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)