Sylvia Plath seated in front of a bookshelf.
Yesterday was Sylvia Plath’s 83th birthday, and over in London, the drama surrounding her life and death is still swirling. Fifty-two years on from her suicide, things have reached a rather unpoetic stage. At issue is a new biography of her widower, the poet Ted Hughes, by the scholar Jonathan Bate.
The earliest questions didn’t have to do with Plath. The Hughes estate withdrew its cooperation from the project last year, and earlier this month sent its publisher, HarperCollins, a cease-and-desist letter, citing “18 factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages of the book.” These at first seemed not a matter of much significance, as first among them was the question of whether on the day of his death, along the way to Devon with Hughes’s body in a hearse, the procession stopped, “as Ted the gastronome would have wanted, for a good lunch.” Carol Hughes, his widow and second wife, shot back: “the idea that Nicholas and I would be enjoying a ‘good lunch’ while Ted lay dead in the hearse outside is a slur suggesting utter disrespect, and one I consider to be in extremely poor taste.” Everybody gets hungry. Would he really have minded?
But earlier this month, Bate wrote an essay that’s been stirring more controversy. He claims he left out of his biography a story about the night before Plath gassed herself. She was staying on Fitzroy Road, in Primrose Hill, where during her separation from Hughes she’d rented a house that had been the childhood home of W.B. Yeats. There was no telephone, and she would have to walk through the snow to make a call to Hughes from a pay telephone on St. George’s Terrace. That may sound grueling, but I used to live across from that phone box, and while she would have had to walk to reach it, it never snows very hard in London, though even a minor dusting will shut down the runways at Heathrow. Here’s how Hughes imagined the night in his poem “Last Letter”:
What happened that night, inside your hours,
Is as unknown as if it never happened.
What accumulation of your whole life,
Like effort unconscious, like birth
Pushing through the membrane of each slow second
Into the next, happened
Only as if it could not happen,
As if it was not happening. How often
Did the phone ring there in my empty room,
You hearing the ring in your receiver—
At both ends the fading memory
Of a telephone ringing, in a brain
As if already dead. I count
How often you walked to the phone-booth
At the bottom of St George’s terrace.
You are there whenever I look, just turning
Out of Fitzroy Road, crossing over
Between the heaped up banks of dirty sugar.
In your long black coat,
With your plait coiled up at the back of your hair
You walk unable to move, or wake, and are
Already nobody walking
Walking by the railings under Primrose Hill
Towards the phone booth that can never be reached.
Before midnight. After midnight. Again.
Again. Again. And, near dawn, again.
Hughes couldn’t answer the phone that night because he spent it pushing through the membranes of each slow second with his girlfriend, Susan Alliston, at a friend’s flat in Holborn, the same flat where he’d first slept with Plath and where they spent their wedding night. It was a Sunday, and they were staying away from Hughes’s own flat because a desperate Plath had been calling too much.
According to Bate, Andrew Sinclair, a friend of Plath and Hughes, pointed him to a poem of Hughes’s that made reference to a final lover of Plath’s, and that a book editor in New York, Frances Lindley, met someone at a book party who told her he’d seen Plath’s last letter, which made reference to a call to said lover. Additionally, Plath’s downstairs neighbor attested that she asked for a postage stamp that last night. Next to the phone box on St. George’s Terrace, there’s also a mailbox. Bate says he’s read reports of a collector in possession of Plath’s last letter, but he doesn’t name the collector. He doesn’t name the possible final lover either.
Bate may be coy, but Guardian commenters aren’t. One of them pointed out that Bate obviously meant the critic Al Alvarez, who is still living but has always denied having an affair with Plath (“Sylvia wasn’t my style — she wasn’t my physical type,” he told Janet Malcolm) and has expressed guilt about the whole thing. The critic William Wooten last week joined the fray, arguing that an oddly sourced line in Bate’s biography implies as much: “That evening, she noted in her journal with her usual acerbic wit, they were engaged in a certain activity when the telephone rang. She put her foot over his penis so that, as she phrased it, he was appropriately attired to receive the call.” Citing Bate’s lack of documentary evidence, Wooten called on Bate to apologize to Alvarez.
Bate replied in a letter on Monday that “certain other material” will make the full story clear. If by this he means the lost last Plath letter, his reference to a report about a collector in possession of “literary jewels such as a signed first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s personal, annotated copy of Lolita, and a letter written by Plath the day before the American poet killed herself” indicates that that collector, strangely enough, is the artist Richard Prince.
What did Ted Hughes think of the biography? The answer is in Bate’s book, in a letter he quotes from Hughes to Natasha Spender:
Just a note to wish you and Sir Stephen well and to congratulate you warmly on your splendid TLS piece on vampire biographies. The dilemma of their victims has never been so well expressed. The wonder to me is how otherwise fairly serious reviewers treat these hacks seriously. Their only reviews should read ‘Another inhuman, inaccurate and impertinent junk biography.’ Or they should simply be shot.