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

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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.

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