I’m delighted that Frances Baker’s beautiful 1915 painting of her daughter Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) features in Newnham College’s current ‘Newnham portraits’ online exhibition to mark the college’s 150 year celebrations. As I wrote in my blogpost ‘Woman with a camera: Lettice Ramsey (1898-1985) last year, ‘the determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s.’
Along with her photographic partner Helen Muspratt (1907-2001), Ramsey was indeed one of the leading women photographers not just of the 1930s, but of the twentieth century. The women’s creative partnership began when they opened their first studio in Cambridge in 1932, and their business expanded to Oxford after Muspratt married and opened a studio there in 1937. My own interest in Lettice, and the Ramsey & Muspratt business, was sparked by seeing their luminous portrait of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who gained her PhD at Cambridge before taking up an academic appointment at Oxford. Ramsey & Muspratt’s portrait was displayed side by side with Frances Baker’s 1915 painting of Lettice Ramsey in the Cambridge University Library as part of their ‘The Rising Tide: Women at Cambridge’ exhibition of 2019-20.
Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries are to be congratulated in recently securing Helen Muspratt’s photographic archive, and last year put on an exhibition of her work. As Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden says, by doing this they have ‘put a flag in the sand’, to say that the history of photography, and the history of the city of Oxford, needs to take Muspratt seriously as a photographer.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Lettice Ramsey’s early contribution to their professional partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt, is downplayed in the Oxford exhibition: in the video on the Bodleian’s website, Ramsey is described as a sociable Cambridge widow ‘who needed something to do’ rather than a creative artist with a work ethic and brilliance that matched Muspratt’s. Oxford’s understandable wish to claim Muspratt as one of their own overlooks the studio and developing room work that the women did collaboratively in Cambridge in the 1930s and 1940s before they continued their work separately in both university cities from the 1940s onwards.
After all, it’s impossible to say which of the two photographers took their acclaimed solarised photographs, as well as the aforementioned portrait of Nobel prizewinner Hodgkin (see below), because all of their portraits of the time were signed democratically as Ramsey & Muspratt. Both women considered their work in the darkroom to be as important a part of their artistic process as what they did behind the camera; and both women should be equally acknowledged as the groundbreaking photographers and creative partnership that they were.
In 1987 Ramsey’s daughter Jane Burch donated many Ramsey & Muspratt portraits to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and in 2012 the gallery put on an exhibition about Ramsey’s friendship with Julian Bell. But Lettice Ramsey deserves to be be celebrated not just for her associations with the Bloomsbury Group, but in her own right as a pioneering Cambridge photographer. Her portraits of Virginia Woolf, the ‘Cambridge Spies’ and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are reproduced all over the world, yet she herself remains comparatively unknown.
The original glass plates and prints that Ramsey stored in her Post Office Terrace studio remain in private ownership, and their future is uncertain. It would be wonderful if Cambridge’s University Library followed in the footsteps of the Bodleian and secured this unique archive for the nation, as it did with the Stephen Hawking archive recently. Then the great twentieth-century photographer Lettice Ramsey might at last be given the recognition – and the Cambridge exhibition – that she deserves.
The second of my occasional blogposts focusing on book news, reviews and literary events.
Mental health This September marks 100 years since the Tavistock Clinic first opened its doors in London (now part of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust). It was founded by Dr Hugh Crichton-Miller, who wanted ordinary civilians to have access to the pioneering ‘talking therapies’ that had been used so successfully to treat shell-shocked soldiers during World War One. In Cambridge a similar clinic was already treating voluntary outpatients at the old Addenbrooke’s Hospital. It was founded by ‘Ladies Dining Society’ member Ida Darwin, with the support of C.S. Myers and W.H.R. Rivers. Dr Helen Boyle had been providing free counselling to women and children in Brighton since 1905. You can read more about these mental health pioneers in my article ‘The Lessons of Shell Shock’ which appears in the new issue of History Today.
2. Book news: This week, on 3 September, over 600 books will be published on a single day, the first of several waves of new books appearing in October and November. The Covid-19 crisis has meant that many of the larger publishers delayed publication of their ‘big name’ authors until the autumn. Smaller publishers are worried that their authors will be overlooked, because they don’t have the money to fund publicity campaigns and host book launches. The former Booker judge Alex Clark has written about this autumn’s ‘bookalanche’. One of the books I am looking forward to reading is Richard Ovenden’s Burning The Books (John Murray Press). It’s about the deliberate obliteration of libraries and archives over three millennia, and is already getting lots of great reviews. Ovenden is Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford, and his aim is not just to write about the destruction of precious archives, ‘but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back’, he writes.
3. Pen names Some much-loved books were also in the news this month when the ‘Reclaim Her Name’ venture was launched to mark 25 years of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. The Prize’s sponsor Bailey’s has re-released 25 books that were written by women but originally published under male pseudonyms. The collection is free to download in e-book form, and physical box sets will be donated to selected UK libraries. The idea is to introduce readers to more international female authors, and allow women to reclaim their rightful place in literary history: ‘it’s as if women didn’t write any of these books, that the past is an unbroken line of beards and every now and again, you get one woman’ the Prize’s co-founder and honorary director Kate Mosse said.
While it’s good that women writers’ contributions are being recognized, some questions remain unanswered. The collection includes Middlemarch by Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot) and Amantine by Aurore Dupin (better known as the best-selling French writer George Sand). Along with Charlotte Brontë, Eliot and Sand are described by Virginia Woolf in her book-length essay A Room of One’s Own as “all victims of inner strife as their writings prove, sought ineffectively to veil themselves by using the name of a man.” However, as many commentators have pointed out, George Eliot and George Sand liked their professional pseudonyms and continued to use them long after everyone knew they were women. The Bailey’s venture has been criticized for a well-meaning but clumsy attempt to impose birth names – or, indeed, married names- on professional writers who in some cases were happy to leave them behind. It might be more useful to highlight the novels of many women writers whose work has been forgotten, some of their books gathering dust in libraries.
4. Library news It’s very good news that the UK’s museums and libraries gradually began to reopen this month. As I wrote in my previous blog, over the past months Cambridge University Library staff have been working hard to make many more collections available digitally. From today, 31 August 2020, many more people around the world will be able to access the Library’s treasures via the ‘Google Arts and Culture’ platform, which uses high-resolution image technology to allow users to explore the collections of many different galleries and museums (more information here). More objects will be added in the coming months, and it’s expected that the Fitzwilliam Museum will join the platform along with other University of Cambridge institutions. You can follow the link here to virtually tour the Library’s objects and treasures on the platform. Don’t forget to click on the ‘heart’ sign to give valuable feedback on the collection.
5. Reading recommendations (fiction) As a former dictionary writer myself (see my Slightly Foxed essay here) I have enjoyed reading Eley Williams’s The Liars’ Dictionary this summer. It’s a funny and original novel that follows the intertwining stories of two lexicographers connected to the fictional ‘Swansby’s New Encyclopaedic Dictionary’ 100 years apart: Peter Winceworth, who in 1899 begins to smuggle his own made-up words into the dictionary, and Mallory, the young woman employed to create a digitised version of the dictionary who tries to track down the false entries and solve the mystery. Despite their ability with words, each of the two characters struggles with speaking their mind, and the book is a playful investigation of the limits of language and the importance of love.
(nonfiction) If you are missing libraries as I am, you will enjoy photographer Sara Rawlinson’s newly published book Illuminating Cambridge Libraries. I previously mentioned her following in the footsteps of the photographer Lettice Ramsey who climbed King’s College Chapel’s scaffolding when she was in her 70s to photograph the ceiling. Rawlinson did the same from the precarious platform of a cherry-picker, and now her fascinating book captures the look and feel of different Cambridge libraries.
In ‘North-west London blues’ her 2012 essay for the New York Review of Books, the writer Zadie Smith described how after she moved to New York to teach creative writing, the library became an important place for her to work. ‘Each morning I struggle to find a seat in the packed university library,’ she writes, ‘despite the fact that every single student in here could be at home in front of their Macbook browsing Google Books.’ It’s unlikely that libraries will be packed for a while, but it’s very good that they are opening their doors again as the autumn begins.
‘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.
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 last 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 town of Ballysadare. Baker had trained with Gwen Raverat at the Slade School of Fine Art, and she opened a small shop in the town; her paintings were also displayed and sold in exhibitions in Ireland and the UK. She painted this portrait of here seventeen-year-old daughter in 1915, when Lettice was about to travel to England to board at Bedales, the progressive co-educational school in Hampshire, before going on to study at Newnham College, Cambridge.
This beautiful portrait, which now belongs to Newnham, seems to suggest Lettice’s feelings of sadness at leaving her home in Ireland, and her determination to succeed. In 2019 it was extensively restored by conservator Polly Saltmarsh before being displayed at Cambridge University Library as part of its 2019-2020 “Rising Tide” exhibition. The determined-looking girl in the painting studied moral sciences at Newnham from 1918 until 1921, worked in Cambridge University’s first Psychological Laboratory and would later pick up a camera to become, with Oxford’s Helen Muspratt, one of the leading women photographers of the 1930s in their studio partnership, Ramsey & Muspratt.
Yet it’s probably fair to say that these days Lettice Ramsey might be still better known for her famous husband than for her pioneering contribution to portrait 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 (née Baker) was five years older than him and Newnham’s star student when they first met in 1920 at a meeting of the Cambridge Heretics society, where she was Treasurer. Frank gazed at her, too overawed to speak. He wrote in his diary that Miss Baker was “very beautiful and rather nice.”
They began their love affair in 1924, when he was a King’s fellow and she had returned to Cambridge to work at the 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 Ramsey’s life and work in this episode of BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking with Shahidha Bari and Cheryl Misak – and it has a delightful recording of Lettice’s voice halfway through.
After Frank’s death, Lettice Ramsey was left to bring up their two daughters alone. In 1932, her then lover Julian Bell invited her to his family home at Charleston in Sussex to meet his parents, Vanessa and Clive Bell. Ramsey brought along her new portable camera and took informal snaps of Virginia Woolf playing with her young niece Angelica Bell in the sunshine; Woolf in turn took a photograph of Lettice standing in her summer dress and one of the distinctive necklaces she often wore, holding what looks like an early Leica camera (see Maggie Humm’s Snapshots of Bloomsbury, 2005). The National Portrait Gallery in London has most of these portraits, and in 2012 put on an exhibition of a selection of them.
On a summer holiday in Dorset with her daughters later in 1932 Lettice met Helen Muspratt, ten years her junior, who owned a small photographic studio in Swanage. It was a life-changing meeting for them both, and may have given Ramsey an idea. Her own mother Frances Baker had earned a living as a single parent in Ireland by selling her paintings; perhaps Ramsey too could support her young family by combining her own artistic and business skills. In her 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 and established their own premises there.[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 various outhouses 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.” Thanks to his advice, 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 taken by Helen Muspratt, of Ramsey in the Cambridge studio here.
Ramsey and Muspratt 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 opened her own separate studio in Oxford in 1937. “Helen had the know-how and I had the connections,” Ramsey modestly recalled of her fashionable Bloomsbury set. 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 (she is 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]
Many of these portraits are now in the National Portrait Gallery’s extensive Ramsey & Muspratt collection, which can be seen here. From the beginning, both women were also keen to push the boundaries of photography as an art form, and were fascinated by Man Ray’s photographic experiments (it seems they were unaware of Lee Miller’s similar work during this period). They discussed solarisation techniques in the studio’s darkroom with their Cambridge scientist friend, J.D. Bernal, and experimented with different styles, as Sutcliffe describes in her book. Their 1935 portrait of Eleanor Singer shows how imaginative their collaboration was (on Peter Loft’s website here).
Ramsey & Muspratt gained an international reputation during this time, and featured regularly in Photography magazine, whose editor praised the duo in 1936 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”. As Ramsey told him, “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 was also her family’s main breadwinner, so their experimental photography of the 1930s was abandoned for the “bread and butter” business of wedding and university photography after the war. 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 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 simply obtained another passport in which she described herself as a housewife and carried on taking photographs undaunted (“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 remained unconcerned when she was accidentally locked in overnight.
Lettice Ramsey reluctantly retired on her 80th birthday in 1978, and sold her Cambridge studio. She had hoped that it would continue as a working studio, her grandson told me, but the next owner’s business was not successful, and he sold the studio and extensive archive of photographic plates to Peter Lofts (who now owns the copyright to almost all Ramsey & Muspratt’s photographs). In 1978 the two women were photographed in their respective Oxford and Cambridge studios by John Lawrence-Jones for a Sunday Times magazine 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 magazine featured a range of their most famous (and infamous) subjects.
Lettice Ramsey died in 1985, so she did not live to see the recognition belatedly given to Ramsey & Muspratt’s achievements as women photographers: a selection of Helen Muspratt’s photographs were exhibited at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries in 2020. Their photographs also featured in a Channel 4 programme, ‘Five Women Photographers’ in 1986 when Muspratt’s work featured 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 Ramsey was not around to enjoy their renewed fame. “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 ArtUK’s Julia Abel Smith @jabelsmith.
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.