On the Saturday afternoon, September 15 1962, before that fateful dinner with her husband Ted Hughes, and the poet and publisher Tom Kinsella, Richard Murphy, their host, had taken Sylvia Plath house hunting. She realised that her marriage to Ted was over, and however painful that was for her to accept, she believed that in Connemara with her two children, Frieda and Nicholas, she would be ‘safe from Ted’ and ‘get the first months of separation under way in a fresh setting.’
Even though Sylvia had only been in Ireland since the previous Thursday, she had grasped what she saw as a peaceful refuge from her dead marriage: ‘Ireland is heaven - utterly unspoilt. Thank God I found it. Just in time.’
Murphy recalled taking her to look at various houses and being surprised when she agreed on the spot to rent a ‘gorgeous cottage and views’ from December to late February owned by a local woman Kitty Marriott. ‘She has a Connemara pony, her own TT tested cows (which I will learn to milk ), and a butter churn, and could show me all the wild walks, and would welcome the children.’*
The house is still there on a lonely road between Cleggan and Moyard, overlooking a lough with views of the sea and the Twelve Bens.** Later that evening, as the wine flowed, Sylvia’s awkward pass under the table at Murphy was rejected, and early the following morning, Ted Hughes had gone.
Murphy was surprised that Hughes had left abruptly without telling him. Or to say goodbye. He suspected that it was all a ploy of Sylvia’s to get Hughes out of the way so she could follow up her foot-rub from the night before, and tempt Murphy into having an affair with him. Murphy had already made it clear that such a proposal was impossible. He told her to leave the following day by getting a lift with Tom Kinsella to Dublin. Utterly distraught and vunerable Sylvia spent the afternoon confiding in the cook/housekeeper Mary Coyne.
On Monday morning Sylvia and Kinsella drove away leaving Murphy feeling, despite all the effort he had made to entertain them both, mean and partly responsible for her misery. A few days later Kinsella wrote to say Sylvia boarded the mailboat alone ‘in fair form’, giving the impression to the ‘casual observer at least, that no fears need to be entertained by anyone’.*** The letter makes it clear that both men were aware of Sylvia’s mental fragility.
A red-hot affair
Sylvia’s immediate problem was to find a place to live. She did not want to stay on at the Court Green farmhouse, in a small market town in Devon, where she and Hughes had spent a very creative time including the birth of their second child Nicholas. It was to become Ted Hughes’ house for the rest of his life. Having spent several years in America and Canada, the couple returned to London in 1959, and rented a flat at 3 Chalcot Square, near the Primrose Hill area of Regent’s Park. Frieda was born there and Sylvia published her first volume of poems, The Colossus, and completed her novel The Bell Jar.
Having decided to keep Court Green as their home, they let the Chalcot Square flat to the young poet David Wevill and his wife Assia. Hughes was immediately struck by Assia’s beauty as she was with him. They began a red-hot affair. Sylvia was devastated. Three months before the couple came to Ireland Sylvia had a car accident which she admitted was a suicide attempt.
‘Soul began to wake’
Sylvia had always liked the Primrose Hill area of London. As she was walking through the familiar streets once again she was amazed to find workmen fixing up 23 Fitzroy Road, a house once lived in by WB Yeats. **** As apartments would soon be available Sylvia immediately put down her name and hoped she would be successful. She knew this was the right place for her. She remembered that September day when she and Hughes and Murphy had explored the ruin at Ballylee, which was lived in by the poet and his family in the early 1920s. At the time Sylvia was sick at her husband’s affair with Assia, but at Ballylee her ‘soul began to wake. It was very weird, feeling this timelessness of the untouched place, its beauty, the immanence of Yeats.’
Writing to her friend Harriet Cooke, after she put down her name for a flat, she recounted that when she got home she decided to open a book of Yeats’ plays and get a message from him. She pointed at a sentence at random. “When I opened my eyes I was pointing to the words ‘Get food and wine to give you strength, and courage, and I will get the house ready.’”*****
Sylvia and her two children moved into 23 Fitzroy Road in October 1962. She experienced a great burst of creativity. Her second volume of poems Ariel, on which her reputation largely rests, was completed on her 30th birthday. She took her life in that house February 11 1963.
Next week: Aftermath.
NOTES: *In a letter to Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse (Sylvia’s American psychiartist, whom she had attended for her constant depression ), describes the house, and the life she hopes to lead; and Kitty Marriott as a ‘A woman after my own heart, one of the sturdy, independent horse-and-whisky-neat set.’ Letters of Sylvia Plath (Volume II 1956-1963 ).
**From an essay by Gail Crowther, researcher and academic: ‘The wild beauty I found there - Plath’s Connemara’.
*** From The Kick - A Memoir of the poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University Press, 2017.
****The Blue Plaque reads: ‘William Butler Yeats 1865 - 1939 Irish Poet and Dramatist, once lived here.’
***** Letter to Harriet Cooke, Letters of Sylvia Plath Volune II.