Literary Lives

Ted Hughes’s Brother on Losing Sylvia Plath

In his memoir, Gerald Hughes recalls his brother’s famous love affair with the poet Sylvia Plath—and how her tragic end continued to haunt Ted.


Excerpted from Ted and I, copyright © 2012 by Gerald Hughes

After all the upbeat and happy letters and occasional phone calls we received from Ted and Sylvia, as well as from other members of the family, it was naturally extremely upsetting to hear about Ted and Sylvia’s separation in the autumn of 1962.

I’d expressed our concern in a letter to Olwyn, and Ted wrote me a heartfelt letter from our parents’ home. In it he expressed his great admiration for Sylvia (‘in many ways the most gifted and capable and admirable woman I’ve ever met’). He went on to explain that the break-up was finally, in some ways, a relief. ‘All the business has been terrible—especially for Sylvia—but it was inevitable.’

Despite this, all our hopes had been that they would somehow get back together and resume a relatively normal family life with their very young children. So the dreadful news of Sylvia’s suicide in February 1963, which we learnt about from my parents, was a terrible shock—all the more so since, at that time, we had little knowledge of Sylvia’s emotional struggles. Of course, we could not then have read her journals, with their record of her fears and terrible nightmares, nor were we aware of her earlier suicide attempt when a student at Smith College.

Sylvia’s loss made us feel closer than ever to Ted and our family—even though we were at different ends of the world—as happens when sad times come. We looked for a way to come to England to see them all. Ted and my parents had never met our children, nor we his. At that time, though, my job as a rep for an Australian company made it impossible to leave Australia.

It was 1964 before I finally managed the trip. I went first to see Mom and Dad in Yorkshire, then to Court Green. Olwyn had come over from Paris in September 1963 to help with the children until Ted sorted things out. She expected to stay a month or two but ended up staying for two years, until October 1965. During that time, after a four-year job in Paris with theatre agents, and with Ted’s encouragement, Olwyn started her own literary agency, initially handling Ted, Jean Rhys, who lived nearby, and the poet Robert Nye. She also translated a French novel for the publisher Andre Deutsch while in Devon.

It was sad that my first visit to Court Green, which Sylvia had described so enthusiastically, should be after her demise. It was, indeed, as she had written, a lovely, well-proportioned house, led into by a wide expanse of lawn in the front and rows of apple trees. Idyllic.

It was during this visit that Ted talked to me about Sylvia’s suicide and the events leading up to it. Only now, when we were able to talk frankly and at length, did I come to realize how profoundly it had affected him. Her death and the circumstances surrounding it continued to haunt him, and I found him in a poor state, mentally and physically: he complained of feeling unwell, which was very unlike him. Dad, too, was in a terrible state, and my mother’s ill health only contributed to the general mood.

From Ted, among other things, I heard how Sylvia had become more and more worried, even paranoid, about her work, particularly her forthcoming and deeply personal book The Bell Jar—how it would be received and whether it would sell. Her nervousness about its content made her decide to publish it under a pseudonym, for reasons that would later become clear. Again and again Ted had tried to reassure her, but her anxieties grew, and the emotional tension between them and the increasing marital strains reached an unbearable pitch. The situation was inflamed by Sylvia’s awareness that Ted had become infatuated with another woman, Assia Wevill.

Sylvia insisted that Ted move out and he complied, going to stay in London. At the time he hoped and believed it would be a temporary arrangement, thinking that being separated from him would give Sylvia space to deal with the emotional turmoil she was going through—and he too would have time and clam in which to refocus and to work. He kept in constant touch with Sylvia and the children, visiting Court Green, and when Sylvia decided she didn’t want to spend the long winter alone in Devon, he helped her with the money to lease a London flat.

He continued to see them regularly, and although Sylvia talked of divorce, Ted balked at this, believing they could get back together. He missed the children terribly, and he missed Sylvia. In one sense, he was right about giving her space, since it was during this period that she wrote her most famous poems. However, as she feared, The Bell Jar appeared to indifferent notices and the launch—which Ted attended—was rather low-key.

Ted told me how panicky he had become about Sylvia’s mental state as the months went by, and particularly about her reliance on certain medication she had been prescribed by an American doctor, which could make her vulnerable to suicidal tendencies. He worried that she might be taking this medication alongside that prescribed by her British doctors—as indeed she was—and that a combination of the two might be lethal.

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It was a painful conversation, Ted talking passionately about the circumstances surrounding Sylvia’s actual suicide, the failure of someone to get there in time, the fact that he believed she had wanted to be rescued.