Amy Levy’s Reuben Sachs (1888)

I’m delighted to be a guest this week on the excellent ‘Lost Ladies of Lit’ book podcast hosted by Kim Askew and Amy Helmes (follow the link here). It’s a podcast about books, creativity, the writing life, and forgotten classics by women writers: recently I enjoyed their episodes on Marjorie Hillis, Martha Gellhorn and the Irish novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford. Hungerford’s Molly Bawn (1878) mentioned in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) was a Victorian bestseller and adapted as a silent movie in 1916, but now is little known. There is lots more to discover on the Lost Ladies of Lit website here, and all episodes are available on Apple podcasts, or via the website.

Kim and Amy invited me to talk about Amy Levy’s novel Reuben Sachs (1888) which attracted controversy when it was first published. Levy aimed to emulate her heroes Daudet and Zola, and say something original about affluent Jewish culture in Victorian Britain. ‘Its uncompromising truths, its depth of feeling, and, above all, its absence of any single superfluous word, make it, in some sort, a classic,’ Oscar Wilde said. ‘To write thus at six-and-twenty is given to very few.’ But the novel was widely criticized (along with its dangerous ‘New Woman’ author) and after her death Levy’s novels were ‘forgotten’ – that is, quietly dropped from the canon, as many Victorian women writers were.

Today I have updated my blogpost about Levy’s friendship with her former Cambridge tutor, Ellen Wordsworth Darwin. Both women were uncompromising in their pursuit of truth, and both struggled with depression, which Darwin herself described as ‘the personal struggle for life and joy continually beaten back’.

© Ann Kennedy Smith, April 2021

For more about Reuben Sachs, see the recent Persephone Books reissue (details here), and posts on Elinor Fitzsimons’s ‘Beside Every Man’ blog here, and on Susie Thomas’s ‘London Fictions’ blog here.

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.

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 made a decision – at least for now – to live the life she wanted.

Once she had decided to be tell others about her marriage, the crisis was resolved quickly. Her Newnham tutor Dorothea Krook-Gilead turned out not to be the prudish Victorian that Plath had feared – she was warm and understanding – and the Fulbright Commission board was positively encouraging. The couple’s 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), and he found them a flat at 55 Eltisley Avenue, near Grantchester Meadows in Newnham village, where they would live together from December 1956.

With the marriage no longer a secret, Plath became 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: her briskly sensible tone could hardly be more different from how she wrote about her wedding almost six months previously.

Plath had made one concession to her mother: to have a set of studio photographs taken of herself and Hughes. “Thanks for the money,” she told Aurelia towards the end of November, “we’ll have a good picture taken this vacation, you may be sure”. With no grand English wedding to impress them with, at least there would be a set of commemorative photographs taken by the prestigious firm of Ramsey & Muspratt, run by Lettice Ramsey in Cambridge and Helen Muspratt in Oxford. Aurelia Plath was prepared to pay for the best.

But a few weeks later neither Plath nor Hughes were happy with the results. On 20 December 1956, Sylvia sent her mother a Christmas card along with a proof sheet of the photographs. ‘Well, here are enclosed a few of the best of the grisly proofs,’ she wrote.

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 “expensive crook” whom Plath was so cynical about – continued to run the Cambridge studio of Ramsey & Muspratt until 1978 (more about their partnership in my post ‘A Cambridge Photographer’ here). In the 1930s Ramsey & Muspratt’s groundbreaking and innovative photographs were famous, and sixty of their perceptive portraits of Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes and the Cambridge Spies among others are now held by the National Portrait Gallery.

But from the 1950s wedding photographs were Ramsey & Muspratt’s bread-and-butter work, as Muspratt confirmed. “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.” For poets Plath and Hughes, who longed to smash conventions, there was, perhaps, too great a gap between their wildly romantic Bloomsday wedding and the dutiful studio photographs they posed for six months later.

See The Wedding Photos, part 2, for more on why Plath and Hughes’s wedding photos were hidden away for over 50 years. The photograph above, taken by Cambridge photographer Lettice Ramsey in December 1956, features on the cover of the recent reissue of Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (Granta, 2020). My essay about it is 13 November 2020’s Times Literary Supplement, along with three other recent books about Sylvia Plath: follow link here.

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