After her husband confessed to an affair with Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath desperately tried to rescue their six-year marriage.
But when Ted Hughes disappeared for two weeks to London, leaving no contact address, she realised that they had to separate.
In October 1962, he returned for the last time to their house in Devon, where Sylvia was living with their two small children…
Poet Sylvia Plath laid bare her torment in last letters she ever wrote before she killed herself
To Aurelia Plath (Sylvia’s mother)
Tuesday, October 9, 1962
Ted is in love, humming, packing, leaving this week. He’ll live with the woman [Assia Wevill, then married to her third husband], I think marry her, though he won’t admit it.
To hell. I am getting a divorce. It is the only thing.
He wants absolute freedom, and I could not live out a life legally married to someone I now hate and despise.
The foulness I have lived, his wanting to kill all I have lived for six years by saying he was just waiting for a chance to get out, that he was bored & stifled by me, a hag in a world of beautiful women just waiting for him, is only part of it.
If I am divorced, he can never be unfaithful to me again, I can start a new life. It is the hardest 30th birthday present I could envision. I am fighting on all fronts, I have to stand my ground.
He has been brutal, cruel, bastardly, cowardly and the flesh has dropped from my bones. But I am stubborn. I am a fighter.
PS: He goes tomorrow. Everything is breaking — my dinner set cracking in half. Even my beloved bees set upon me today when I numbly knocked aside their sugar feeder & I am all over stings.
The poet wrote many candid letters describing her decision to divorce husband Ted Hughes to her mother, psychiatrist and author friends
To Dr Ruth Beuscher (Sylvia’s former psychiatrist in the U.S.)
Tuesday, October 9
Ted would have left me with all the lies, but bit by bit, the truth has come out. Or what he thinks is the truth. He has been building up a secret life in London all summer — flat, separate bank account, this woman, another woman. He’s lied to the end.
He is mad for [Assia], afraid to tell me [in case] I won’t go through with the divorce (I think). I guess her husband will either divorce her or commit suicide. I found he went after Ted with a knife at Waterloo Station & tried to commit suicide after.
Ted says he has been a hypocrite for at least the last 3 years of our marriage, I have been eating not real bread, but a delusion of love. He has nothing but shattering things to say of me, seems to want to kill me, as he kills all he does not want.
He has ‘agreed’ to pay £1,000 maintenance for the house-running & children a year. He is turning into a terror, a miser. I’m not to have sherry, to have roast beef, I’m to smoke the last quarter inch of my cigarette — ‘they’re expensive’. £1,000, he taunts me, seems too much.
How can I ever get free? My writing is my one hope, and that income is so small. The humiliation of being dependent for my children’s support on a man I hate & despise is a torture.
He switches on & off like an electrode. I face the worst (for me): he will live with this woman, marry her, they will have a wonderful life — wealthy, no children, travel, people, affairs, & every time they are bored, screw us by forgetting the money. Bloody hell.
I long for the divorce, for my independence, like clear water. I am, in my good minutes, excited about my new life. I want to fight back to a London flat by next fall, keep this place [in Devon] for summers.
Perhaps when his first kicking, killing passion is past, & he is free, & with this woman, Ted may be not such a bastard. I have to be nice, can’t afford the luxury of a fury even. Be good little doggy & you shall have a penny. It is the last degradation.
Right now I hate men. I am stunned, bitter. I have the consolation of being no doubt the only woman who will know the early years of a charming genius. On my skin. Like a Belsen label.
To Aurelia Plath
Friday, October 12
Ted left yesterday, after a ghastly week, with all his stuff, clothes, books, papers. It is over. My life can begin.
Thursday, October 18
I am myself, proud, and full of plans. I need time to breathe, sun, recover my flesh. I have enough ideas & subjects to last me a year or more!
To Olive Higgins Prouty (American novelist and poet)
Thursday, October 18
I suppose it is something to have been the first wife of a genius.
To Dr Ruth Beuscher
Sunday, October 21
What has astounded me is my reaction to [Ted’s] departure, and to my decision to get a divorce as fast as I can. I felt the most fantastic exhilaration & relief.
In the last 3 years I have produced & nursed two children, had a miscarriage [in February 1961], and been so intrigued & delighted by my bodily processes & infants I have been out for the count. Also, my relation to Ted was in many, many ways, gravely regressed, more & more I was calling on him to be a father.
After I drove him to the station with his things, I returned to the empty house expecting to be morbid and huge with gloom. I was ecstatic. My life, my sense of identity, seemed to be flying back to me from all quarters.
I knew what I wanted to do, pretty much who I was, where I wanted to go, who I wanted see, even just how, when I get to a good London haircutter, I wanted to do my weird hair. I was my own woman.
Now I get up at 4 every morning & write like fury till 8, stuffing the babes with rusks & juice. I am doing a poem a day, all marvellous, free, full songs.
I think my marriage, though it had much good, was a pretty sick one. Ted has reverted to pretty much what he was when I met him — ‘the greatest seducer in Cambridge’, only now it is ‘the world’.
Even in love with this barren ad agency writer [Assia] who commands a huge salary & puts it all on her back, he picks up Finns in coffee bars & takes them to hotels — he & this Assia are such a perfect match I laugh in my guts when I think of them married.
They look exactly alike: the same color, shape, everything. She is his twin sister, & like his sister, barren, uncreative, a real vamp. All sophistication. They smoke (Ted, a non-smoker, has been desperately practising) & drop names of the opposite sex, to titillate each other. They will be elaborately unfaithful to each other, very rich, & have no children, I presume, if her 2 abortions & 4 miscarriages can let me have this satisfaction.
I suppose it will be hell for me to meet them together at my first party or literary affair. But I will.
Oddly, I think some day she & I may be friends, not friends, but speaking. Ted says she has got my book out of the library, adores my work, etc. etc.
His stay here before the final departure almost killed me. I have never felt such hate.
He told me openly he wished me dead, it would be convenient, he could sell the house, take all the money & Frieda, told me I was brainless, hideous, had all sorts of flaws in making love he had never told me, and even two years ago he had not wanted to live with me.
Why in God’s name should the killing of me be so elaborate, and the torture so prolonged!
He told me London was death to him, got me down here [to Devon] hand-hemming curtains & painting furniture for a year hoping to see him radiant with what he wanted, & he seemed to be, then pouf!
Two years of hypocrisy, just waiting for the right bed to fall in? I can’t believe it. It just seems insane to me.
Ted is on the brink of real wealth. His mss. sell for $100 a poem, just the handwriting. He is at the peak of fame. I was scrimping 6 years for this, balancing check books, dying for first nights, trips, dresses & a nanny. His family wants him to give us nothing. He has left me no address.
I hope time may mellow him toward the children, but I doubt it. His ethic is that of the hawk in one of his most famous poems, being taught to all British school-children: I kill where I please, it is all mine. He was furious I didn’t commit suicide, he said he was sure I would!
Just tell me where all this hate comes from? He says he thinks I am ‘dangerous’ toward him now. Well, I should think so!
I see, too, that domesticity was a fake cloak for me. My trouble is that I can do an awful lot of stuff well. I can give a floor a beautiful scrub, cook a fine pie, deliver a baby with ease, and stitch up a nightgown.
I also love hanging out a clean laundry in the apple orchard. But I hate doing housework all, or much of the time. I have been running a 103 fever out of sheer mad excitement with my own writing.
I am ravenous for study, experience, travel. I love learning how to manage things — I have kept bees this year, my own hive, & am very proud of my bottled honey, & my stings. I am learning to ride horseback & the riding mistress is delighted, I am a natural. My mind is dying of starvation here.
And I am tied by nothing but money. And the sense my husband wants to kill me by cutting it off altogether, so I am hogtied & can’t work. It’s enough to make any woman sail to Lesbos!
What I don’t want is a nice, safe, dull, sweet reliable husband to take Ted’s place. He has to marry again — who’ll cook? And what a showpiece for looks he’s got!
But me — my independence, my self, is so dear to me I shall never bind it to anyone again. Most men who are domestic are dull — I hate routine jobs, and most men who are creative or scientific miracles are bastards.
I don’t mind knowing a bastard, or having an affair with a bastard, I just don’t want to be married to a bastard. I suppose it sounds as if I think all men are bastards, I don’t, but the interesting ones I would rather have as either friends, lovers or both, than husbands.
Faithfulness, the ethic of faithfulness, is essentially boring. I see that. Ted made much better love while he was having these other affairs, & the tart in me appreciated this.
But I also just haven’t the time to be married to a philanderer. That bores me too. There is so much else besides sex. I want my career, my children, and a free supple life.
I am so happy, everything intrigues me. It is as if this divorce were the key to free all my repressed energy, which is fierce from six years of boiling in a vacuum.
After 6 years of having only one man attract me as much as Ted — what I wouldn’t give to see him now! — I am again interested in other men, but few men are both beautiful physically, tremendous lovers & creative geniuses as Ted is. I can’t even imagine anybody ever making me feel passionate enough to have an affair, after him. And I am so bloody proud & particular.
To Aurelia Plath
Wednesday, November 7
I am writing from London, so happy I can hardly speak. I think I have found a place. And guess what, it is W. B. Yeats’ house. With a blue plaque over the door saying he lived there!
Ted is behind me in this, he took me round looking at places. Now he sees he has nothing to fear from me — no scenes or vengefulness — he is more human.
His life is nothing to me & I am now staying with a wonderful Portuguese couple, the girl a best friend of Ted’s girlfriend, & they see how I am, full of interest in my own life, & are amazed, as everyone is, at my complete lack of jealousy or sorrow.
I amaze myself. It is my work that does it, my sense of myself as a writer. I am, I think, & will be when I get this London flat arranged, the happiest of women.
I had my fringe cut just before I came up to London in the most fashionable style — high on top, curling down round the ears — and kept my long coronet in back. It looks fabulous. Ted didn’t even recognize me at the train station!
My morale is so much improved. Truck drivers whistle & so on, it’s amazing. Living apart from Ted is wonderful — I am no longer in his shadow, & it is heaven to be liked for myself alone. I may even borrow a table for my flat from Ted’s girl — I could be gracious to her now, & kindly.
She has only her high-paid ad agency job, her vanity & no chance of children & everybody wants to be a writer, like me. I may be poor in bank funds, but I am so much richer in every other way I envy them nothing.
My babies & my writing are my life & let them have affairs & parties, pouf! What a bore.
Monday, November 19
I am happier than ever before in my life. I realize now that all my married life I have sacrificed everything to Ted & his work, putting his work first, going to get part-time jobs, with great faith in his future wealth & fame.
I never even got a new dress or went to a hairdresser!
Now he goes out with fashion models. Well, I have finished a 2nd book of poems in this last month, & the minute I get a mother’s help in London I will do novel after novel.
Friday, December 14
Well, here I am! Safely in Yeats’ house! And I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life. I just sit thinking Whew! I have done it, and beaming — shall I write a poem, shall I paint a floor, shall I hug a baby? Everything is such fun, such an adventure.
Wednesday, January 16, 1963
Ted comes about once a week to see Frieda & sometimes is nice & sometimes awful. It is very hard for me to think of him living in an expensive flat, being wined & dined, taking his girlfriend to Spain when I have worked so hard all these years & looked so forward to what I saw was to be our good fortune.
It is the starting from scratch that is so hard.
I guess I just need somebody to cheer me up by saying I’ve done all right so far.
To Olive Higgins Prouty
Tuesday, January 22
Frieda [aged nearly three] makes me so sad. Ted comes once a week to see her, she hangs on him dotingly, then cries ‘Daddy come soon’ for the rest of the week, waking in the night, tearful and obsessed with him.
It is like a kind of mirror, utterly innocent, to my own sense of loss. Having been so deeply and spiritually and physically happy with my dear, beautiful husband makes this harder than if I had never known love at all.
I could never live under the same roof with him again, but I hope for the children’s sake that each week he visits I can be brave and merry, without sorrow or accusation, and forge my life anew.
Ted has some of the inhumanity of the true genius that must kill to get what it wants.
I desperately want to make an inner strength in myself, an independence that can face bringing up the children alone & in face of great uncertainties.
To Aurelia Plath
Monday, February 4
I have been feeling a bit grim — the upheaval over, I am seeing the finality of it all.
To Marcia B. Stern
(American college friend)
Monday, February 4
I am in a limbo between the old world & the very uncertain & rather grim new. Ted comes once a week [to see the children] like a kind of apocalyptic Santa Claus.
To Dr Ruth Beuscher
Monday, February 4
I have finally read the Fromm [Erich Fromm’s The Art Of Loving] & think that I have been guilty of what he calls ‘Idolatrous love’, that I lost myself in Ted instead of finding myself.
There was enough identity left to me in Devon to make me feel immense relief at his departure — now I shall grow out of his shadow, I thought, I shall be me.
While we were married we were never apart & all experience filtered through each other. On a grown-up level, I don’t think I could have endured a marriage of infidelities.
I had a beautiful, virile, brilliant man & he still is, whatever immaturities there may be in his throwing over everything in such a violent way. He has said he is sorry for the lying, and shows concern that we get on on our own.
What appals me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst — cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.
Perhaps this is accentuated by my seeing Ted once a week when he comes to see Frieda — seeing how happy & whole & independent he is, how much more I admire him like this, & what good friends we could be if I could manage to grow up too.
He is gaga over this ad-agency girl who has gone back to live with her 3rd husband to keep the passion hot, although she did live for three weeks with Ted & flew to Spain for a holiday with him.
If I were simply jealous about this it would be okay. But I know Spain and lovemaking would do me no good now, not until I find myself again.
I feel I need a ritual for survival from day to day until I begin to grow out of this death & found Fromm’s recommendation for concentration, patience & faith gave me a kind of peace, but that I keep slipping into this pit of panic & deepfreeze.
I am living on sleeping pills & nerve tonic & have managed a few commissions for a magazine & the BBC and poems very good but, I feel written on the edge of madness.
The publicity of Ted’s leaving is universal & I was taking it all with dignity & verve at first — people were buying poems & putting BBC work in my way, & I am scared to death I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up.
A poet, a writer, I am I think very narcissistic & the despair at being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind.
Just now it is torture to me to dress, plan meals, put one foot in front of the other. Ironically my novel [The Bell Jar] about my first breakdown is getting rave reviews over here.
I feel a simple act of will would make the world steady & solidify. No one can save me but myself, but I need help & my doctor is referring me to a woman psychiatrist.
Living on my wits, my writing — even partially, is very hard at this time, it is so subjective & dependent on objectivity. I am, for the first time since my marriage, relating to people without Ted, but my own lack of center, of mature identity, is a great torment.
I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up. If I could study, read, enjoy people on my own Ted’s leaving would be hard, but manageable. But there is this damned, self-induced freeze.
I am suddenly in agony, desperate, thinking Yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die & be done with it. How can I get out of this ghastly defeatist cycle & grow up.
I am only too aware that love and a husband are impossible to me at this time, I am incapable of being myself & loving myself.
Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea.
Footnote: Sylvia Plath killed herself a week later. Ted Hughes had another child by Assia Wevill. In 1969, she killed both herself and their four-year-old daughter. Until he died in October 1998, Ted Hughes proved to be a devoted father to Frieda and Nicholas.
The Letters Of Sylvia Plath Volume II: 1953-63 edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, to be published by Faber at £35 in the UK on September 6. To buy this book for £28 (20 per cent discount) call 0844 571 0640 or go to mailbookshop.co.uk/books. P&P is free on orders over £15, offer valid until September 5, 2018.