Many Hughes of Tedís life

These letters lay bare his contradictions and reveal the poignant relationship with Plath,
writes Suzi Feay

Letters of Ted Hughes
Selected and edited by Christopher Reid
Faber. Pages 750. £30

Letters of Ted HughesTHIS is a thoroughly exciting and absorbing book, as gripping as a good novel but tragic as only a true story can be. Itís a tale rich in dramatic irony; its protagonist is complex and fascinating, laden with contradictions he was seemingly unaware of. Despite what one must assume were the best efforts of Hughes's devoted publishers, he comes across as fairly bonkers. Christopher Reid was, as he explains in his introduction, Ted Hughesís editor at Faber for the last eight years of Hughesís life (he died in October, 1998). His fondness for the poet is palpable, yet there are a few sly jokes between the lines. We sense the dry relish in the editorís footnote, after yet another of Hughesís attempts to have his books published on astrologically auspicious days ("please try and fix it. May 9th is a Tuesday"): "Wodwo was in fact published on 18 May 1967."

Many of the letters outline Hughes's own poetic practice, and will send readers back to the verse Ė his thoughts on Gaudete and Birthday Letters are particularly interesting. But the dynamite is in his writings to and about Sylvia Plath and Assia Wevill, the wife and the lover who committed suicide eight years apart, the latter taking their child with her. There are rapturous love letters to Plath, and few warning signs as their tempestuous marriage progressed. The crash comes as a psychic shock to all concerned.

In Autumn 1961, he is writing ruefully to the soon-to-be-married poet Daniel Weissbort: "Marriage is a nest of small scorpions, but it kills the big dragons." Within a year, addressing a newlywed, this has ominously reversed: "Marriage... is a bloody monster, but it eats up many little snakes." Hindsight renders his last few letters before Plathís death horrible, in particular his comment to his sister in late 1962: "You're right, she'll have to grow up Ė it won't do her any harm."

After Plathís suicide in the early hours of February 11, 1963, his pain and guilt are palpable, though a self-exculpating theory forms fairly quickly. Thereís an exquisitely bullying letter to Plathís mother, culminating in what looks very much like a threat to make contact with Plathís two children difficult. His justification is her overanxiousness: "We cannot protect their lives too much from life," he says. This contrasts oddly with Hughes's later attempts to limit or censor publication of material about Plath, claiming her children would be damaged by the knowledge. When A Alvarez publishes The Savage God, with its conjectural memoir of Plathís suicide, Hughes's response is barely sane: "You... didnít realise you were sticking electrodes into her childrenís brains."

Eerily, what he writes about Wevillís suicide echoes earlier comments about Plath's. "I look on her (Plath) as my wife and the only one I shall ever marry"; "Assia was my true wife." But within six months of Wevillís death, he was living with Brenda Hedden; and the following year he married Carol Orchard.

There are compressions and strange elisions here, and the absence of letters to Carol Hughes makes her the second Mrs de Winter to Plathís Rebecca. Thereís no hint, either, of his subsequent affairs. Still, the book can't be said to be a whitewash. As a portrait of a flawed man who struggled titanically with his own psyche, it succeeds brilliantly.

By arrangement with The Independent