On February 25, 1956, young Sylvia Plath — celebrated poet, little-known artist, lover of the world, repressed “addict of experience” — walked into a crowded literary party and was instantly drawn to the man with whom she’d come to enter into a tumultuous marriage, the man who years after Plath’s suicide would write an exquisite letter of life advice to the couple’s son, the man who’d become the controversial executor of Plath’s literary estate: Ted Hughes.
The encounter, which Andrew Wilson describes in the ambitious recent biography Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (public library), is the stuff of literary legend:
On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.
On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).
By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.
Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.
Photographs via The Times and London Evening Standard