Sylvia Plath’s suicide note - did it name a final lover?

The received wisdom is that Sylvia Plath killed herself after Ted Hughes left her for another woman. But, as Jonathan Bate reveals, the story of her last letter changes everything

The biographer’s work is never done. There comes a time when you have scoured the archives, emptied the library shelves and spoken to all the surviving witnesses who are willing to share their stories. Every new detail is merely reinforcing the arc of the narrative you have shaped. That is the time to let it go, to press the Send button and wait for the publisher’s edit. But there will always be loose ends, unanswered questions, and things you have to leave out because there is just not quite enough corroborative evidence. This is the story of the missing piece in the jigsaw of my biography of Ted Hughes.

Every life has its secrets and many have their lies. For the most part, they go to the grave with us. But in the case of the creative geniuses who transmute the dross of their day-to-day experience into the gold of enduring art, it is vital that posterity should have the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. There is a story about the death of Sylvia Plath that goes like this (you can find it in a dozen biographies of her and in the film Sylvia with Daniel Craig as Ted Hughes and Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath): after six and a half years of marriage, of shared creativity, great poetry and the birth of two children, Ted left Sylvia for Assia Wevill and from then on Plath was alone with a toddler and a baby in the freezing winter of 1962. She gassed herself in the small hours of 11 February 1963, making sure the children were safe.

What I discovered in Hughes’s journals, which have now been made available to the public in the British Library, and which were also examined by Carl Rollyson, Plath’s most recent biographer, is that this story is far from the full truth. Ted was seeing Sylvia regularly right up until the end, and spending time with the children. They were seriously talking about giving the marriage another try. They spoke of being together again under their laburnum tree in Devon by the summer. But with the volatility of Sylvia’s terrible manic depression, she kept changing her mind about whether she wanted a reunion or a permanent separation. And Ted was also seeing another girlfriend, Susan Alliston. On the fateful Sunday night of Sylvia’s suicide, Ted took Alliston to a friend’s flat in Rugby Street, Holborn, where he had first made love to Plath and later spent his wedding night.

In a remarkable, hitherto unknown, poem called “Three Funerals”, Ted wrote of how he was haunted by the memory of Sylvia walking through the snow to a telephone box on the last night of her life, and equally haunted by his last telephone conversation with Wevill, who six years later killed herself in the same way as Sylvia. Ted’s sense of guilt came from the fact that he had taken Alliston away from his own flat on Sylvia’s last night in order to avoid the telephone, which Plath had been calling all weekend. But did Plath also call someone else? Did she also send out a cry for help to another man, with whom she had become intimate during her last months?

This is not something Hughes himself could ever have written about directly: it would have looked too much like self-exculpation. The writer and film-maker Andrew Sinclair, Harvard flatmate of Plath’s brother Warren and friend of Ted and Sylvia in their Boston days, says: “He could never have written openly about it, but he could hide it in plain sight.” A copy of Birthday Letters lay open at the poem “Fairy Tale” on Sinclair’s table as he told me this. It reads as a poem about Sylvia’s final lover, whom it identifies as someone glimpsed by Hughes over her corpse. Is the figure a symbol or a real person, the glimpse over the corpse a poetic metaphor for death or a real memory of the funeral parlour in Mornington Crescent where Ted said his final goodbye to Sylvia’s cold body?

Sinclair’s remark made me recall another poem near the end of the Birthday Letters sequence, carefully placed among those about Plath’s last days. Enigmatically entitled “Telos”, the Greek word for “end”, it begins with the image of there being “Too many Alphas” in Sylvia’s life and ends with her confronting an Alpha at the Omega of her death. Alpha Alpha: what symbolic initials might these be?

The story I have heard is this. It is not in my biography because it is based on hearsay and a lost document: biographers should only fix in print those things that they have fully corroborated. But Sinclair is convinced of the story’s truth because the source, who is no longer alive, was a woman of unimpeachable integrity, a much-loved editor named Frances Lindley at the publisher Harper & Row in New York. At a book party in the city, she spoke to someone who said that they had seen Plath’s last letter. It allegedly revealed that she did telephone another man that last weekend, in a desperate bid to renew their brief liaison. He told her that he was now in a relationship with another woman. Yet one more male rejection: this could have been the thing that tipped her over the edge.

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.


Jonathan Bate

The GuardianTramp

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