Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, first published in 1993, is a brilliantly written, forensic investigation into the transgressive power of biography and the literary legacy of the poet Sylvia Plath. In February 2020 Granta Books reissued this classic, with a striking new cover designed by Luke Bird. A photograph of Plath and Hughes, in three-quarters profile, has been drenched in a dark red that stands out vividly against the cover’s cream background. “The intention is absolutely that is shocking,” Bird explains. “It goes back to that idea of referencing the tragedy in the marriage, and in Plath’s life.”
The book’s cover conjures up the sense of dissonance and silence in the lives of Plath and Hughes. It’s a fitting image for Janet Malcolm’s book that takes as its subject the bitter aftermath of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and what she describes as the “dubious, unauthentic, suspect” ways that biographers have told the couple’s story ever since. Although the original photo was taken to mark their wedding in 1956, when Plath and Hughes were at their happiest, it remained hidden away for over fifty years in a Cambridge studio. This post is about how this set of pictures came to be taken, and why the couple hated them so much.
As I described in my previous post, it was on a mild winter’s day in early December 1956, six months after their summer wedding that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes went to the studio of Ramsey & Muspratt in Cambridge to have their wedding photo taken. It seems that this was all Aurelia Plath’s idea: she had sent Sylvia money to pay for a portrait that would be suitable to send out to American friends and family who had read about the marriage in a notice she had put in the newspaper not long before. The picture would be a way of making the wedding a reality, a visual proof of her daughter’s new domesticity .
A couple of weeks after the studio session, the weather in Cambridge had turned bitterly cold. It would be a white Christmas that year, the first that Plath and Hughes would spend together in their rented flat on Eltisley Avenue, which was kept warm with a coal fire in the sitting room. Aurelia had sent them early Christmas gifts, including a package of cookies that Ted couldn’t resist opening straightaway. “We bought themselves a huge cutting knife for bread & meat and a great Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which is now our favorite book— for our own Christmas presents” Sylvia told her. Less welcome for the couple was an expensive invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, who enclosed a contact sheet for them to choose four photos out of the set of thirteen pictures she had taken.
The problem was that Plath and Hughes hated all of them, as Sylvia explained to her mother, enclosing a few of the “grisly proofs” with her Christmas card. It’s true that these photos present a very different atmosphere from the exuberant word-picture Plath painted of their June wedding. Then, with only Sylvia’s mother and the curate present as witnesses, Plath and Hughes exchanged their vows in a gloomy London church as the summer rain poured down outside. No special thought was given to their clothes that day. Hughes wore his ancient corduoroy jacket (“thrice dyed black, exhausted”) and Plath wore a pink knitted dress given by her mother as Hughes later recalled in this poem from Birthday Letters, remembering her tears of joy.
In the black and white studio photos taken in Cambridge in December there is little of this spontaneity or warmth. Both Hughes and Plath are smartly turned out: Hughes is wearing a new tweed jacket, presumably purchased for his job as a teacher which had started a few weeks before, and his hair is neatly combed back. Plath wears what looks like the same pink knitted dress that she wore in June (although we can’t be sure), and her hair is held back with a bandeau, possibly the pink ribbon she wore on her wedding day.
They both seem ill at ease with the idea of posing for such conventional portraits: Plath’s smile is hesitant, while Hughes looks grim, and reluctant to be there at all. The photos represent nothing about the relationship they had, and everything about putting on a show for the benefit of her mother’s friends. It’s in a very different style to Lettice Ramsey’s celebrated, intensely romantic double portrait of John Cornford and Rachel ‘Ray’ Peters in 1934.
Aurelia Plath must have sensed this uneasiness too, because it seems that copies of the wedding photos were never made up. The glass plates remained in Ramsey’s Cambridge studio until it closed in 1978 and the originals were sold on to Peter Lofts (a selection can be seen on Lofts’s website here.). In 2013 the Plath scholar Gail Crowther spotted one of the images online, and Lofts gave her permission to publish them in an article she wrote with Peter K. Steinberg about Plath’s archives.
When she describes how she discovered the photos, Crowther quotes the French philosopher Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida (1980) wrote:
When we define the photograph as a motionless image, this does not mean only that the figures it represents do not move; it means that they do not emerge, do not leave: they are anesthetized and fastened down, like butterflies.
It’s an apt description of how trapped and uneasy Plath and Hughes both look in this semi-official wedding portrait of 1956. “Photography,” Barthes states, “has something to do with resurrection.” Now this unloved, suppressed image has been resurrected for the cover design for the reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, and it speaks its truth through the book’s pages.
©Ann Kennedy Smith, 24 June 2020 (all rights reserved)
My thanks to Luke Bird and Lamorna Elmer of Granta Books, and to Di Beddow, Peter Lofts, Chris Murray and Gail Crowther. See also my following post, ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)’ about the photographer Lettice Ramsey and her extraordinary creative partnership with Helen Muspratt, and my TLS review of four books about Plath.
Di Beddow, ‘“That was our place.” – The Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’ (British Library blogpost, consulted 24 June 2020)
Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg, These Ghostly Archives: The unearthing of Sylvia Plath (Fonthill, 2017)
Sylvia Plath, Letters Home: Correspondence 1950-1963, selected and edited with commentary by Aurelia Schober Plath (Faber & Faber, 1975)
Sylvia Plath, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volumes 1 & 2, edited by Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (Faber & Faber, 2017 and 2018)