Sylvia Plath's friend tells Sam Jordison about her memories of getting caught up in a family's tragedy
Click here to read Olwyn Hughes's side of the story
Elizabeth Sigmund was a friend of Sylvia Plath's and, along with her husband David, a dedicatee of The Bell Jar when Plath first published it under the pseudonym of Victoria Lucas. She contacted The Guardian when we started our Reading group coverage of The Bell Jar, because she had a remarkable story to tell.
I spoke to her on the phone several times. Here's what she said:
"I first wrote to Ted and Sylvia when they'd done a piece on Radio 3 called 'Two Of A Kind' … They were speaking about how they were both writers and they had this baby daughter [Frieda] and how they had to take turns at writing and babysitting.
"My husband then, David Compton, was a writer of science fiction and stuff like that – and we lived in a thatched house in Devon, in Fairy Cross near Bideford. I was looking after our own children so I wrote to them and said: 'If you'd like a holiday in the country, you can come and stay with us. I'll look after Frieda along with my children and you three can go off and write.'
"My husband, who was a complete cynic, said: 'You stupid woman, they'll never answer'. And I didn't hear anything for a year. But then Ted wrote to me out of the blue and said, 'We too are living in a thatched house in Devon and we'd love you to come and have lunch.'
"So that's why we went down to Court Green and had lunch with them. David and Ted were talking about money – as always happens with authors – and Sylvia asked me what I did. I told her I did a bit of canvassing for the Liberal party. (The prospective candidate in that bit of Devon was Mark Bonham Carter.) And Sylvia rushed across to Ted and shook him by the shoulders and said: 'I've found a committed woman!' Which I thought was very funny when I thought about the small beer that the Liberal party was. But we talked quite a bit of politics … And then we saw them repeatedly. My son was the same age as Frieda, and it grew into a really close friendship."
Dream of rural life
"One time when I went round to lunch with her, Sylvia took me round the house and said, 'I want five children - that's where the boys will sleep and that's where the girls will sleep.' She was growing her vegetables and keeping her bees, and she had a beautiful flower garden. She brought onions and potatoes as presents. She was very sure that Ted was happy writing, and she was writing and they had a really lovely woman called Nancy who worked for her and kept the house clean and tidy. She was living a life that she thought was ideal.
"In one of the letters she wrote to me later, from London, after the break-up, she said: 'Ted comes around to visit the children, but I can't help sighing for lost Eden.' And I think that's what it was for her. It was a very idyllic life. She had no idea that there could be someone like Assia who would come and try – deliberately – to break it down … That's part of the reason if hit her so hard.
Assia Wevill and Ted Hughes began an affair while she was married to the poet David Wevill and he to Plath. Plath discovered the affair in July 1962. In 1969, six years after Plath's suicide, Wevill killed herself and her daughter, Shura, also using a gas oven.
"Fay Weldon knew Assia. They worked in an advertising agency together. She told Fay that she and her husband were going to stay with Ted and Sylvia – and she said I'm going to have an affair with him. She was boasting. She was a remarkably beautiful woman. She was extraordinary.
"And when Assia had been to stay with Ted – with them, she rang up to speak to Ted pretending she was a man, putting on a very deep voice. Of course Sylvia was not having that; she knew who it was. She called Ted to come down and he was very, very embarrassed. When he finished talking to Assia, Sylvia pulled the phone out of the wall.
"She came up to see me with Nick [Plath's second child with Hughes] in his carrycot, in floods of tears and said: 'He's a little man, he's lying to me, I can't bear it'. And she stayed the night with us.
"And that was really the beginning of our friendship and how close we were."
Sylvia the person
"She was very interested in politics. She thought a lot about the military industrial complex and weaponry and that sort of thing. She and I talked about nuclear weapons and were very much on the CND side. Somebody wrote about her when she took Frieda on an Aldermaston march when she was a baby. She was wrapped up very well because it was a cold day, but this person said it was irresponsible and unkind to take a baby out in such cold weather.
"I introduced her to Mark Bonham Carter. He used to go frequently and talk to her. He was very upset when she died.
"Sylvia and I had a lot in common – it amused us both. I remember looking through her books when she was alive and saying it's interesting: we both have Jung's Dreams, Memories and Reflections and we both have Dr Spock On Raising Children …
"What I didn't know until quite recently was that her father was suspected of being pro-Nazi. My father left us when I was five to join the Blackshirts, which seems to me a curious coincidence. Of course, we never talked about it, because it never came up.
"She was a very fascinating person, extremely funny and generous. She came on my birthday – 6 July 1962 – and brought me a homemade birthday cake. She made all my friends who were having tea with us laugh and laugh describing how she lay in bed and watched swallows stealing her thatch to make their nest.
"She was a very special person."
"She wrote to me and said, 'if you want I'll dedicate The Bell Jar to you, but it will be in a funny place because my decision has come rather late – opposite chapter one. Is that OK?' Of course, I said yes. But I didn't read it until she was dead. Which was quite dreadful. If I'd known her history I would have been much more wary of what might happen to her."
"I had a letter from her about four days before she died in which she said she was going to compere a poetry reading at the Roundhouse, she'd been invited to be on The Critics, and she'd be back at Court Green 'in time for my daffodils'. And she said: 'Thank God you're there.'"
"Then I went out on Sunday and got the Observer and there was their epitaph … I went to a friend's house and rang a friend and we were both crying on the phone saying 'what a dreadful, dreadful waste, what a dreadful thing'."
"Those last four days made a huge difference. I think from her letter to me she was beginning to find her feet in London, and to be a success. But in the last two or three days of her life, Ted's story Difficulties Of a Bridegroom was broadcast on the radio. All his friends would have heard it, and it was dreadful because he described driving to London and running over a hare … Well, Ted had always described her as being like a hare – as mystical and strange, a creature aligned with the moon. And in this play her runs over a hare, takes it to a butcher gets the money and buys some roses for his mistress … It's dreadful to think that she heard it.
"Also, I believe that she found out that Assia was pregnant. That would have really, really hit her … she thought that somehow she was safe so long as Assia was – as she described her in her poetry – a woman with a marble womb where no fish swims. She wanted to have that safety, that she was the only one with children. And she had flu, and the weather was dreadful … and it was just all too much."
"She was writing right up to the end. I didn't know about that of course; until it was published I didn't see any of it. It was so awful to read - the moon … her hood of bone - awful poems, desperate poems. It was terrible to read them; I still find it hard. I find it hard to relive that time and to talk about her, too. But it's got to be done."
Sigmund Elizabeth is convinced that Plath would not have wanted The Bell Jar to be published under her own name while her mother was still alive. She also feels that Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Ted who became Plath's literary agent and executor after her death, caused the dedication to be taken out of the first Faber edition so she (Sigmund) wouldn't be able to speak to the press about the name change.
"Faber published The Bell Jar in 1966, with Ted and Olwyn Hughes's agreement, under Sylvia's name. And of course she'd always said that she never wanted it to be published under her own name because it would hurt so many people, including her mother.
"Also they cut out the dedication.
"I wrote to the TLS and said that I was very sad to see this because it was extremely precious to us. You know, from a very dear friend. And that I couldn't understand why such a reputable firm had done it. And Charles Monteith [the longstanding chairman of Faber] then wrote to me and said that he was really sorry – they didn't notice this. I don't believe they didn't notice it, because it was directly opposite chapter one. Couldn't miss it. Anyway.
"They put it back again in 1974 and reinstated the dedication. I can only think that Ted and Olwyn wanted them to cut it out because they didn't want anyone who knew Sylvia to have any contact with the press … And the press would have got onto that quickly.
"Olwyn Hughes, as I see it, I'm afraid is the fly in the ointment. She wrote to me about it, saying that Faber were 'probably trying to save a sheet of paper'. But when I put this to Charles Monteith he wrote back and said:
'I'm a little surprised, I confess, at some of Olywn's remarks. Particularly her remark that Faber were "probably trying to save a sheet of paper in their design of the book" which seems to me to be completely meaningless. I certainly never heard that Sylvia had expressed a wish that The Bell Jar should never be published under her own name. When we published it posthumously under Sylvia's real name, we did so with the express consent of Ted and Olwyn Hughes.'
"So there you've got it in black and white. But he doesn't explain how they came to cut the dedication out.
"There are two sides to this of course. Because it was a brilliant book, one is glad that it was credited to her. But also, you have to regard her wishes. If she said that so definitely: that she didn't want to hurt people's feelings, by having it published under her own name … I certainly think that Ted and Olwyn should have mentioned that – because Ted certainly knew. And then Faber would have had to make up their minds. But for Monteith to say that he'd certainly never heard that – it just seems that they were keeping it from Faber."
"What did Sylvia think of Olwyn? I hardly dare say. She said that Olwyn was absolutely obsessed with Ted. When they were first married she used to go and bang on their door early in the morning and say: 'You ought to be taking care of your guest. I haven't even had a cup of tea.'
"When Sylvia went up to stay with his parents and Olwyn was there, Olwyn was very affronted because the Hughes family treated Sylvia as if she were something special; being an American was regarded as very special. Sylvia was voicing her opinion about something and Olwyn got up and said: 'You're not the daughter in this family, I am and I wish you'd shut up.' And that was the first time Sylvia really knew that Olwyn hated her.
"When Sylvia died Ted knew that Olwyn hated her and he appointed her as the sole executor for her work. She was appointed as the agent for Ted and for Sylvia.
"It's a very tortured story I'm afraid."
"After Sylvia was dead, I saw him on his own and he was guilt-stricken and felt absolutely dreadful. He said: 'It doesn't fall to many men to murder a genius,' and gave me the book. But he was referring to her poetry more than The Bell Jar, I think. He looked absolutely wretched, like a beaten dog. He said: 'I hear the wolves howling all night' – because you know they're quite near Regents Park – 'which seems appropriate'.
"He asked us to go and live in Court Green because he wanted to sell it. He couldn't bear to go back. He said: 'The house is full of ghosts.'
"So we thought about it very hard and we agreed to go and live there. That was a really extraordinary experience, being in the house with her clothes there. And then he wanted to come back and live there after all …
"We bought a house in the village. It sounds odd but we kept a relationship with them. And with the children. Because Sylvia had said to me, when she was crying that night, 'if anything happens to me, you'll always stay close to the children, won't you?' I said nothing is going to happen – but of course I would. So I tried my best.
"It was obvious that at that stage, when she'd had such a big shock, that she thought about the bell jar again, coming down over her. I suppose she thought that there was always the possibility that she would take her own life. But then she got over that stage. Until the end.
"One of the reasons she felt so comfortable with me was that I had no designs on Ted. And I wasn't a literary or academic threat. I was just a friends of hers. Whereas a lot of people who were friends with her were friends with Ted.
"That's not to say I didn't like him. He was Yorkshire and I was Lancashire. We had something in common, you see, which made us friends. When he was just a friend, instead of being sought by women, he was a very nice bloke. But it was as if he was incapable of saying 'no' to the these women who gathered around him. He never tried anything with me – because neither of us were interested … I was Sylvia's friend and he knew that.
"When I think about it, I don't know what he was … Weak and stupid. But there was something about him that did fascinate people. Especially women. He was the most attractive man I've ever seen – I didn't feel it myself, but I saw the attraction. I saw it because I observed it.
"He was human. Once he took me and the children onto Dartmoor for a drive – there was a wonderful sky – it was dark and then there was a break in the clouds and right away Ted said: 'That's the eye of God.' It was magical. On those occasions, he was a nice person."
Hopes for 2013's anniversary
"I hope that people will concentrate on the brilliance of her work. And not constantly talk about her troubles, which were dreadful. Remember her as a living poet – not concentrate on her death."