British Library archive throws light on Hughes-Plath romance
Alison Flood

A wine-stained first edition of the literary magazine founded by Ted Hughes and his Cambridge friends, covered in handwritten annotations by the poet laureate, has been acquired by the British Library.

Featuring the first poems Hughes published under his own name – he had previously written poetry under the pseudonyms Daniel Hearing and Peter Crew – the Saint Botolph’s Review was launched in February 1956 with a party where Hughes met his first wife, Sylvia Plath. The British Library’s edition, acquired from Hughes’s widow Carol Hughes, is one of just three copies held by public institutions in the UK and the only one with handwritten notes.

Hughes’s looping scrawl on the front cover of the magazines notes that it contains corrections by Luke Myers of his poems. “Wine stains from the wine bottles smashed when he fell off his bike as I hailed him – morning of 25 Feb 56,” Hughes writes. “He was out selling copies, (of which this is one) from his pannier basket, which they shared with the bottles.”

The British Library is also releasing an audio CD of Plath recordings, including a rare recording of Plath and Hughes talking about their relationship. The poet, who committed suicide in 1963 aged 30, is heard speaking cheerily about life in England, and about her meeting and marriage to Hughes.

The pair explain how they met at the party for the launch of the Saint Botolph’s Review – an encounter later related by Hughes in his poem St Botolph’s, published in Birthday Letters in 1998. “I had read some of Ted’s poems in this magazine and was very impressed, I wanted to meet him. And I went to this little celebration and that’s actually where we met,” says Plath, in a recording which has not been heard outside of the original BBC radio broadcast and any repeat BBC broadcasts. “I think we saw each other again on Friday the 13th in London after this, then we saw a great deal of each other; Ted came back to Cambridge and suddenly we found ourselves getting married two months later.”

“I’d saved some cash. I’d been working for about three months, and everything I saved I blew it on the courtship,” agrees Hughes. “We kept writing poems to each other and then it just grew out of that I suppose, the feeling that we were both writing so – so much, and having such a fine time doing it we decided we should keep on,” says Plath, and then Hughes adds wryly: “The poems haven’t really survived, the marriage overtook the poems.”

Another previously unpublished recording sees Plath talking about how much she enjoys the eccentricities of the English. “I know when I went first to stay in an English home I was fascinated, I wanted to see what this was like. I went in, and I remember the mother was doing needlepoint, and I thought this was a charming English thing, and I went in and she was doing a needlepoint of penicillin mould. And I saw that on the footstools instead of cosy roses or something of that sort, she had done needlepoint of rattlesnakes, and I was rather fascinated by this,” the poet relates. “And I remember particularly when going to bed at night, she very seriously offered me the choice of a hot water bottle or a cat. She didn’t have enough hot water bottles to go round or enough cats to go around, but if she used both of them they came out even. And I chose the cat.”

The British Library acquired Hughes’s archive in 2008 and will open it to researchers in May. The collection includes all of Hughes’s poetic drafts and notes relating to Birthday Letters, as well as a longer, unpublished version of the poem St Botolph’s, describing the poet’s pleasure at finishing the first edition of the magazine. Curator of modern literary manuscripts Helen Broderick said the annotated first edition of the Saint Botolph’s Review would offer researchers “insight into Hughes’ early work and will I hope lead to further research into his life and development as a poet and writer”.

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