The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 2)

Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, first published in 1993, is a brilliantly written, forensic investigation into 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. Although the original picture 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 blogpost is about the photograph. My next post (which follows shortly) will be about the photographer Lettice Ramsey and her extraordinary creative partnership with Helen Muspratt.

The photograph

Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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 invoice from the photographer Lettice Ramsey, with 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 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 that Lettice Ramsey took in 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.

©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 (any remaining errors are my own). See also my following post, ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985)’

SOURCES

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)


The wedding photos: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Lettice Ramsey (part 1)


Photograph of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Lettice Ramsey, © Peter Lofts Photography. Used with permission of Peter Lofts Photography. Not to be reproduced without permission.

A blogpost about the Bloomsday wedding of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1956, and the “official” wedding photos taken six months later by Lettice Ramsey, of the Cambridge and Oxford photographic studio ‘Ramsey & Muspratt’. Part 2 is about why these unloved portraits were hidden away for over 50 years. A related post about Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey will follow, with a full list of sources and acknowledgements.

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, fictional version of that academic year – advised closely by Aurelia – did not last past 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 ogre that she 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 after Plath’s term ended.

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.”

In Part 2 I say more about this “wedding” photograph of Plath and Hughes, and why it features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020).

©Ann Kennedy Smith 16 June 2020 (all rights reserved)

A revolutionary proposal

Churchill

In June 1958, plans were under way to build a new Cambridge college. It would be a memorial to Sir Winston Churchill, and promote teaching and research in science and technology. A campaigning group called the Women’s Freedom League wrote to Churchill directly with a proposal (“you may regard as revolutionary”) that he use his considerable influence to make it Cambridge’s first coeducational college. “You already know that great efforts are being made in all schools and colleges to increase the number of women scientists.” Churchill, 83, thought this sounded like a perfectly sensible suggestion. “I see no reason why women should not participate,” he told his friend, the civil servant Sir John Colville. But Colville, in charge of raising funds for the proposed college, was convinced that donors in British industry would withdraw their support if they heard that Churchill College was planning to admit female students. It would be, he told Churchill, “like dropping a hydrogen bomb in the middle of the University.”

Although women had finally won the right to Cambridge degrees in 1948, they were still very far from being represented equally at the University in the 1950s. Numbers were capped, and for every eleven males there was just one female student: Cambridge still had the lowest proportion of female undergraduates of any university in the UK. To help correct this, a third “foundation” for women students, originally called New Hall, was established in 1954, with just sixteen students in a house on Silver Street. In 1962 New Hall moved to its permanent home on Huntingdon Road, thanks to the generosity of Ida and Horace Darwin’s daughters, Ruth Rees Thomas and Nora Barlow who donated their former family home The Orchard and its grounds so that a college for 300 students could be built. The house had to be knocked down, and most of what Gwen Raverat described in Period Piece as Ida’s “poet’s garden” disappeared beneath the rubble, but it allowed this much-needed third college for women to come into existence, and Ida surely would have approved. The gardens of  Murray Edwards College (as it is now called) are still imaginative and beautiful.

MEC

Churchill’s 1958 letter to Colville (on loan from the Churchill Archives Centre) is just one of the many fascinating items on display in the new exhibition, “The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge” at the University Library, which uses letters, costumes and audio-visual material to tell the story of 150 years of women at Cambridge. Today, all the formerly male colleges are fully coeducational, and Churchill College’s website boasts that it was “in the vanguard of dramatically expanding female participation in Cambridge University” as the first college to vote to admit women in 1972 (the same year that King’s and Clare also became coeducational). In her excellent independent blog, the current Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald (the first woman to hold this post at Churchill College) asks “How many ‘Firsts’ does it take to change a system?’.  She makes the point that, although in 2019 there is gender equality across the University in terms of students, women still hold only 20% of the professorships. “I am pleased to be part of the advancement of women in Cambridge”, Donald writes. “I am not pleased it is still so far from complete. Everyone – most definitely including male leaders – have a part to play in making the progression speed up.” One positive recent development is that out of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, there are now 15 female Heads of House, including the new Master of Jesus College, Sonita Alleyne, the first person of colour to head any college in Oxford or Cambridge. Hers is one of the 27 luminous portraits currently on view in the University Library’s Royal Corridor.

The “Rising Tide” curators Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin plan to add more archival items over the six months of the exhibition, which they describe as “a work in progress” – much like women at Cambridge, in fact. Professor Athene Donald will be speaking at the event closing the exhibition in March 2020, and my own talk “A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914” is on 5 December 2019 (tickets are free, but you’ll need to book here). And if you are in Cambridge visiting “The Rising Tide”, do go to Murray Edwards College to see the outstanding paintings and sculptures on view there; one of the world’s largest and most significant collections of contemporary art by women.

‘Militant, cussed and determined’: Women at Cambridge

download copy‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ opens on 14 October 2019 at Cambridge University Library, and runs until March 2020. Curated by Dr Lucy Delap and Dr Ben Griffin, this free exhibition marks 150 years since women were first permitted to attend lectures at Cambridge University. As well as letters, portraits and petitions, fascinating objects on display at the UL will include a green Newnham College tennis dress (closely buttoned to the neck and wrists) as well as fragments of the eggshells and fireworks used in violent opposition to female students being awarded degrees in 1897.

To accompany the exhibition, there will be a wide range of events about the past, present and future of women at Cambridge. The curators are taking an inclusive and imaginative approach, telling the stories of different women who since 1869 have studied, taught, worked and lived in Cambridge, “from leading academics to extraordinary domestic staff and influential fellows’ wives” as the University’s website puts it. This includes the struggles of,  in Lucy Delap’s words,“militant, cussed and determined” women, who fought for gender equality in the University, as well as the way in which female students and other women joined forces to share knowledge and bring about change in wider society.

This is the subject of my forthcoming talk ‘A club of their own: Cambridge women’s societies and associations 1883-1914’ which takes place on Thursday 5 December 2019, 5.30pm- 6.30pm at the Cambridge University Library (admission free, booking required). It’s about some of the women-led groups that sprang up in the 1880s and 1890s and gave female students, lecturers and townswomen the opportunity to meet, debate issues of the day, learn about professional careers and forge important networks. These groups were, perhaps uniquely for the time, genuinely “town and gown” in their structure. The largest association was the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society, formed at Newnham College on 17 March 1886 “to bring together ladies who are interested in the discussion of social questions… hearing papers read and discussing subjects arising”.

Originally connected to the (all-male) University Society for the Discussion of Social Questions (USDSQ), the Cambridge Ladies’ Discussion Society (CLDS) later became an independent women’s association but kept in step with the University’s terms and organisational principles. Newnham and Girton students were encouraged to join, with a reduced membership fee, and were among the large numbers who attended talks by a range of speakers including Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (pictured above) on ‘The medical professon for women’ and Beatrice Webb on ‘The expediency of regulating the conditions of women’s work’. Active founder-members of the CLDS included Kathleen Lyttelton, Louise Creighton and Eleanor Sidgwick. Together these friends would form a much smaller discussion group, the Ladies’ Dining Society in 1890. In 1913 the CLDS amalgamated with the National Union of Women Workers, and in 1918 became known as the National Council of Women (NCW), which is still active today.

Despite the difficulties and delays in obtaining full membership of the University (degrees were not awarded until 1948), active and determined Cambridge women have always worked together, helping to create the University that exists today. It is worth remembering that their work, like that of the male dons and students, was enabled by an army of (mostly female) domestic staff, and it is right that ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ recognizes their contribution. I will also be discussing the Cambridge Association for the Care of Girls founded by Ida Darwin and Kathleen Lyttelton in 1883, which aimed to help local girls by giving them training opportunities as domestic servants.

Ann Kennedy Smith, 29 September 2019

The full programme of ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ will be available soon, and I will post a link and booking details here when it does.

‘My Past Is a Foreign Country’ review

downloadMy Past Is a Foreign Country by Zeba Talkhani (Sceptre, 2019): a moving and compassionate memoir with an emphasis on a daughter’s difficult relationship with her mother. One of a series of my occasional reviews of recent biographies and memoirs with Cambridge connections.

As a young girl growing up in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, Zeba Talkhani was fascinated by her elegant, rather mysterious mother. “I was obsessed by Mama’s every move and watched her like a hawk,” she recalls. As a result, her mother became ever more secretive around her small child, warning friends of her daughter’s ‘antenna’ and speaking to Talkhani’s father in a language from their native south-west India. But somehow their bright, curious daughter was always able to understand them.

Talkhani’s father worked for a large company in Jeddah and spent much of his time travelling. Living so far from their Indian relatives meant connections to their fellow expatriates were important. Large weekend gatherings were the norm, and it was her mother’s job to provide a generous array of food for twenty or more families. “Looking back, it feels as though Mama spent her twenties and thirties cooking for people she did not know,” Talkhani recalls. On one occasion she witnessed a kitchen accident and her mother “wailing and withering” in pain from her bloody injury. A few hours later, ‘Mama’ seemed a different woman: beautifully dressed, smiling graciously and presiding over the party as if nothing had happened. “It was the first of many times that I was in absolute awe of her ability to perform the role that society had forced upon her,” Talkhani observes. “I still feel a sharp sting when I ask myself why the party was not cancelled that day.”

Keeping up appearances was important to her mother, and there were countless unspoken tensions living under Saudi Arabia’s patriarchal laws. Both at home and at school Talkhani was taught that “bad things happen to girls who are not “good Muslims”‘. As she grew into a teenager and questioned why women were treated as they were, she was often scolded by her mother, whose natural protectiveness often shaded into bitter reproach. “I felt that Mama held my joyful hope against me,” Talkhani writes. “I wanted a mother who could see me for who I was and not worry about how I would be perceived by our society”. Their relationship became more strained when, at the age of fourteen, Talkhani began to suffer from hair loss, and her mother feared this would mean the end of her daughter’s marriage prospects.

The memoir charts Talkhani’s progress into adulthood as she moves away from the family home and the restrictions of this society. She began her studies at Manipal University in southern India, where she found greater freedom and awareness of wider political issues. Under Saudi Arabia’s strict censorship laws of the 1990s and 2000s she had no access to modern culture, and an extremely limited overview of history: she had never heard of the Holocaust or the impact of slavery in America. (In this, her book is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, another excellent recent memoir with a Cambridge connection.) Talkhani’s university education involved more than attending classes and reading set texts. She became absorbed in magazines, going to the cinema, watching popular American TV series and discussing ideas with friends. But it was the university’s well stocked library that made her see the world, and herself, through fresh eyes. “I realised that I did not subscribe to the tyrannical, homophobic and misogynist Islam I was exposed to in my early years,” she notes. “I was only just embarking on my feminist journey and I was keen to marry Islam with it.”

A central part of Talkhani’s feminist education was understanding why her mother behaved in the way that she did. In Manipal, reading Sylvia Plath for the first time helped her to understand “the conflicted reality” of motherhood: “I saw my mother in her words.” She studied in Germany, then in 2012 followed in Plath’s footsteps to Cambridge, where she began studying for an MA in Publishing at Anglia Ruskin University, the “tiny university on the wrong side of Parker’s Piece” as she puts it. Although at first it seemed a cosmopolitan city, it soon became apparent that her fellow students struggled with the idea that she could be both Muslim and feminist. With her mother increasingly fretting about her marriageability, where did she fit in? Then, in a Cambridge café one day, Talkhani overheard an older woman resembling “a ghost from my future” blaming all her failures in life on her mother. At the age of twenty-three she decided that she must take control of her own life.

This original and insightful memoir is a testament to a young writer’s experiences of gaining a meaningful education for herself in very different places. It is beautifully paced, with a touching freshness and honesty that makes you want to keep reading. Like the inquisitive child she once was, Talkhani is able to tune into things that are both said and unsaid around her, and as she grows up, gradually works out her own story. Her growing self-awareness brings her closer to her mother, and the two women begin to trust one another: “It felt like we were fighting our demons together.”

© Ann Kennedy Smith, 26 August 2019, all rights reserved