‘She was like her mother, as the image in a pool on a still summer’s day is like the vivid flushed face that hangs over it.’ (Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out, 1915)
A summer blogpost about a handful of news and events that I hope will be of interest.
1. Literature events: On 15 August Literature Cambridge is running an online study session, taught by Alison Hennegan, exploring Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. There will be insights into ‘the struggles of one young woman to attain self-knowledge, independence of thought and action’ in Woolf’s depiction of Rachel Vinrace. The novel also introduces the first glimpse of Clarissa Dalloway, who would become the subject of Mrs Dalloway ten years later. (“I’d give ten years of my life to know Greek,” she thinks, wishing women had access to the classics in the way that Cambridge male students had). You can read more about Literature Cambridge’s 2020-21 ‘Virginia Woolf Season’, based on her twelve major books, here.
2. TV: Mrs America is a new nine-part historical drama series currently being shown on BBC2 (available on BBC iplayer). It tells the story of the 1970s campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment across different American states, and highlights the personal and political clashes between the leading ‘second-wave’ feminists (who include Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan) and the conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly. In a recent article in the L.A. Times Steinem criticizes Mrs Americafor paying too much attention to her right-wing adversary Schafly (played with great aplomb by Cate Blanchett), and concludes ‘“Mrs. America” has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.’ However, the drama’s depiction of the politician Shirley Chisholm (played by Uzo Aduba) has been widely praised; she was the first black woman to become elected to Congress and the first black person to run for US president. Mrs America is a thoroughly engaging series, and I found it interesting to compare the different points of view on the women’s cause in the 1970s with Ray Strachey’s 1908 transatlantic trip as an idealistic young British suffragist encountering American feminists for the first time (she was more forceful than they were).
3. Book news: Earlier this month it was announced that, because of Covid-19, The Guardian will cut 180 jobs and lose its Saturday supplements, (Weekend, Review, The Guide, and Travel sections). This has caused dismay among many readers, and a group of editors and journalists who contribute to the supplements have pointed out that ‘Saturday is by far the biggest day of the week for print sales of the Guardian, with a circulation 130% higher than on weekdays.’ It does seem a shame if everything moves online. I was thrilled when my first book review for The Guardian appeared in the print edition of the Saturday Review in April (and online here), so I very much hope the supplements continue into the next decade .
4. Reading recommendations: (nonfiction) Mark Honigsbaum’s overview of a hundred years of epidemic outbreaks, The Pandemic Century (WH Allen) is an excellent and timely book. (I quoted his article in my post on Francis Jenkinson and the ‘Russian’ flu pandemic of the 1890s here.) First published just over a year ago in April 2019, Honigsbaum wrote in the hardback’s epilogue ‘the only thing that is certain is that there will be new plagues and new pandemics. It is not a question of if, but when.’ For the paperback edition he has updated the book with a new epilogue and an extra chapter, ‘Disease X’, bringing us up to date with the ongoing situation. The book’s subtitle has been changed to ‘A History of Global Contagion from the Spanish Flu to Covid-19’.
(Fiction) As a break from the worrying news cycle, and perfect summer holiday reading, I recommend Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. It’s an alternative history that answers several ‘what-if’ questions: what if Hillary Clinton hadn’t married Bill, and what if she had beaten Trump to the presidency?The Guardian’s Emma Brockes described it as ‘a kind of revenge fantasy for women whosublimate their own ambitions for the sake of their husband’s careers’. It’s the perfect foil to the 1970s world that is depicted so skilfully in Mrs America, and a great beach read.
5. Cambridge culture: For a good excuse to go out, it’s very good news that Kettle’s Yard and the Fitzwilliam Museum are re-opening in August, as are several Cambridge libraries, including Milton Road Library. I recently wrote about the ‘hidden’ wedding photographs that Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey took of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, so I’m looking forward to an online talk on 5 August called ‘That was our place: the Cambridge of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’. It’s by local scholar Di Beddow, and organized by the Friends of Milton Road Library. You can book a free ticket here.
I hope you are enjoying safe summer days whether you are voyaging out, or staying safely at home.
In October 1908 two young English suffragists fresh out of Newnham College Cambridge travelled across America by train to try to galvanize support for the women’s vote. Few people shared their enthusiasm, but they found an unlikely ally in the philosopher and psychologist William James.
Ray Strachey (née Costelloe) later became one of the most influential figures in the fight for British women’s suffrage and employment rights in the first half of the twentieth century, and now a biography by Jennifer Holmes, A Working Woman: the Remarkable Life of Ray Strachey(Troubadour, 2019), traces her extraordinary journey.
Ray Strachey (she was officially named Rachel, but always known as Ray) was born in London in 1887, the first child of Frank Costelloe, an ambitious Irish barrister-journalist, and Mary Pearsall Smith, a Quaker from Philadelphia. Mary’s evangelical parents moved to England soon after their daughter’s marriage, which they never approved of. Ray’s sister Karin was born two years later, but the Costelloes’ marriage was unhappy, and Mary wanted to pursue her studies in art. She moved to Italy to live with, and later marry, the art historian Bernard Berenson.
Ray and Karin were brought up by their father Frank, who had ambitions to become a Liberal MP but died of cancer when Ray was twelve. Their Quaker grandmother Hannah Whitall Smith took over the girls’ care, along with their aunt Alys, who had married Bertrand Russell in 1894 (see NPG photo here). ‘Uncle Bertrand’ gave the teenage Ray weekly tutorials, which was a ‘terrifying, but elucidating’ experience, she recalled. But with his help, she passed the Cambridge entrance examination and began her studies in mathematics at Newnham College in 1905.
Her friend and fellow Newnham student Ellie Rendel, the granddaughter of suffrage pioneer Lady Strachey, introduced her to the campaign to obtain the vote for British women. Ellie and Ray became ‘suffrage mad’, holding suffrage meetings and founding the Newnham’s first suffrage society. By 1908 three-quarters of the college had joined it, and their group merged with its counterpart at Girton College to become the Cambridge University Women’s Society for Women’s Suffrage. Instead of studying for their final examinations, Ray and Ellie spent hours stuffing envelopes and writing letters to former students, appealing for funds for the suffrage cause. Ray scraped through her exams and was placed last in the Newnham contingent that year, but she didn’t mind too much: ‘knowledge isn’t the only point of education’, she felt.
On 13 June 1908 Ray and Ellie rounded up 300 university supporters and proceeded through London carrying a pale blue silk banner designed by Mary Lowndes and hand-sewn by Newnham and Girton women with daisies and irises and the motto ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’. (This beautiful banner has been carefully preserved by Newnham College, where it is kept in a wooden case that is only opened on special occasions) There were several suffrage gatherings in London that summer, including a national ‘Women’s Day’ on 21 June, when a third of a million people packed into Hyde Park for a demonstration organized by the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), the increasingly militant organization led by the Pankhursts. ‘We were in a howling mob of hooligans, & it was great fun’ Ray wrote. She almost ‘lost her heart’ to the suffragettes (‘so repulsive as well as so fine!’), but followed her head and stayed loyal to Millicent Garrett Fawcett and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), who believed in peaceful, constitutional campaigning.
That July Ray and Ellie joined three other women and spent a month touring Britain in a horse-drawn caravan promoting ‘the cause’. They sold badges, distributed literature, wrote and delivered speeches, shopped, cooked and camped out in farmers’ fields. They encountered persistent rain in the Lake District, intense heat in Scotland and occasionally outright hostility, and local newspaper reporters were intrigued by the young women’s dedication to the suffragist cause. Ray’s speaking style captivated her listeners, including her aunt Alys Russell, who attended their final meeting in Oxford that summer. She described her niece as wearing ‘a butcher’s apron which she had borrowed to hide her torn and filthy dress, with bare sunburnt arms and a battered straw hat on the back of her head’. People were inclined to laugh at Ray’s appearance, Alys observed, ‘but she spoke so well, developing her theme with such clear logic, lightening her enthusiasm with so much humour, that she ended amidst hearty cheers from the crowd.’
Ray’s mother, Mary Berenson, now an established art expert, was less impressed. She longed for her daughter to embrace culture, not politics, and decided that she should spend a year at the prestigious Bryn Mawr women’s college near Philadelphia. Ellie Rendel won a scholarship and accompanied her friend to America, where they found an ally in Bryn Mawr’s President M. Carey Thomas, who was keen to promote the suffrage cause among American college women.
Carey Thomas took Ray and Ellie along with her to a suffrage convention in New York, where Ray’s speech about English suffragism so impressed Rev. Dr Anna Howard Shaw, the President of the National American Women Suffrage Association, that she immediately invited the two young women to accompany her to Colorado, one of the few states that had given women the vote. Morale was low in the American women’s movement and Shaw was convinced that a fresh approach was needed. Ray and Ellie would help her to ‘preach the cause’ in the states they passed through on the way there and back, including Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky.
At first it was an exciting adventure, and in her article for the Denver Daily News, Strachey described how wonderful it was to see women voting: ‘To us women who are struggling so hard on the right of suffrage, and who are willing to go to prison for our convictions, it seems marvellous that the Colorado women can take their voting for granted as much as they accept their right to go on a shopping trip or attend a musicale.’ But the truth was that, although their speeches went down well, the more of America she saw, the more despondent Strachey became about the point of promoting suffrage. ‘They are not awake enough here’, she told her grandmother, ‘all the meetings are drawing-room ones, and consist of the converted.’
A subdued Strachey and Rendel returned to their studies at Bryn Mawr in 1909, where their speeches to their fellow students were met with a lukewarm reception: ‘here was another subject to be learnt, another field of exploration to explore’. Then, on a trip to Boston in February 1909, they met 67-year-old William James. The subject of women’s suffrage came up, and was discussed in the familiar drawing-room manner, when suddenly the distinguished philosopher ‘burst out’ with a speech that Ray described in a letter to her family.
“How you must despise us all”, he said, “you two, who come all burning & snapping with your cause – with the whole thing rushing through you like electricity – & you find us everywhere – dull, uninterested, unenthusiastic, superficial, scoffing & frivolous about it – just a great lump of unenlightened and commonplace humanity who won’t take this serious thing seriously”
He told them he was going to sign their petition “just for your sake… just to let you know that your enthusiasm does not meet with no response.”
Ray wrote that she could have kissed William James for his kindness. There was a long way to go before women achieved equal suffrage, but as Jennifer Holmes writes, Ray Strachey’s youthful American journey allowed her ‘to observe a suffrage movement from the outside, to hone the speaking skills which a suffrage activist needed, and to refine her ideas of what she wanted to do with her life.’
After marrying into the congenial Strachey family Ray thought she might be content with marriage and motherhood, but by 1913 she was back in the suffrage fray, giving a speech where she was pelted with mud and insults by the crowd. She described the experience as ‘very exciting, but nasty & dirty, & all due to mismanagement’ and so she threw herself into organizing the NUWSS’s wartime campaign, as well as placing women in war work ‘& trying to see that they don’t ruin the whole labour market by taking low wages’.
‘If we get the vote now,’ her aunt Alys Russell wrote in 1918, ‘it will be entirely due to her, because even Mrs Fawcett can’t do much without Ray’s driving energy.’ Among her many achievements, Strachey was responsible for the removal of the iron grille in front of the Ladies’ Gallery in the House of Commons, co-founded the Society of Woman Welders, wrote a history of the women’s movement called The Cause (1928), and her photograph appears on the plinth of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Garrett Fawcett in Parliament Square. A Working Woman is an illuminating, extensively researched and well written biography, that is a fitting testament to Ray Strachey’s contribution to the fight for a more equal society.
A young woman wearing a red blouse leans against a balcony railing. Her head is tilted and her brown eyes are pensive, and there’s something resolute about her expression. In the background is a landscape that has become familiar to viewers of this year’s BBC drama series Normal People: the light-filled west of Ireland coastline. As a small child Lettice Ramsey’s English parents moved to Rosses Point estuary in County Sligo where her father Cecil managed an oyster farm. When he died suddenly, her mother Frances Baker took her two young daughters a few miles south to live in the village of Ballysadare (pictured here). She had trained at the Slade School of Fine Art, and her paintings were displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of seventeen-year old Lettice in 1915 (which can be seen on Art UK’s website here), when she was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire. The painting suggests Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed.
Last year this beautiful portrait was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its “Rising Tide” exhibition https://www.cam.ac.uk/TheRisingTide. The determined-looking girl in the painting went on to study moral sciences at Newnham College in Cambridge from 1918 until 1921, and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.
Yet it’s probably fair to say that Lettice Ramsey is still better known for her husband than for her contribution to photography. Frank Ramsey was the brilliant mathematician, philosopher and economist who, as an eighteen-year-old student at King’s College Cambridge, helped to translate Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus into English in 1921. Lettice Baker was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920. It was at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where Lettice was Treasurer and Frank gazed at her, too shy to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”
They began a love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the University’s Psychological Laboratory. They married in August 1925, had two daughters and a relationship that was happy if unconventional (neither believed that love meant exclusivity, and Lettice thought jealousy about sexual matters was reprehensible). Tragically, Frank died of liver disease in 1930, aged just twenty-seven. Cheryl Misak, the author of a new biography Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers(OUP 2020) is convinced that he caught Weil’s disease while swimming in the River Cam in what was an unusually warm October. (There’s an excellent discussion about Frank Ramsey in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari – with a recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through. )
In 1932, Lettice Ramsey’s lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. There Ramsey took informal photographs of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a snap of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (this photograph appears in Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury). The National Portrait Gallery in London has several of these portraits, and in 2012 ran an exhibition called ‘The Bloomsbury Poet and the Cambridge Photographer: Julian Bell and Lettice Ramsey”.
The fact that her mother Frances Baker was able to earn a living through her painting may have contributed to Ramsey’s own conviction that she too could support her young family by combining her artistic and business skills. On a summer holiday in Dorset with her two daughters in 1932, she met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing encounter for them both. In her excellent book Face: Shape and Angle (2016), Helen Muspratt’s daughter Jessica Sutcliffe describes how Ramsey, almost on the spur of the moment, asked Muspratt to join her on a new venture. The photographic studio of “Ramsey & Muspratt” (note the ampersand) opened on St Andrews Street in Cambridge later that year. The owner of their main professional rival, Palmer Clark (the town’s photographer since 1867) predicted that “those two ladies won’t last six months.” But “Ramsey & Muspratt” was so successful that after a couple of years Lettice and Helen bought Palmer Clark’s studio on Post Office Terrace for £600.[i]
The two women turned what was little more than a collection of old sheds in an overgrown yard into a purpose-built studio and shop, while the outhouse were using for developing and printing. Lettice asked her friend Wittgenstein for advice on painting the studio’s woodwork, as he had helped to design his sister’s house in Vienna in 1925. “If it is good paint it white,” he told her. “If it is bad paint it black.” Ramsey and Muspratt’s studio became a stylishly modern space. In 1937 a student journalist in Cambridge’s Granta magazine said it was “like one of René Claire amid Paris rooftops” which reflected Lettice Ramsey’s personal style. “Hers is the photography of originality… She does not need the old-fashioned curtained room, heavy arc lamps and elaborate watch-for-the-dickybird camera.” [ii] There is a rare photograph, probably by Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.
Lettice and Helen worked as an equal partnership, and as Granta wrote, “They prefer to take people naturally” taking turns to work in the studio and the darkroom. They always signed their portraits democratically as “Ramsey & Muspratt” even after Helen Muspratt opened a separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of the period. Throughout the 1930s many of the undergraduates photographed by Ramsey and Muspratt in Cambridge and Oxford would become very well known: Dorothy Hodgkin who in 1964 won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (still the only British woman scientist to be awarded a Nobel) and Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who would later become infamous as Soviet spies. In 1932 Lettice Ramsey photographed the ‘Apostles‘, including Sir Anthony Blunt. “All intellectuals in Cambridge were Communists at the time”, Ramsey recalled. “We had great hopes, but then were gradually let down.”[iii]
Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine. In 1936 the editor praised the duo for not following the lucrative route of becoming London society photographers: “Though they are too modest to claim it for themselves, Ramsey & Muspratt hold an important place in photography. For they are forcing the new idea, the modern spirit to the fore… Miss Ramsey will tell you “We are fortunate in having Cambridge as a field, as we get a lot of young people to photograph: undergraduates, who like experimenting in light and treatment.”[iv]
Helen Muspratt and Lettice Ramsey had a close friendship that lasted a lifetime, across two university cities, that continued long after their professional association ended in 1947. After Muspratt married and settled in Oxford, she like Lettice was her family’s main breadwinner, so after the war their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography. This might explain why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes so disliked their 1956 “official” wedding photos taken by Ramsey, which Plath complained resembled “passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting” (see my previous blog post here.)
In the 1960s Lettice Ramsey often returned to the west of Ireland, where this photograph was taken (a rare appearance – she was usually behind the camera, her grandson Stephen Burch recalls). “We had a number of family holidays there in the 1960s, the first of which in 1963 marked the start of my interest in birding” Burch writes. A selection of Ramsey & Muspratt portraits and family photographs, along with other information, features on his website here.
In 1969, at the age of 71, Lettice Ramsey took her camera to Phnom Penn and Siem Reap, unconcerned about the threat of war in Cambodia. When she was forbidden to enter the country as a professional photographer, she obtained another passport in which she described herself as “housewife” and coolly carried on taking photographs (“I took hundreds,” she told friends). A year later she climbed the scaffolding on King’s College Chapel to photograph the stained glass windows, and was unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight. She reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, Burch told me, but the next owner was not successful. He sold the studio and extensive archive to Peter Lofts who owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs.
That year, the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times article called ‘The Photographers of Golden Youth’ by Francis Wyndham. This was the first time since the 1930s that their work had been recognized in the national media, and the Sunday Times magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.
Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers. Their photographs featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986, and Helen Muspratt’s work was highlighted in a major exhibition at the Bradford Museum of Film and Photography, reassessing the work of 20th-century female photographers, which toured the country for two years. In 2015 the portrait photographer Jane Bown went to Dorset to take Muspratt’s photograph for the Observer. It was a shame, as Jessica Sutcliffe writes, that Lettice was not around to enjoy the excitement. “She, of all people, would have enjoyed the attention, appreciation, and, most of all, the accompanying parties”.
SOURCES: My warm thanks toStephen Burch, Laura Dennis, Maggie Humm, Peter Lofts, Sara Rawlinson and Polly Saltmarsh. Thanks also to my helpful Twitter contacts in tracking down Lettice Ramsey information: Paul Bird @singleaspect; Dr Barbara @adoptanovel; and Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.
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.” His design conjures up what he describes as “a sense of dissonance, unravelling, the silent” in the lives of Plath and Hughes. The portrait is a fitting image for Janet Malcolm’s book that takes as its subject the bitter aftermath of Plath’s suicide in 1963, and the “dubious, unauthentic, suspect” ways that biographers have told her 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 what the couple thought of them.
On a mild winter’s day in early December 1956, six months after they had married, 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 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 would have 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. Sylvia’s mother 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 Aurelia. Less welcome for the couple was an expensive invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, of the photographic studio Ramsey & Muspratt which was based in Cambridge and Oxford. She 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 (which I wrote about in my previous post). 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.
Tell me which one or two numbers, if any, you want made up — it’s part of the sitting price, four pictures, so you might as well have something while waiting for the rest if we can get a good one… [Unless] you want one with hands, I should think we could have the knotted monstrosities cut off & the picture shortened to head & shoulders.
Even without the offending ‘monstrous’ hands, there is a rather strained and artificial atmosphere about most of these photos. (A selection can be seen on Peter Lofts’ website here.) It was disappointing after all the effort they had gone to, not to mention the expense, but Plath promised her mother that they would have a better portrait taken soon.
In the black and white – and grey – 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 a conventional portrait, presumably taken at Aurelia Plath’s request. Plath’s smile is hesitant, while Hughes looks grim, and reluctant to be there at all. The photo represented nothing about the relationship they had, and everything about putting on a show for the benefit of American 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.
When Sylvia sent the proofs to her mother, she tried to sound cheerful about the prospect of wedding presents, but wrote “I shudder to think of items like pots & pans, sheets, towels, blankets & silver ware”. Both Plath and Hughes knew that how they lived and worked from then on would be the business of those who had paid for their pots and pans.
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 Lettice Ramsey’s Cambridge studio until it closed in 1978 and the originals were sold on to Peter Lofts. In 2013 the Plath scholar Gail Crowther spotted one of the images online, and contacted the studio’s current owner, Peter Lofts, for 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 – but prescient – image has been resurrected in Luke Bird’s design for Granta Books, and speaks through the pages of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman.
My thanks to Luke Bird and Lamorna Elmer of Granta Books, and to Di Beddow, Peter Lofts, Chris Murray and Gail Crowther (any remaining errors are my own). 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.
It poured with rain on 16 June 1956, the day that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes got married at St George’s Holborn in London. Plath and Hughes chose Bloomsday to honour the date that James Joyce first walked out with Nora Barnacle in 1904, and later set his novel Ulysses (1922). For Plath, even the damp weather increased the romantic literary associations that made her wedding so wonderful. She describes “standing with the rain pouring outside in that dim little church saying the most beautiful words in the world as our vows, with the curate as second witness and the dear Reverend, an old, bright-eyed man (who lives right opposite Charles Dickens’ house!) kissing my cheek, and the tears falling down from my eyes like rain – I was so happy with my dear, lovely Ted.”
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had first met in Cambridge just four months before, at a party to celebrate the first issue of the student literary journal St. Botolph’s Review. Plath was a second-year student on a Fulbright scholarship at Newnham College while Hughes, a former Pembroke student, was doing various jobs in London to make ends meet while trying to get his poems published. They had discussed moving to America together and getting university teaching jobs after she finished her degree, but getting married before then was out of the question.
Everything changed within hours of Plath’s mother Aurelia arriving in England on 13 June 1956. Over supper it was decided: the wedding would take place while she was in London. During the next two days Plath and Hughes got a special (expensive) licence (“from the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less”, as she told her brother Warren) and dashed around the shops with Aurelia to buy gold rings and new shoes and trousers for Hughes. There was no time to try on wedding dresses, and very little money left over, but fortunately Aurelia had packed in her suitcase exactly the right thing: “a lovely pink knitted suit dress”, which “intuitively” she had never worn herself, Sylvia told Warren. So that was what she wore on her wedding day, with “a pink hair ribbon and a pink rose from Ted”, while he, over his smart new clothes, wore his battered old black corduroy jacket.
“Our only sorrow was that you weren’t there,” she told her brother two days later. Her letter brims with with such happiness and excitement, it’s hard to believe she felt any sorrow at all. But their marriage was “a huge and miraculous secret”, she warned him. No one outside the family must know about it. She and Ted were both “poverty-stricken” and worried that, if word got out, she might lose her funding and earn the disapproval of Newnham (“the Victorian virgins wouldn’t see how I could concentrate on my studies with being married to such a handsome virile man, the Fulbright, etc., etc.”). So they planned to live apart until June 1957, when they would have another wedding at the Plath family’s Unitarian Church in Wellesley, followed by “a huge reception for all our friends and relations who will be informed this fall that Ted and I are engaged”.
But their carefully planned, deceptive version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last beyond October 1956. Plath and Hughes felt miserable about not being able to live together, and decided that they would take the risk of telling the authorities that they were married. Writing from Cambridge to her mother in Wellesley, Plath skitters between hesitancy and resolution. One day she suggests that her mother could tell friends and relations in America “Ted got a job in London and we felt it ridiculous not to get married here and now” and appeals for guidance: “Do help me through this with advice and opinions.” The following day she tells Aurelia firmly: “We are married and it is impossible for either of us to be whole or healthy apart”.
External events in October 1956 might have helped to Plath to resolve what she called her “private crisis” without her mother’s assistance. On 1 November she wrote to Aurelia about “the huge crisis aroused by Britain’s incredible and insane bombing of Egypt”. Reading in The Guardian about the conflict over the Suez Canal made Plath boil with anger. “The British arrogance – that old, smug, commercial colonialism – alive still among the Tories, seems inexcusable to me.” Rather than following a carefully choreographed pattern to please her mother and her friends, Plath decided to live the life she wanted.
Once she was honest about her marriage, the crisis was resolved quickly. Her college tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish Victorian that Plath had feared, and the Fulbright Commission were positively encouraging. Plath and Hughes’ money worries eased slightly when Hughes got a job teaching at a boys’ school in Cambridge (Coleridge Secondary Modern School for Boys on Radegund Road, which later combined with the girls’ school to become Coleridge Community College). He found a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together from December.
With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath becomes matter-of-fact with her mother about practical arrangements. “Item: Do write “married recently” in our marriage announcement and say after December 7 ‘the couple will be at home at 55 Eltisley Avenue, Cambridge, England.’ I’d rather not even have a politic untruth in print about the date.” She discusses where wedding gifts “of a bulky or house-furnishing nature” can be sent. The sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she felt on Bloomsday, almost six months previously. “Thanks for the money,” she tells Aurelia briskly towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”.
Plath was pleasing her mother by having a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Ted Hughes, so that Aurelia would have something to show her friends. There would be no grand wedding reception to impress them with, but at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious English firm of Ramsey & Muspratt. Aurelia Plath had paid for the best, but that did not mean that Plath or Hughes would be happy about them.
On 20 December 1956, Plath sent her mother a Christmas card along with samples of the photographs.
Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs; Ted and I really don’t like them, considering ourselves much more beautiful — these are more like passport shots without imagination or sensitive lighting; in fact Ted hates them all. But I am sending them on to you until we have something better done, which we will do soon — this lady was an expensive crook.
Lettice Ramsey – the woman that Plath described as “an expensive crook” – ran the Cambridge studio of the successful photographic partnership ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’ from 1932 until 1978. Her professional partner Helen Muspratt worked from their Oxford studio. Sixty of their relaxed and perceptive portraits dating mainly from the 1930s and 1940s, including of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Circle, are in the National Portrait Gallery (see the NPG collection here). Helen Muspratt, famous for her experimental solarisation techniques, once said that for all their celebrated portraits, weddings were Ramsey & Muspratt’s bread-and-butter work.
“I had a rule: four minutes by the church clock,” she said. “Wedding photos are easily spoiled by keeping the couple posing far too long.”
This photo features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020): Part 2 of this blogpost investigates why it was hidden away for over 50 years. A related post about Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramseywill follow, with a full list of sources and acknowledgements.