a further explanation of Sylvia’s final ability to face the future. To add to this, the Third Programme – as it was then – had broadcast Ted’s play, The Difficulties of a Bridegroom, a few days before Sylvia’s death. This play, which bears no relation to his book of short stories under that title, published in 1995, was based on a dream which Ted told to friends, in which a young man, driving to London, ran over and killed a hare; he took the hare to a butcher, who gave him money which he spent on red roses to give to his mistress.
Her last letter to me, written only days before her death, was full of plans for the future, looking forward to taking part in The Critics on the radio and hosting a poetry session in a London theatre, and of her longing to return to Court Green, their country house in Devon which she had left when Ted’s affair with Assia had become unbearable, “in time for my daffodils, thank God you will be there”. She said, “Ted comes to visit, and I can’t help longing for lost Edens”. The last few days turned all that hope into despair.
Immediately after Sylvia’s death, I and my husband and three children were asked by Ted to live at Court Green, as he couldn’t face going back there, and wanted to sell the house. Later he changed his mind, and moved back to bring up the children there, with the help of his sister, Olwyn. We moved into a cottage in the village, and were in daily contact with Ted and his family. I heard no further mention of Assia until 1967, when she came to live at Court Green with Shura, the child she had subsequently had with Ted, who was then two years old.
I saw Assia walking about the village looking lost and miserable. She had aged and put on weight, and Ted told everyone she was dyeing her hair, as she was going quite grey by then. Hughes’s children with Plath, Frieda and Nick, used to bring Shura to see us, and she would climb on my knee. She was a silent and sad child, and we never saw Ted give any indication that she was his daughter. He was so proud of Frieda and Nick, and the contrast must have been acutely painful to Assia.
On Christmas Eve, 1967, Ted came to invite us to Court Green for sherry. He said that Assia was very depressed, as she had made a special Russian Christmas cake, and no one was coming to eat it with them. We reluctantly went with Ted, and found Assia standing in the kitchen, in the shadows, looking profoundly unhappy. We felt very sorry for her, and anxious about her state of mind, despite the fact that she had always regarded us as “enemies”, as we loved Sylvia and were appalled at her death. We stayed for a very short time, and several weeks later I met Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes’ sister, in the village; she told me Assia had gone back to London, and that she had been making Ted’s life a misery.
In March 1969, Assia dragged a bed into the kitchen of her Clapham flat, dissolved sleeping tablets in a glass of water and gave the drink to her daughter before draining the rest herself. Then she turned on the gas stove and got into bed with the child.
I didn’t hear of Assia and Shura’s death until many months later, and I still feel acute grief at the thought of that child’s life. Fay Weldon, who worked with Assia at an advertising agency, has told me of the suffering that she saw Assia going through after she returned to London, as people blamed her for Sylvia’s suicide, and turned their backs on her, and how Ted, although already preparing to marry Carol Orchard, was making vague promises of setting up house with Assia and Shura.
The dedication to Assia and Shura of Ted’s Crow poems demonstrates the anguish he was suffering after their death. He talked to me, a year before their publication in 1970, of an image he had, of a man sitting in the desert, holding a loaded gun with only one bullet. There is a black bird sitting in a nearby tree, and the man cannot decide whether to shoot the bird or himself.
There are many biographies of Ted and Sylvia, but barely a mention of the life and death of Shura. She was a child who was conceived in a doom-laden relationship, lived a life of confusion, with a deeply depressed mother, and died what must have been a terrible death. The more one learns of these events, the more the whole thing assumes the proportions of a Greek tragedy.
The life that Sylvia and Ted had decided upon at Court Green, of working poets, not to be seduced by the lure of literary London, bringing up their children, growing vegetables and keeping bees, was only a dream for Sylvia, as it turned out. She had shown me round the house and garden when we first met, and told me of their plans to have five children, to write, to cook, to be part of a rural community, and to shun publicity.
She believed that Ted was committed to this plan, and the discovery that he was having an affair with a woman who was married to another poet (David Wevill), was not the least bit interested in living a rural idyll, and was the exact opposite of Sylvia in personality, appearance and ambitions, felt like a complete betrayal of everything that her marriage had meant. She felt that she had been thrown out of Eden, and could find no resting place.
Her decision to go back to London in the autumn of 1962 was an attempt to recapture her earlier ambition to be a brilliant literary figure, with “a salon”. With the reality of two small children, a fearsomely bitter winter, frozen water pipes, the onset of ‘flu and the increasing knowledge that Ted was not coming back to her, came despair and a return of the depression which she dreaded. She was presented with the impossibility of going on. The fact that she left a legacy of brilliant poetry, which came out of that despair, is an extraordinary irony, as the fame and recognition she craved in those last months only came after her death. After Assia’s death, Ted resumed the life he had planned with Sylvia, but with his second wife, Carol.
Nick and Frieda have had to bear the weight of their mother’s death, the subsequent miseries of jealous women fighting for Ted’s affection, and their half-sister’s death, balanced by their very real love and pride in their father, and gratitude for the kindness of Carol, their step-mother. I saw the suffering endured by Sylvia, her mother and children, and Ted’s mother. Now, learning in the Guardian of that of Assia’s relations, who cannot bear to see her and Shura’s death dismissed as a footnote to the Plath/Hughes tragedy, I feel as if there is no end to the heart-breaking echoes, as Sylvia wrote in her poem, “Words”:
After whose stroke the wood rings,
And the echoes!
Off from the centre like horses.