Sylvia Plath’s possessions from the early days of her marriage to fellow poet Ted Hughes, including love letters and their wedding rings, sold for over £770,000 ($1.1 million) at auction on Wednesday. The online sale of 55 lots from the private collection of their daughter Frieda Hughes had opened on July 9 at Sotheby’s in London, and raised more than three times the estimate. The standout item was a deck of Tarot cards, reflecting the couple’s interest in the esoteric, which sold for more than 25 times the estimated price at £151,200.
Tarot cards are often used for fortune-telling and have associations with the occult. The Tarot de Marseille cards are likely to be a deck that Hughes gave Plath on her 24th birthday in 1956. “We celebrated my birthday yesterday: [Ted] gave me a lovely Tarot pack of cards and a dear rhyme with it,” Plath wrote to her mother Aurelia. The cards had been estimated to sell for up to £6,000.
Plath made apparent allusions to Tarot in her poems, including “The Hanging Man”. The couple’s gold wedding rings sold for £27,720, while four of Plath’s typed love letters to Hughes sold for £30,240 each. The sale included a total of 16 letters dating from soon after the couple’s 1956 marriage, when Plath was still studying in Cambridge and Hughes was working in London. According to Sotheby’s, they are the only such letters to have survived.
In one, Plath describes being “indissolubly welded” to her new husband and missing him: “Never before in my life have I been parted from one I love so immeasurably more than myself; my god, do let me be with you soon.” Plath looked forward to the “shining grail” of their reunion once she has completed her final exams in June 1957. “I shall never leave your side a day in my life after exams… I think if anything ever happened to you, I would really kill myself,” she wrote.
The letters contain drafts of her poems, as well as critiques of the work of Hughes, who was then working on his breakthrough collection “The Hawk in the Rain”. “My husband is a genius,” she wrote. The sale also included a family album with 192 photographs of the couple and their children — Frieda and her younger brother Nicholas — with handwritten captions by Plath. It sold for £44,100.
“This auction is really about the happiest and the most dynamic part of my parents’ relationship when they were working at their best together and still very passionately in love and supportive of each other,” Frieda Hughes, 61, who is a poet and painter, said ahead of the sale. “If you read my mother’s letters to my father, their passion and their love is extraordinary. I’m not sure everybody finds a love like that in their lifetime.” Plath and Hughes, who went on to become Britain’s poet laureate, remain two of the most celebrated post-war poets in English literature.
Hughes stayed silent about his first wife’s death until 1998, when he published the acclaimed verse collection “Birthday Letters”. He died of cancer just months later, aged 68. In 2010, a previously unseen poem by Hughes was published in which he described the dark last days before Plath’s suicide in February 1963, during one of Britain’s coldest winters ever. Suffering from depression, Plath breathed in fumes from her gas oven, after carefully sealing the kitchen door to protect Frieda and Nicholas, who were sleeping in a nearby room.
She chronicled her struggle with depression since her teenage years in the autobiographical novel “The Bell Jar”. Nicholas Hughes killed himself in March 2009. He too was afflicted with depression, according to his sister.—AFP