The following extract from my novel ‘Capriccio’ is a fictional recreation of the last day of Sylvia Plath’s life. In this version I haven’t named her, partly to comply with a request from the Hughes estate, and partly to see if it works. What do you think, Dear Readers? Does it work?
The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.
She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.
– from ‘Edge’ by S.Plath
Rubbing her hands together, desperate for warmth, the young mother dragged a blanket from the empty cot nearby, to drape over her shoulders. Her two children were still sleeping in this hour before dawn. It took a supreme effort of will to shuffle to the little table under the bedroom window that served as a desk. She opened her journal with stiff aching fingers, and reached for her fountain pen
The water’s frozen in the pipes, and the blood’s frozen in my veins. My hands are stiff and blue with cold as I write this. It’s the worst winter London has known in over thirty years. Thirty years; my age last birthday and what have I to show for it? A failed marriage, a few poems, and a mediocre novel. At least I didn’t publish it under my own name. Mother would be mortified if she knew that monster was based on her.
There’s nothing left. Only the children – my two roses. They’ll surely be better off without me. How it breaks my heart to see them, both asleep now, thank God, curled up into their little balls in the bed we needs must share, just to keep warm. I’m seizing these precious moments to write, before they wake. As the temperature drops so the words, bitter words, are pouring out of me on these dark mornings. I’ve a feeling these new poems are the ones that will make my name, make Mother proud of me. I’m putting them all together in one collection, a small book but a powerful one.
There was just enough light to see the loose page with the draft of her last poem, Edge, its crossed out lines and scribbled notes rebuking her.
She looked again at the title page of her collection, with its simple dedication to Fleur and Timothy. The words were wrung out of her in these early mornings, when she woke to the blackness, after the sedative Dr Horder prescribed had worn off. These hours before dawn, while the children were still mercifully asleep, were hers alone. At first, in the months after He had left her, the words had flowed out of her in those silent ghostly mornings at Court Green. It was as if she needed to fill the gaping wound his absence made inside her with these new, angry, savage poems.
This review by Mark Ford of ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’ by Jonathan Bates, gives an interesting slant on Bate’s book, and echoes much of the portrayal of Hughes’s remorse in my novel: ‘Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath.‘
In March 1969 Assia gassed both herself and her four-year-old daughter by Hughes, Shura, in her flat in Clapham. She had grown tired of sharing Hughes with his two women down in Devon, Brenda Hedden (a social worker) and Carol Orchard, a local farmer’s daughter and nurse, who would become his second wife. Hughes did, on occasion, explicitly question the implications of his … behaviour in his private journal, noting, for instance, of this particular erotic triangle: ‘3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.’ The sorrows of the polygamist … As the errant poet struggled to manage his handily alphabetised commitments to A, B and C, as he referred to them in his journal, Assia battled with the complexities of the situation in which she found herself after Plath’s suicide.
Although less jealous and possessive than Plath, Assia had her own moments of despair and fury: in a will she made in April 1968 she left to Hughes only ‘my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.’ Hughes’s ‘The Error’, from the suite of Assia poems collected in Capriccio (1990), presents her subsequent death as almost a direct consequence of Sylvia’s suicide:
When her grave opened its ugly mouth Why didn’t you just fly, Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce, Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge To be identified Accused and convicted By all who held in their hands Pieces of the gravestone grey granite
As Bate’s tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him.
Excerpt from ‘Sorrows of a Polygamist’ by Mark Ford: a Review of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate
What do you think Sylvia might have written in that last letter?
Sylvia Plath’s last days have been well documented, again and again giving us the same facts in the various non-fiction biographies. We know she wrote a letter just before she died, and asked her downstairs neighbour for stamps.. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. We also know that Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s rival, was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about herself and hr husband David. The journal was subsequently destroyed.
In my fictional recreation of these events, I’ve invented details, dialogue, and writings by the main characters.The following extract excerpt is an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The letter contains the things Assia might have read about herself, in the lost journal.
Here’s an extract from my fictional letter:
I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in Hell.
What other writers have said about how to create fiction from fact:
‘When making up detail, you still have a structure to pin it on. The facts are a stimulus to the imagination, so you’re not inventing something in a vacuum. In a way, you’re inventing these things almost like a detective would. You come up with hypothess that would make sense of the facts you’ve got. (e.g. the letter Sylvia wrote just before she died, for which she asked Dr Thomas for a stamp.) There is a wonderful kind of tug between the facts and the fiction.’ ( Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Room’.)
William Nicholson, the British author and screenwriter, wrote, in his reply to my email query re fact/fiction: As you may know I write fiction with real people in it a great deal, and have done since ‘Shadowlands’ dramatised the love life of C.S.Lewis. My own view is that it’s okay to do this so long as: a) you stick to the truth as far as it’s known; and b) where you invent to fill the gaps, you treat the real people generously.
Hannah Kent, in the author’s note to her brilliant award-winning novel, ‘Burial Rites’ says: ‘Many known & established facts about Agnes’ life have been reproduced in this novel and events have either been drawn directly from the record or are the result of speculation. They are fictional likelihoods.’
If we substitute ‘Assia’ for ‘Agnes, Kent’s main character, the same might be said about my novel, ‘Capriccio’.
In his his introduction to ‘Poetry in the Making’, the then Poet Laureate of Britain had the following words of advice for those of us whose passion is Writing, be it poetry, prose, fiction, non-fiction, or something in between:
Do you relate to these words?
‘You write interestingly only about the things that genuinely interest you. This is an infallible rule.. in writing, you have to be able to distinguish between those things about which you are merely curious –things you heard about last week or read about yesterday- and things which are a deep part of your life… So you say, ‘What part of my life would I die to be separated from?’ –Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making ‘It is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions in the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are.’-Ted Hughes
Randwick Writers’ Group 📚
Elizabeth Sigmund was a friend and neighbour of Sylvia’s when she and Ted first moved to Devon. A year earlier, she had offered her country home to the Hugheses after hearing a broadcast on the BBC, in which they disclosed that their London apartment was so small, Ted had to work on a card table in the tiny entrance hall.
The Guardian, Friday 23 April 1999 10.56 AEST. Last modified on Sunday 10 January 2016
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.
The second part of the play details the obsession, mixed with fear, that the man feels for his mistress’s body. It must have been agonising for Sylvia to hear this, and to realise that their circle of literary friends would have been listening, as anything new by Ted was an important event. The public humiliation and loss of dignity must have been unbearable for Sylvia.
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.
The last person who saw Sylvia alive was the neighbour in the flat below hers in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill. She asked him for some airmail stamps a few hours before her suicide. If she needed stamps, there must have been a last letter. The story at the party in New York was that it was a suicide note addressed to her mother, Aurelia; that at some point it went astray; and that it named the other man.
Hughes did not kill Plath. Nor did the other man. Mental illness killed her. But biographic closure will not be achieved until we know what was in the last letter. I recently heard of a private collector who is alleged to own “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”. He has not replied to my request to take a look at it.
• Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life is published by Harper Collins.
The emphasis in my novel Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath, is on the insidious influence of Sylvia’s suicide on both Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. I’ve invented all journal entries and letters, and changed the names of any characters still living. This is my imagined letter which Sylvia may have written the day she died, and which has never been found.
To the woman who stole my husband,
I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in hell.
Note to my Readers: This novel is a work of Fiction, based on the true story of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the woman who came between them – Assia Gutmann Wevill.
At the time she was supposed to have penned this letter, Sylvia was severely disturbed and suffering from the effects of a medication which may have been wrongly prescribed. She had begged for stamps from her neighbour downstairs, who was the last to see her alive. My fictional account of the last letter has her directing all her bitterness towards Assia who she blamed for all her misery. To my knowledge, no one found the last letter Sylvia wrote and of which she needed the stamps. She also left a note for Ted, whose contents were never revealed, and the doctor’s phone number, indicating she may have wanted to be saved.
Teresa, writing about Janet Malcolm’s masterly non-fiction biography, ‘The Silent Woman,’ in the Blog ‘Shelf Love’, says:
‘It’s fascinating to consider that in some respects fiction could be more true than nonfiction. Fiction is part of a closed world, all in the author’s mind, and even if the author deliberately leaves options open, that openness is part of the author’s created world. With nonfiction, there really is a truth that happened, but there are so many mediators between that truth and the reading audience. How can one be sure of the truth?’
Janet Malcolm goes on to discuss the near impossibility of truth in biography–or in any nonfiction. Malcolm writes:
In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination….We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios—there are none. This is the way it is
But is there a single, whole truth to tell? That’s the question that undergirds The Silent Woman, Malcolm’s book about the Plath legacy.The book is structured as a sort of memoir of Malcolm’s own journey as she attempted to uncover the truth of Plath’s story.
The pursuit of truth through nonfiction may be futile [Teresa writes] but seeing the complexity of a story has rewards, even if we’re never able to do much more than speculate about what really happened.
Posted on February 3, 2014 by Re-blogged and adapted from Teresa’s post in Shelf Love (shelflove.wordpress.com)