In March 1956, the American poet Sylvia Plath wrote a letter to her mother describing her passion for a man. She loved this dark-eyed boyfriend “above and beyond all thought”, she said, adding that his “soul is the most furious and saintly I have met in this world”.
The man in question was not, however, fellow poet Ted Hughes, whom she would marry in June that year. Instead, Plath was referring to the shadowy character of Richard Sassoon, a distant relation of the English war poet Siegfried Sassoon. “He is so much more brilliant, intuitive and alive than anyone I’ve ever known,” she wrote.
Today we remember Plath as the troubled writer famous for disquieting poems such as Daddy, her novel The Bell Jar, which documented her 1953 mental breakdown and subsequent suicide attempt, and her tempestuous marriage to Ted Hughes. The couple met at a party in February 1956 in Cambridge, and their alcohol-fuelled encounter – during which Hughes ripped a hair band from her head and she in turn bit him on the cheek – is one of the most famous in literary history. Indeed, the sensational aspects of the relationship – their impetuous marriage, his infidelity, their separation after the birth of their two children, her suicide at the age of 30 – have invested their story with the resonance of a modern myth.
Hughes believed himself to be the most important man in her life and a central figure in her creative process. In fact, he regarded the poems and stories that she had written before they met to be nothing more than what he described as “impurities”. However, Plath dated dozens of men before Hughes, men who influenced both her work and her life.
While she was studying at Smith College, in her home state of Massachusetts, one of her early boyfriends, Myron Lotz, inspired the villanelle Mad Girl’s Love Song, which Hughes, in his role as editor, omitted from Plath’s Collected Poems. “I think I made you up inside my head,” runs the refrain, a line that captures Plath’s propensity for projecting her psychological fantasies on to those close to her.
Plath also had a tendency to pluck her lovers straight from reality and cast them as characters in her stories in a barely disguised fashion. One of the most beleaguered of all her boyfriends was Dick Norton, a medical student at Yale who inspired the character of Buddy Willard in The Bell Jar. In that book, which was published in Britain under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” just a few weeks before her death, Plath describes Norton/Willard undressing in front of her. “The only thing I could think of was turkey neck and turkey gizzards and I felt very depressed,” she writes.
In August 1954, while still at Smith College, Plath became unofficially engaged to Gordon Lameyer, an Amherst student. A month later, Plath feared that she was pregnant. “I assured her I loved her and would marry her,” wrote Lameyer in an unpublished memoir. “Sylvia was horribly afraid that she had let down all those who had believed in her. Fortunately, all her fears were dispelled several days later.”
Plath started to date Richard Sassoon, a British citizen who lived in America, behind Lameyer’s back and, in December 1954, the couple sneaked away to New York to spend the weekend together. Plath was attracted by his dark looks – she said he had the appearance of an absinthe addict – as well as by his European background and his bohemian spirit. “I know how to teach girls to be women,” he wrote to her. “I’m thinking it will be rather fun to play daddy to a naughty girl,” he states in another letter.
In the autumn of 1955, the passionate relationship between Plath and Sassoon was put on hold after she won a Fulbright fellowship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge. But during the Christmas holidays the couple met up in Paris, from where they travelled to the south of France. Sassoon, who was studying at the Sorbonne, was, she said, “the only boy I have ever loved so far”, yet before the end of the vacation he said it would be best if they took a break from one another.
On returning to England, Plath became more obsessed by him and, in the Easter holiday of 1956 – after what she described as a passionate night of lovemaking with Ted Hughes – she returned to Paris to confront Sassoon. She was sure that if she could just see him she could explain the strength of her feelings for him. “I love that damn boy with all I’ve ever had in me and that’s a hell of a lot,” she wrote. But on arrival at his apartment she learnt that he had left for Spain. It was this rejection that catapulted Plath into Hughes’s arms. Had Sassoon chosen to stay in Paris, it’s highly unlikely that Plath would have gone on to marry Hughes.
A few weeks before the marriage – the ceremony took place on 16 June, 1956, in Bloomsbury, London – Plath sent a letter to Sassoon begging him never to contact her again. Although he initially agreed, finally he could stand it no longer; he did not believe that her marriage would be a happy one. Using the Wallace Stevens poem The Well Dressed Man with a Beard to illustrate his point, Sassoon outlined how his former lover’s decisions at this moment in her life – her rejection of him and her forthcoming marriage to Hughes – would have far-reaching consequences. “I read somewhere that ‘after the final no, there comes along a yes/ And on that yes the future world depends,’” he wrote, “which strikes me as very profound.”
On 11 February, 1963, Sylvia Plath, now estranged from Hughes, was living in a flat in London. After putting out some milk and bread for Frieda and Nicholas, her two young children with Hughes, she placed her head in the oven and gassed herself. Fifty years later, her work and the story of her life, in all its complexity, continue to fascinate and unsettle. As she wrote in an early poem, “There is a voice within me/That will not be still.”
Mad Girl's Love Song is Radio 4's Book of the Week. Listen Monday-Friday 9:45am or 12:30am, or on iPlayer