JULY 9, 1962: Sylvia Plath raced to catch the phone call before Ted Hughes could intercept it. She recognized the woman asking for him, even though Assia Wevill lowered her voice, pretending, Sylvia thought, to be a man. She had been on edge ever since Assia and her husband’s May visit to their home; to Sylvia, the attraction between Ted and Assia had been palpable.
Sylvia clutched the phone, blanched, then turned it over to Ted. This was the moment her life sped up, the second her poetry erupted like a Greek necessity and became palpably autobiographical. In her poetry, she described her defilement as words pouring out of the phone like mud. Court Green, the Devon, England, home she had created as a haven for their family and their writing, now seemed polluted: “O god, how shall I ever clean the phone table?”
Aurelia Plath, then staying at Court Green, watched her fastidious daughter rip the phone line out of the wall, but it was too late. The poet felt infected, sensing the caller’s words were like a monster’s spawn percolating in her heart.
What Sylvia said on the day of the phone call — that she had never been happier with her husband, her children, her home, and her writing — was neither a ruse nor wishful thinking. Words were how she persuaded herself. Using words, she could create that blissful union with Ted, and with words she could demolish it. She could not, however, permanently secure herself with words, and her recognition that poetry was only a momentary stay against confusion undid her. She wanted more than words could give her.
The magical property Sylvia ascribed to words is evident in the bonfire she proceeded to make of Ted’s papers — adding for good measure her second novel, in which he figured as the hero. These words had to be destroyed for her to continue composing her life and work. She demanded that Ted move out. He decamped for London, returning occasionally to see the children. Yet the couple continued to fulfill their professional commitments in London and elsewhere, not keeping their breakup a secret, exactly, but behaving like amicable husband and wife when they appeared in public.
Privately, Sylvia puzzled over what to tell people. Confiding in her friend Elizabeth Compton, she called Ted a “little man.” This sounded to Elizabeth like a cry over a fallen idol. Ted’s own mood can be gauged from a letter he sent to his sister, Olwyn, in the late summer. The “prolonged distractions” of the previous nine months had depleted his bank account and diminished his productivity. The problem, his letter indicates, had been the “awful intimate interference that marriage is.”
On September 24, Sylvia wrote her mother that she realized Ted “wasn’t coming back.” This realization seemed to liberate her: “My own life, my wholeness, has been seeping back.” “For a Fatherless Son,” written two days later, is foreboding: “You will be aware of an absence, presently.” Her happiness was temporary; her son’s smiles appeared as “found money.” She did not tell her mother about her crying jags and weight loss. She started smoking.
In October, the month she turned 30, Sylvia experienced a burst of inspiration resulting in two dozen of her most powerful poems. On the day she composed “Daddy,” she apologized to her mother: “Do tear up my last [letter]. It was written at what was probably my all-time low, and I have had an incredible change of spirit; I am joyous, happier than I have been in ages.” Ted seemed amenable to a divorce, and she was writing every morning at 5, a poem per day completed before breakfast.
This revival turned her toward London: “I miss brains, hate this cow life, am dying to surround myself with intelligent, good people. I’ll have a salon in London . . . I am a famous poetess here — mentioned this week in The Listener as one of the half-dozen women who will last — including Marianne Moore and the Brontes!” On October 16, she remained ecstatic, writing, “I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”
By coming to London, Sylvia was going to best Ted Hughes at his own game. Peter Porter, a poet in their circle, concluded that Ted really left Sylvia because he could all too clearly see her rising star: “Leaving Plath must have been not just an imperative for someone who wished to love other women whenever it suited him, but also a move to defend his own talent from competition with a superior one.”
On destiny’s doorstep, Sylvia discovered her dream home: 23 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill. She was alone as she read the plaque noting that W.B. Yeats had lived there. This was it. She immediately got to work securing a five-year lease and raced home to open her edition of Yeats’s Collected Plays, which obliged her with this passage: “Get wine and food to give you strength and courage, and I will get the house ready.” Continued...