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Plath was a perfectionist in teaching and motherhood. She typed and sent out all Hughes’s work, painted walls and floors, cooked, sewed, gardened, farmed, kept bees, rode horses, and handled their money and taxes. They were fiercely attracted to each other and had a gratifying sex life. She wrote, “I like all sorts of positions at a lot of odd times of day, & really feel terrific and made new from every cell when I am done.” She always believed Hughes was a great poet; was ecstatic, not jealous, when he became famous; and exclaimed, even after his betrayal, “Few men are both beautiful physically, tremendous lovers & creative geniuses as Ted is.”

Plath mainly wrote to family, Smith College friends, editors and publishers. Her voluminous letters are inevitably repetitive. The ones to her mother, 40 per cent of the text, are now uncensored but mostly contain glad tidings for home consumption. Other letters reveal the dark side of Plath’s life. There are a few characteristically morbid moments: a hunchbacked neighbour was “apparently born without parents of either sex” ; a house had a “kind of open cesspit that had obviously been used for drowning children”.

I noticed only four errors. The editors identify many well-known people — Dostoyevsky, Einstein — but ignore political events and poetic allusions, and do not explain puzzling passages. Why did Plath “pay to make sure of conceiving” a child? Why did she write a furious letter to Richard Murphy after visiting him in Ireland? The editors could have said much more about her younger brother, Warren, and noted that the poet Peter Davison had been her lover.

Plath needed a calm and devoted husband to control her frenetic energy. Hughes, the god that failed, both inspired and doomed her. A paternal figure, he replaced her dead father, who she thought had abandoned her in childhood by refusing to treat his diabetes and willing his own death. Hughes’s brutal rejection was a devastating repetition of her early trauma and she was forced to reprise the role of her sacrificial mother, martyred to a man. Assia Wevill was wild, exciting and even more worshipful. Humiliated and jealous, Plath tormented herself by reading Hughes’s “passionate love poems to this woman, this one woman to whom he has been growing more & more faithful, describing their orgasms, her ivory body, her smell, her beauty”.

At the same time, well aware of Plath’s perilous emotional fragility, Hughes cruelly condemned her as “brainless, hideous, had all sorts of flaws in making love”, and deliberately destroyed her anguished attachment to him. He said he wanted to kill her and wished she were dead. “True genius,” she realised, “must kill to get what it wants.”
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