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All Plath’s love, devotion, brilliance, intellectual stimulation, poetic success and beloved children led only to disaster. Hughes’s betrayal and desertion seemed to undo everything that was precious to her. The tide that swept them along was all the while moving towards Niagara. Her sudden realisation of what all the treacherous years were leading to and really meant was too tragic to bear.

The doomed Plath had everything to live for. Young and beautiful, intelligent and talented, with The Bell Jar (which would sell millions) published weeks before her death, she was at the height of her poetic powers and had a rising reputation, confirmed by grants and prizes. Swept along by her own creative surge, she produced the greatest poems in Ariel — often one every day — from the depths of her misery. She is quite explicit, in her last letter, about the reasons for her suicide. She feared being turned into a zombie and confined for the rest of her life in an insane asylum: “What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst — cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies.” Despite her tragedy and his lifelong guilt — exacerbated when Assia gassed herself and their child in 1969 — Hughes benefited from her suicide. Liberated from her emotional burden and the need to support her, he was free to marry Assia and to repossess his children and house in Devon.

The volcanic core of Plath’s letters, an unusual long-distance epistolary psychotherapy, are 14 desperate and heartbreaking letters to Dr Ruth Beuscher, her psychiatrist and mother-confessor in America. After these letters were offered for sale for a staggering $875,000 by a Plath scholar whose biography had been aborted, controversial excerpts appeared in British newspapers. The letters were withdrawn after a lawsuit and are now in the Plath archive at Smith.

The sensitive introduction by Frieda Hughes, torn between love for her mother and loyalty to her father, tries to blunt Ted’s treacherous spear that penetrated Plath’s vulnerable heart. Plath portrays Ted as a monster — deceitful, oppressive, brutal and violent. She did not make her most serious charge in December 1961, when she thought appendicitis caused her miscarriage, and did not tell Beuscher about it until September 1962. Plath’s original statement — “we lost our second baby 4 months along last year . . . the doctors gave no reason for a miscarriage,  but as I had my appendix out 3 weeks later, it might have been that, or not” — is quite different from her subsequent agonising accusation, when she was wounded and furious, that “Ted beat me up physically a couple of days before my miscarriage”.

The Hughes Estate, representing his third wife, claimed the letters were “absurd”, but in the current #MeToo context her charge must be taken seriously. Without conclusive evidence and nearly 60 years after the events, it is difficult to know the truth. Winston Churchill observed that “History is written by the victors.” Hughes’s Birthday Letters, which created his version of her death, claimed his infidelity was predestined. But in Plath’s caustic response from beyond the grave the victim has the last wounding word.

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