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Poet Sylvia Plath: ‘She died there - but she had lived here in Primrose Hill’

Portrait of Sylvia Plath on display at St Pancras Hospital. Picture: St Pancras Hospital Portrait of Sylvia Plath on display at St Pancras Hospital. Picture: St Pancras Hospital

Saturday, February 2, 2013
1:00 PM

Adam Sonin explores the troubled life of American writer and feminist icon Sylvia Plath.

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Frieda Hughes unveils a blue plaque in memory of her mother, Sylvia Plath, in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, in 2000. Picture: Nigel SuttonFrieda Hughes unveils a blue plaque in memory of her mother, Sylvia Plath, in Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, in 2000. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Fifty years after her tragic and untimely death, Sylvia Plath has attained a near-mythical literary status.

An icon for feminists and role model to many, she paved the way for women writers and was instrumental in creating the style of poetry known as “confessional”.

The majority of her work was published after she died and The Collected Poems won her a posthumous Pulitzer Prize, the first to be awarded to a dead poet.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Plath (1932–1963) was an intelligent, ambitious girl. She had her first poem published, in the Boston Traveller, at the age of eight and later described herself in an essay as “dangerously brainy”.

Her father died suddenly around this time of undiagnosed diabetes after an emergency leg amputation. Plath wrote: “I’ll never speak to God again” and the loss haunted her for the rest of her life.

In one of her last prose writings, Ocean 1212-W, she wrote that her first nine years “sealed themselves off like a ship in a bottle – beautiful, inaccessible, obsolete, a fine, white, flying myth”.

In 1953, after failing to get onto a writing course at Harvard University in Massachusetts, Plath attempted suicide and underwent various treatments including electro-convulsive therapy.

Having graduated summa cum laude (with very great honour) from Smith College, Massachusetts, Plath first came to England in September 1955 as the recipient of a Fulbright scholarship.

She kissed her brother, Warren, goodbye before boarding the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner at New York Harbour and noted “farewell to Manhattan” in her tiny calendar.

On board she met a fellow student and spent time ballroom dancing and chatting on deck. Before arriving at Southampton the vessel stopped briefly at Cherbourg, where the pair spent an enjoyable afternoon ashore.

From Southampton the group of Fulbright scholars took a train to Waterloo and spent a few days in London, where Plath saw several plays including Waiting For Godot. Then she went to Cambridge, where she was to study English literature at Newnham College.

During her first term she caught a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh on a visit to celebrate the opening of a new laboratory at her college.

She noted: “The Queen looked quietly radiant … and the Duke was most talkative and humorous, with a smile that passed all believing – he was enchanting.

“I ran out in the rain afterwards to see them go off in the royal car (again feeling unaccountably elated to be within touching distance of the handsome pair).”

At the end of the term, Plath travelled to Paris to meet Richard Sassoon, an old friend and Yale graduate who was a relative of the great poet Siegfried.

During the second term she attended the launch party of a new student literary magazine, St Botolph’s Review, on the second floor of the Women’s Union in Falcon Yard (later demolished).

Her journal entry reads, “…and the syncopated strut of a piano upstairs, and oh it was very Bohemian, with boys in turtle-neck sweaters and girls being blue-eye-lidded or elegant in black”.

It was here that she first met Ted (Edward James) Hughes (1930–1998) and the attraction was both obvious and immediate.

After talking for a few moments, Plath wrote: “He kissed me bang smash on the mouth … and when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek”. As the pair emerged from the adjoining room where this happened, Plath recalled, “blood was running down his face”.

In 1956 the couple were married at St George’s Church, Bloomsbury, on Joyce’s Bloomsday (June 16) with Plath’s mother as the sole witness. After a honeymoon on the Continent and time spent studying and teaching both in Cambridge and the United States, the couple settled in London in December 1959.

In January the following year, the Hugheses moved into an unfurnished three-bedroom flat at the top of 3 Chalcot Square, Primrose Hill, “overlooking a little green with benches and fences for mothers and children … five minutes’ walking distance from Primrose Hill and beautiful Regent’s Park”.

On April 1, after a relatively short labour lasting four hours, Plath gave birth to a baby girl, Frieda Rebecca Hughes. She wrote to her mother: “I have never been so happy in my life.”

Plath’s time in Primrose Hill was productive and saw the publication of her first volume of poetry, The Colossus (1960) and her only novel, The Bell Jar (1963). She was featured on a BBC radio series reading her own work. Later that year, Hughes’ second book of poetry won the Somerset Maugham Award.

Successful and popular, the couple were invited to a dinner party at the home of former Highgate School teacher and now Faber and Faber publisher TS Eliot.

Other guests included English poet Stephen Spender and his wife, the concert pianist Natasha Litvin. Eliot put Plath’s mind at ease by talking of touring America and the other guests soon moved to gossip about notable contemporaries they knew, including the composer Igor Stravinsky, and writers WH Auden, Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence.

In 1961 Plath suffered a miscarriage (the subject of her poem Parliament Hill Fields), had an appendectomy and went to France for a much-needed holiday. In August 1961 the couple moved from London to Court Green, a former manor house and rectory in Tawton, Devon, set on two acres of land.

The house needed work but Plath notes, “the place is like a person, it responds to the slightest touch and looks wonderful immediately”. On January 17, 1962, she gave birth to a son, Nicholas Farrar Hughes (1962-2009). After their first Christmas in Devon, she wrote that it had been “the happiest and fullest I had ever known”.

During their time in Devon, Hughes reviewed books and continued to write for the BBC and Plath sold poems to The New Yorker and the New Statesman.

One weekend in May 1962, the Hughes were visited by their friends David and Assia Wevill. It was on this occasion that Hughes started an affair with Assia.

In the summer, while Plath’s mother was visiting from America, Plath answered the phone and discovered the betrayal. The event led her to write the poem Words Heard, By Accident, Over The Phone.

The couple separated and in December 1962 Plath went back to London with her children and returned to Primrose Hill, moving to 23 Fitzroy Road, which she said was “the street and the house … where I’ve always wanted to live … It is WB Yeats’ house – with a blue plaque over the door, saying he lived there”.

The depression which had plagued her throughout her life returned and, having had one last period of immense creativity, she committed suicide early in 1963.

The plaque at 3 Chalcot Square, was unveiled in 2000 by Plath’s children. When asked why it did not mark 23 Fitzroy Road, Frieda replied: “My mother died there … but she had lived here.”

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