Going through a breakup with her on-off boyfriend Richard Sassoon in the spring of 1956 Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother that her doubts about Richard stemmed from his physical inadequacy. “I see now through the boyish weakness of his frame, & the delicate health & unathletic nature, to a soul which is kingly and beautiful and strong.” The all-American good looks of a different beau, Gordon Lameyer, created the opposite problem. Plath was looking for a man to be her partner in life and the father of her children who was her equal in both physical and intellectual vigor. She found him, at a party in Cambridge just a month after writing to her mother about Richard. His name was, of course, Ted Hughes.
Plenty has been committed to paper about Hughes’ betrayal of Plath, when he began an affair with Assia Wevill in the summer of 1962—an affair which stretched on through the winter of 1963, when Plath committed suicide. (Assia moved into Court Green, Plath’s home and gave birth to a daughter by Hughes, named Shura. She cared for Plath’s children and Hughes’s household until Hughes was unfaithful to her, and, in 1969, committed suicide by gas oven, also killing Shura, then four. For more on Assia, read Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev’s excellent biography, Lover of Unreason.)
Plath’s agony over Hughes’s betrayal is on full display in surviving letters to her friends, her mother, and of course, in her final Ariel poems, which were subsequently collected by Hughes after her death. (Hughes claimed to have burned and/or misplaced Plath’s final journals.) But then, at the end of 2016, came a startling discovery: 14 never-before-seen letters from Plath to her psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, detailing Plath’s struggle after Hughes’s infidelity. These gut-wrenching letters are published for the first time in the second volume of Plath’s letters, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil. The volume bears a foreword from Plath’s daughter, Freida Hughes, recounting her difficult decision over whether the letters should be published.
The letters are, simply put, brutal. Their raw desperation is recognizable to anyone who has ever experienced betrayal. But what emerges, perhaps for the first time, is that Hughes’s infidelity was not just of the martial, or romantic, stripe. More than just a betrayal of their marriage, Hughes’s infidelity and subsequent abandonment of Plath and their two children was also a betrayal of his duties as a caregiver and a writing partner. Saddled with two children under the age of three with little financial resources, Plath was unable to work.
Plath and Hughes’s partnership was not the typical marriage of the era. Eager to have a big family and to write and be published, after the arrival of Frieda, in 1960, the two worked out a system of care-giving. Plath would write in the morning while Hughes looked after Frieda, then they would switch. Hughes was always encouraging of Plath’s work and believed in her talent as a poet and a writer. His willingness to help with the childcare allowed for Plath to work.
Both Plath and Hughes were deeply involved in each other’s writing, as readers and editors. When Hughes deserted the marriage, he left Plath struggling to secure even a part-time nanny in Devon. His departure also meant Plath had lost her most trusted editor. She wrote to Beuscher: “Even our professional marriage—the utterly creative and healthy critical exchange of ideas and publication projects and completed work—meant enough to me to try to save it.”
For a brief period, Plath thought perhaps the marriage could be saved. But when she discovered Hughes had been spending money from their joint account, his betrayal became not just personal but financial. “He spends most of each week in London, spending our joint savings on himself & his pleasures, and I feel I need a legal settlement so I can count on so much a week for groceries and bills and the freedom to build up the happy pleasant life I feel it in myself to make.”
She also revealed to Beuscher, that for the past year their life had been supported by a grant Plath earned. “We lived off my $2,000 nanny-grant-to-write-a-novel all this year: as soon as the last payment stopped, Ted ‘got courage’ and left me. So, no 2nd novel, no nanny, no money. And no Ted.”
Once resolved to get a legal separation, Plath discovered that the law in England was not on her side. “A wife is allowed 1/3 of her husband’s income & if he doesn’t pay up, the suing is long & costly, if a wife earns anything, her income is included in his & she ends up paying for everything,” she reported back to her mother Aurelia. “Together we earned about $7,000 this year, a fine salary, I earning one-third. Now it is all gone. I am furious. I threw everything of mine into our life without question, all my earnings, & now he is well-off, with great potential earning power, I shall be penalized for earning, or don’t earn, have to beg.”
Hughes and Plath eventually agreed that he would give her £1,000 per year for support of the household and the children. The agreement was not easily made. “I’m not to have sherry, to have roast beef, I’m to smoke the last quarter inch of my cigarette—‘they’re expensive,” Plath wrote to Beuscher. “1,000 pounds, he taunts me, seems too much . . . . I am an unpaid nanny.” The Hughes family illustrated a complete lack of understanding for Plath’s lack of ability to work without childcare. “His family wrote how lucky I was to be able to earn my whole (!) living at home instead of having to put the children in an orphanage & go out to work for a boss.”
Even with the financial agreement in place, a good nanny still had to be found. Practically every letter for the last year of Plath’s life chronicles her struggle to find reliable childcare. “I have so much writing in me, the children are a kind of torture when on my neck all day. If I get a good girl, a good nanny, permanent, I can have my own life too. I adore the babies & am glad to have them, even though now they make my life fantastically difficult.” After moving back to London, Plath and her children were sick with the flu for two weeks in a freezing apartment (the heat had yet to be turned on) with no phone. When Plath needed to make a phone call (for instance, to the telephone company) she had to load up both babies in the stroller and trek through the snow to a pay phone in one of London’s coldest winters.
Plath’s one bright-spot was her work. But without childcare, she had no hope of getting any writing done. “My writing is my one hope, and that income is so small. And with these colossal worries & responsibilities & no-one, no friend or relative, to advise or help as things come up, I have got to have a working ethic. I can’t face suing for lack of support now, I have nothing to go on with, no reserves of cash. The humiliation of being dependent for my children’s support on a man I hate & despise is a torture. I want nothing for myself.” To Aurelia, she emphasized: “How I would like to be self-supporting with my writing! But I need time.”
Even with the help of a committed partner, supportive family or friends nearby, or reliable childcare, care-giving is an all-consuming, overwhelming job. Nicholas was about eight-months old when Plath discovered the affair between Assia and Ted. In 1962, the dangers of postpartum depression were unknown. Recent research indicates that postpartum depression can last up to five years after the birth of a child. Plath, like all women who have suffered from depression and/or anxiety before the birth of their children, was at high-risk for postpartum complications.
And yet, 55 years after Plath’s suicide, in the United States there is no enforcement of paid maternity leave, no mandated, state-structured support for working mothers. Plath’s frustration is easily recognizable to American women today. “I am damned if I want to sit here like a cow, milked by babies. I love my children, but want my own life. I want to write books, see people & travel… I’d think I’d like a couple more someday (children), but only when I’ve got a nanny to free me.” But often women who voice their legitimate concerns over losing their career or their sense of self due to the demands of motherhood are labeled by society (and unfortunately, by other women) as mentally ill, or ungrateful.
There is no doubt that Plath put Hughes on a pedestal. “My marriage is the center of my being,” she wrote to Beuscher to first tell her of Hughes’s infidelity. “I have given everything to it without reserve.” The letters between Plath and her mother in the early days of her marriage to Hughes are almost more painful than the final letters. Every overblown compliment of Hughes as some kind of perfect man stings. “He has a health and a hugeness so that the more he loves, the more he loves, the more he writes poems, the more he writes poems.” In the end, Hughes was just a man, capable, like most people, of enormous cruelty. Imagine the pressure it puts on a marriage, when the husband is your only source of childcare. The only hope of relief comes from a person who, most likely, has been at work all day and has no concept of the demands of caregiving.
The ultimate betrayal was not Hughes’s infidelity. It was the betrayal of a society that does nothing to support the back-breaking, emotionally draining 24/7 labor of mothers. It is the failure of a culture that expects when women become mothers that somehow they are reborn as people with no desires or needs outside of mothering. Plath was up every morning at 4 a.m. before her children awoke so that she could get some writing done. That work was the center, in fact the very essence, of her being. To her mother, she wrote, “I just haven’t felt to have any identity under the steamroller of decisions & responsibilities of this last half year, with the babies a constant demand.” When Sylvia Plath died, she received almost no obituaries. One even claimed that she had died of pneumonia. The New York Times corrected this massive oversight 55 years later.
This lack of support and understanding of motherhood fails women and their children in this country every hour, every minute of the day. Plath closes her last letter, to Beuscher, just one week before her suicide: “I am incapable of being myself & loving myself. Now the babies are crying, I must take them out to tea.”