A Poem's Lost Past: Sylvia Plath & the 'Eavesdropper'
'Toad-stone! Sister-bitch! Sweet neighbor!'
Row of gravestones in North Tawton churchyard
...' I was a child walking past the church-yard, the rows of graves, then turning right to walk the few steps up the cobbled lane leading to her house, waiting for my aunt, my godmother, to open her door. The woman coming down the slope had a pram, a little girl trotted beside her – I didn’t intuit her later fame, she’s standing, gazing at me, through me, the still-child – neither knowing the real-life, after-life manuscripts: texts that would inevitably link us as witnesses of the sacred landscape. I was not aware of the word-bind she was interring in a poem which hyper-linked into my family, my world, perhaps drafting that very day, so that unbeknown to her, my strong-minded, exotic godmother would be embalmed for posterity as nosy-parker'...
It seems that with the forthcoming Plath anniversary everything I look at on the web, or in newspapers, seems to have yet another revelatory book or feature fiercely debating the various arguments that still swirl round the poet. Apparently, even Hughes' widow is to publish her own 'side of the story' before she gets too old. Watching this onslaught of new material has prompted me to think about when it is best to keep a secret and when it's (is it ever) the right time to tell what you know? There's a fine balance between revelation and concealment. Ever since the moment when I re-read a particularly vituperative late poem by Sylvia Plath some twenty years ago and with a shocking click of revelation realised that its female subject was someone I knew well, a family member, I have struggled with that conflict. It was after all not the same as having Jill, our Old English sheepdog, who features in Plath's journals as 'queer old zombie-dog' (See in The Journals of Sylvia Plath).
At the time the person concerned was well and, though in her late seventies, vibrantly alive. Irene (Rene) Sampson, was my aunt and godmother. After she moved to North Tawton during 1962 Rene's - and later her husband Herbert's - path of fate took her - and them - to become (for a while) Sylvia Plath's (and later Ted Hughes') closest next door neighbours in North Tawton.I can not recall exactly when in 1962 Rene moved into the cottage below Court Green, except that it must have been a little while before Hughes and Plath separated. I'm not sure how near in real-time aunt's move back into the town, (where she had already spent some years for both she and Herbert were from Devon), corresponded with the final paragraph of Plath's journals (Appendix 15 - which is a 'compilation of notes that Plath kept on her Devon neighbours ... during the first six months of 1962' - See Trinidad, Hidden in Plain Sight),for the journal's ending - as presently published - suggests that after the death of Percy Keys Plath was curious as to who would be her next near neighbours:
Rose said she heard a couple outside our house "Oh but it has a thatch and is much too big for us". She came out. Were they wanting a house? Yes, they were retiring from London and wanted a cottage. Had come to North Tawton instead of South Tawton, by mistake. How strange says Rose, I am wanting to sell this cottage. O it is just what we want, say the people. Now I wonder, will they come?
Rene & Herbert Sampson
outside 4 Court Green
Maybe the poet made up this story, or altered its facts, or that particular couple did not move in to 4 Court Green, for, other than occasional holidays home, Herbert and Rene had been abroad since the mid fifties, and as they were both local people would not have muddled South and North Tawton. They had spent several years in Ghana, where my Uncle worked as a civil engineer and surveyor,and returned to England early in 1962 to find a home for their later retirement. Herbert soon took up another post for the Crown Agents in Sarawak, whilst Rene settled into her new home in North Tawton. She had found the tropical climate hard to cope with but was to join him in Sarawak later in 1963, before their eventual retirement to the Court Green cottage, in 1968. In his own memoirs written much later Herbert said of their move to the town:
... we thought it advisable to make provision for our eventual retirement, so we started looking round for a house to buy ... We looked at so many but could not find the right place ... I had to come to North Tawton for some reason and I saw Miss P. and mentioned we were trying to find a house. She said 'What about the cottage next to Court Greet? Mrs Key is leaving. So I went along to see Mrs Key who said her husband had died recently and she was going to return to London ... I thought the house was not bad and made arrangements for Rene to come to see it. We bought it, thinking it would be suitable as a temporary abode while we were in Sarawak, but we have been here ever since ... (W. H. Sampson, My Memoirs, privately printed).
I do not know exactly when Sylvia and Rene first met. I lived in North Tawton at the time, but as I was still not yet a teenager I do not recall everything with precise detail. But, from conversations I've had since with Rene, I do know that after Hughes had gone she and Sylvia met quite regularly - probably until the poet moved to London.
I was very fond of my handsome and rather exotic godmother. She was a warm, lively character, with great presence, a vibrant fashion sense, a sassy sense of humour and cracking laugh. Her husband Herbert recalled how he'd noticed her special 'character' in their school days, when she would tease him in the school corridors. She was always the doting and caring aunt as far as I was concerned, a wonderful cook and perfect hostess who in her younger days loved to entertain as well as going out to wine and dine. I did not witness the 'other side' of her feisty personality, though I know that sometimes the sparks could fly if someone rubbed her up the wrong way. I loved to visit Rene after school in the latter part of 1962, during the months she was in the town, just before my family moved away the following year and was sad that her move to our town had happened just before our departure.
Rene and Herbert
on their Wedding-Day
Over the years I have been unable to decide as to whether to make public the link between 'Eavesdropper' and my aunt. I wasn't (and still am not) certain that I could do Rene justice in the face of such a vitriolic poem, nor, given its insulting nature, whether she would wish me to. I was also a little worried that telling of her connection with 'Eavesdropper' might drive a host of Plath researchers to my aunt's door. One thing I was always sure of was that Rene never realised that she featured as the main subject of any poem - let alone one by Plath; my disappointment was that I dare not tell her, because I knew she would be hurt, shocked and angry. If only Plath had penned a more complimentary poem I mused, as I thought about how I could have shown it to Rene; then I would have been able to tell her how pleased she should feel to be inscribed for posterity within a poem written by one of the most famous poet's last, and now rather infamous poems.
Here is the poem - see in larger print at AllPoetry:
Your brother will trim my hedges! They darken your house, Nosy grower, Mole on my shoulder, To be scratched absently, To bleed, if it comes to that. The stain of the tropics Still urinous on you, a sin. A kind of bush-stink. You may be local, But that yellow! Godawful! Your body one Long nicotine-finger On which I, White cigarette, Burn, for your inhalation, Driving the dull cells wild. Let me roost in you! My distractions, my pallors. Let them start the queer alchemy That melts the skin Gray tallow, from bone and bone. So I saw your much sicker Predecessor wrapped up, A six and a half foot wedding-cake. And he was not even malicious. Do not think I don't notice your curtain— Midnight, four o'clock, Lit (you are reading), Tarting with the drafts that pass, Little whore tongue, Chenille beckoner, Beckoning my words in— The zoo yowl, the mad soft Mirror talk you love to catch me at. How you jumped when I jumped on you! Arms folded, ear cocked, Toad-yellow under the drop That would not, would not drop In a desert of cow people Trundling their udders home To the electric milker, the wifey, the big blue eye That watches, like God, or the sky The ciphers that watch it. I called. You crawled out, A weather figure, boggling, Belge troll, the low Church smile Spreading itself, like butter. This is what I am in for— Flea body! Eyes like mice Flicking over my property, Levering letter flaps, Scrutinizing the fly Of the man's pants Dead on the chair back, Opening the fat smiles, the eyes Of two babies Just to make sure— Toad-stone! Sister-bitch! Sweet neighbor!
As well as the shocking revelation of 'Eavesdropper' and the realisation that our dog Jill popped up in the journals, there have been other occasions when Plath's texts have acted as a trigger for me to lost and personal childhood secrets; her words have the canny knack of making me snatch breath with a remembering of what is long gone, obliterated in the snows of memory.
Whilst I have informally mentioned the existence of the poem 'Eavesdropper' to a few people, I have not, until now, revealed aunt's identity. I don't know if having read the poem anyone else has hit on the connection. It is possible, but I think unlikely - except that is, for Hughes himself and possibly his daughter and widow. As far as I am aware local people are far more interested in Hughes' work and significance as major poet than they are his first wife's- so much is this the case that I was incredulous, when at a history exhibition held in North Tawton a few years ago, the organisers made him focus of the display, yet completely ignored Plath's very existence.
Anyway, although several concerns have always stopped me in the past, gradually, over the years, I have begun to believe that maybe I should tell what I know of 'Eavesdropper's' connection with my aunt. Now, with the approaching fiftieth anniversary of the poet's death, on February 11th, and with several years passing since the death of Rene and more recently, of Herbert, it seems the appropriate time to set the record straight. Although between them they both share a number of nieces and nephews and their descendants, the couple did not have children of their own, so I do not need to fear any repercussions for either of them from public awareness of the link between person and text. Whilst I have no particular wish to add to the bedlam of extraneous Plath literature at present spilling out from every conceivable source - the so-called 'peanut-crunching crowd' (See 'Lady Lazurus') - several considerations have begun to sway me. For one thing, I've occasionally come across critical commentary which refers to the poem and come to with a jolt, after realising that even basic facts are incorrect and that, even with a degree of poetic licence there are significant gaps in the telling of the subject's side of the story; I believe these may lead to misinterpretations about the poem. For instance, in Method and Madness, published as long ago as 1976, Edward Butshcer, noting the 'harshness' of 'Eavesdropper' and the obvious fact that its target is a female neighbour, states that the subject is 'half of an aging brother and sister couple who now occupied the cottage where the old man whose funeral was described in 'Berck Plage' used to live' (Method and Madness). So, fact number one, Plath's new neighbours in 1962 after the death of Percy Key were not brother and sister, but husband and wife. Fact number two, whilst bordering on middle-age - for Rene must have been just fifty in '62 - neither she or her husband were exactly aging.
I've also recently noticed that a few researchers appear to be making explicit reference to 'Eavesdropper', and in particular understand that at least one of them has referred to the subject of the poem at a Plath conference (David Trinidad's essay at Sylvia Plath Symposium 2012). I am not in a position to know what was said at that paper, or if my aunt was identified and that is the main reason I have decided to get this piece out there. I am afraid that in the future the matching of poem and person may lead to misconceptions about Rene's personality. Although the 'truth will (probably) out', it may be biased and distorted. I want to make sure that any Plath researcher in the future will have an authentic portrait of Rene.In the process I hope this would re balance the depiction of my aunt's character and personality against the nastiness of the poem, which in future might otherwise poison her name and reputation.
Lastly, I've noticed that, even with the onslaught of new textual material, critics still complain about the lack of referential information pertinent to some of Plath's last poems. In A Critical Heritage published in 1997, Linda Wagner Martin complained about the lack of decent annotation concerning several of the last poems;
'When we come to poems that concern, not Plath's father but her mother, husband, children, friends, or 'the other woman' there are no annotations at all beyond citations from Plath's own BBC commentaries ... What for example, was the situation described so vividly and viciously in 'Lesbos'? ... Who is the 'Sister-Bitch'! Sweet Neighbour' of 'Eavesdropper'?'
More recently, one commentator noted of Ariel that the poems in the collection for which there are no concrete situations tend to 'remain obscure associations on an unexplained theme' and that because of this are less satisfactory (See The Cambridge Companion). Though 'Eavesdropper' is not one of the specific poems referred to here, it is equally abstruse.
Apropos Plath studies setting the record straight seems the order of the day. (See Interview with Elizabeth Sigmund and Interview with Olwyn Hughes). This particularly applies to the last months of the poet's life and to her later poems. For instance, whilst considering a clutch of Plath's final, especially confessional poems written late 1962, one author insists 'there are irresistible pressures to reveal secrets' (Cambridge companion to Sylvia Plath). 'Eavesdropper' appears in the list ; others are 'Purdah', 'The Other', 'The Jailer' and 'A Secret'. Secrecy versus concealment have been and still are central concerns when the names Hughes and Plath are mentioned. The very essence of Plath's poetic rhetoric is that of the confessional and many of her poems - especially the later ones - have been discussed in terms of the tensions they figure between the pressure to withhold what is known and the contradictory impulse to tell all - and in the case of certain poems (including 'Eavesdropper'), to consider Plath's pointing up of differences in social mores between the US and the UK during the period of the Cold War. One critic sums up: 'there are irrepressible pressures to tell secrets' (Deborah Nelson, see Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath). Meanwhile, the crux of the still raging furore which plays out in the press and various academic papers centres round the whereabouts of the poet's missing journals and the allegedly lost novel Doubletake:
'Readers long for the secrets they would reveal ... the dirt on the break-up that triggered her astounding poetic outpouring' (Trinidad, Hidden in Plain Sight).
But I still felt uncomfortable about self-revelation and the insistence amongst various critics re the concomitant impulse to read the self in the text. Did I really want to add to the already heaving, frequently junk-pile of material, which obsessively analyses Plath's poetry and its portrayal of woman as poet? As her daughter has complained, 'the clay from her poetic energy was taken up and versions of [my] mother made out of it, invented to reflect only the inventors as if they could possess [my] real, actual mother ...' (Frieda Hughes, Ariel Takes Flight). I didn't.
Yet, increasingly, I realised that I did. I can't stop the plethora of Plath analysis. But I can ease a trace of a lost voice into the cacophony about Plath's final months. A missing piece of jigsaw, which one day might fit into the gap of what is lost of the poet's life in the vanished journals, as well as provide a valid source of information for future annotation and authentic readings of the poem.
... Several of the poems that Plath wrote or re-worked afterwards in London were initially drafted in her Devon home. 'Eavesdropper' was apparently one of the poems first drafted within nine days of Plath's separation from Hughes, in September 1962. However, one source says that 'Eavesdropper' was first drafted October 15, 1962, on a scrap of paper, whose front contained Hughes' unpublished radio play, The Calm; other drafts were also first written on these scraps, including 'A Secret', (October 10), 'Daddy' 'Medusa', (Oct 16) The Jailer' (Oct 17) 'The Applicant', (Oct 11) 'Lesbos', (Oct 18), and 'Lyonesse' and 'Amnesiac' (Oct 21), which were originally one poem, (see Revising Life, Susan Dyne). Other poems first drafted in this period included 'Stopped Dead' (Oct 19), 'The Tour, (Oct 23/25) and 'Winter Trees' (Nov 26).
In many of these late poems local landscapes, people in the district and Court Green's garden features become integral ingredients within the texts’ figurations: the church and graveyard; the yew-tree; the elm trees; farm-animals; the bees; local people; and the ancient Court Green mound. When she left North Tawton in December 1962 Plath took with her to London some of the new drafts that she had written in the last months at Court Green and, according to Hughes, at Christmas time arranged forty of them into a specific sequence, which she formulated as a collection within a black spring binder which she gave a title, Ariel and Other Poems. One source says that on the last day of December 1962, she revised ‘Eavesdropper’ and ‘Sheep in Fog’; during January and the first days of February she wrote ‘Mystic,’ ‘Kindness,’ ‘Gigolo,’ ‘Totem,’ ‘Child,’ ‘The Munich Mannequins,’ ‘Paralytic,’ ‘Words,’ ‘Contusion,’ ‘Edge’ and ‘Balloons’. So, although her last months were spent in the rented London flat, several of these poems suggest that the poet’s mind was still very much occupied with her life left behind in her Devon home. Memories of the place played over and over in the drama of her last weeks. Plath had also begun work on a new novel titled Doubletake (later changed to Double Exposure) and my understanding is that the poems 'Brasilia' and 'Childless Woman' were first drafted during this period. Hughes provides another comment about the genesis of 'Eavesdropper within the context of the later poems:
In late 1962, while the Ariel poems were being written, she corrected and sent off the novel's proofs, and worried over questions of possible libel. The last Ariel poem, "Sheep in Fog," came on December 2nd. This was also the last poem she wrote (except for the unfinished "Eavesdropper") until after the novel was published. It was then the first poem she picked up, on January 28th, when she made the correction that revealed it as the elegy and funeral cortege for the Ariel inspiration. Whereupon it became the first (three more written that same day and all eleven within the next week) of the final group, the true death-songs (Hughes, "On Sylvia Plath," in Raritan, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1994, pp. 1-10
The publication history of Plath's poetry has become notoriously complicated. Hughes' selection of poems from his first wife's work for various publications and collections sparked annoyance and argument. Wagner Martin, for example, irritated with him for what she felt were his limited annotations of Collected Poems and conceding that 'perhaps [he] considered it indelicate to reveal the identity of living persons', added 'but in that case why annotate the text at all?' It seems that Hughes maintained a fine balancing act between the selection of poems he elected to publish versus those he decided to withhold from public view and fifty years after Plath's death and fifteen after his, there are still plenty of people out there still quite prepared to vilify him (see for instance Hidden in Plain Sight, David Trinidad). 'Eavesdropper' was evidently one of the poems that gave Hughes a problem. I imagine that he soon came to know his new neighbours and out of respect for my aunt did not, at least initially, want to broadcast the unpleasant poem in this country. My understanding is that 'Eavesdropper' was first published in Poetry in the US, in 1963, along with two other of Plath's late 1962 poems (the last clutch of the poet's poems placed in that magazine), some eight months after her death:
'Plath appeared several times in Poetry, the last time in August 1963 with "Fever 103°," "Purdah," and "Eavesdropper" The first of these, especially, shows her at the height of her powers, using a feverish delirium as a metaphor for love gone awry 'Darling, all night I have been flickering, off, on, off, on. The sheets grow heavy as a lecher's kiss.' Yet all three of these poems are fascinating—and often disturbing—in their rapidly-shifting depictions of a female speaker as, at turns, a "lantern," a "pure acetylene/ Virgin," a "mirror," a "peacock," a "lioness," and, in "Eavesdropper," a shockingly bitter housewife.The bio sheet she completed for these poems (included here) is dated January 29, 1963, less than two weeks before her death.' (Poetry Foundation Archive)
In 1976, at the time of Bustscher's book, 'Eavesdropper', in company with two other late poems, 'Amnesiac' and 'The Detective', had not been published in the UK; again I assume that Hughes withheld it intentionally, considering the poem to be yet another of the 'more personally aggressive poems from 1962', (Hughes, Introduction to Plath's Collected Poems), which he thought best to leave out of the first collections. So, other than in Poetry, 'Eavesdropper' to my knowledge remained excluded from any UK collection of Plath's work until 1981, when Hughes included it in Collected Poems along with a number of other previously unpublished poems of 1962, and the as yet omitted twelve poems that she had left arranged in the Ariel sequence at her death. 'Eavesdropper' appears in the book as the last poem in the 1962 section.
...Well, what can I say of 'Eavesdropper' and its portrayal of Rene as the text relates to real life that might feed constructively into the interpretative miasma concerning the last poems, the lost texts and the ongoing conversation about Plath/Hughes? Firstly, I must mention that I can only comment about the published version of the poem, as I have not had a chance to see the alterations and additions that Plath made to the poem, which were apparently quite extensive (Seein Kendall, Sylvia Plath; A Critical Study). I might also add that the following remarks are set against awareness of a background critical context which construes intense focus on biographical references as reductive. I hope I can catch the appropriate balance between discussing material about the lives of poet and person, and valuing the poem as art.
'Eavesdropper' may at first glance seem to be fairly insignificant in terms of the whole opus of the poet and also may initially appear to be about a rather common situation, whose subject's importance is solely that of being the 'nosy' busybody who has moved in next door. 'She' as far as the poem is concerned is one- dimensional in that the onlooking or 'eavesdropping' reader is not aware of her perspective on the situation as presented in the poem, and also because the poem inscribes her as a female subject entirely defined by a proclivity for interfering intrusiveness into others' business. I believe this to be very much only part of the story.
From Rene's comments to me over the years when Sylvia's name has crept into conversations I have come to believe that my aunt acted as a kind ofproxy therapist to her neighbour during the time of the poet's last weeks and months in North Tawton. I do not know if my aunt's name appears in the lost journals and if so, what kind of tone they might adopt. Neither do I know if Plath may have sent Rene any letters from London. It is possible, but if so Rene would not have kept them; she was a meticulous housewife and her small home was always spotless and welcoming; not the kind of place where clutter and ephemera would accumulate. Although the two women did not know each other for long in terms of clock-time, during the short period when they were neighbours I assume they developed quite a close and possibly intense 'sisterly' bond. Presumably their association was almost as long as that between Plath and Elizabeth Sigmund, Plath's 'earth mother' and 'confidante', who also first met Plath sometime in 1962. Given the difference of approximately twenty years in the ages of my aunt and her neighbour, they may even have begun to establish a pseudo mother/daughter bond. This would allow the possibility of projective transference, with all its attendant emotional repercussions. I suggest this because it seems to me relevant to a reading of 'Eavesdropper'. An initial reading of the poem attests that the 'nosy neighbour' is just that; someone who lives near or next door to the poet, but who is not in her confidence. On first reading the poem may not seem to share any information suggestive of any kind of familiarity between the two women; yet, at its mid-point and ending line it metaphorically hints at the reflection of the self via the other, a psychological mirroring: 'Mirror talk you love to catch me at' and 'Sister-bitch'. After several more readings the poem's spite can be somewhat put aside, the reader can get to its ending lines and note the sudden 'twist', 'Toadstone; Sister-bitch; Sweet neighbour', whose tone of bitter amusement and self-reflective irony seem to diffuse the dark mood of the foregoing lines at the moment the final line establishes a mutual gaze of recognition between poet and her subject. This mutuality and doubling occurs at various levels: the conscious realisation of the writer's own propensity toward nosy and intense scrutiny of others, and the unconscious projection of self on to the other.
'Eavesdropper' can be related to other late poems in which the poet's self analysis in terms of the double becomes central to the text's interpretation. For instance, 'The Other; 'The Applicant' and 'The Tour' all scrutinise intensely an 'Other' (self) and open with a dramatic remark (in the case of 'Eavesdropper', an 'incoherent outburst' - see Van Dyne, Revising Life; Sylvia Plath's Ariel Poem - the 'Your brother' referred to was in real-life Rene's brother-in-law, who at the time held the farm where she was brought up, in nearby Exbourne) directed to an alter-ego, who is assumed to be an absent addressee. There are other echoes which connect 'Eavesdropper' with significant metaphorical figurative devices in other Plath texts; in particular, the 'yellow' self and the 'toadstone' - both of which are significant images in several poems and are also used by Hughes, in Birthday Letters, as linking symbols to his wife's poems. Stanza two, for example, which finishes with a cascade of what someone called 'erotic (phonemic) pulsation' (See Mitchell, Sylvia Plath; The Poetry of Negativity) - (Your body one/Long nicotine finger/On which I/White cigarette/Burn for your inhalation ...) - is written in terms of the duality of the 'Godawful', 'yellow' bodily self of the subject versus the white-self of the speaker. There is a suggestion of alchemical transference, a transmutation between the two selves, which continues into the next stanza. Incidentally, my aunt's stay in Ghana probably left her with a fading tan, which would account for the poet's derogatory description of her appearance; whilst Rene loved the tropical heat she also had long-standing health problems to keep at bay.
I do not wish to add to the already rich commentary about Plath's two selves, but I think it's useful to consider 'Eavesdropper' alongside poems such as 'In Plaster', where the poet describes her two selves:
I shall never get out of this! There are two of me now:
This new absolutely white person and the old yellow one
or, to the split-self of Esther, the self-'heroine' in The Bell-Jar, the novel Plath completed during the final months of her life. As I read the text the subject of 'Eavesdropper' can be viewed as yet another of Plath's 'rejected doubles' (Jo Gill, Cambridge Introduction to Sylvia Plath).
The toadstone is another repeated and I believe cryptic and important motif, which first appears in 'The Rival' and is picked up by Hughes inBirthday Letters. It appears in one of the early drafts of 'The Rival', 'Toadstone I see I must wear you in the centre of my forehead/And let the dead sleep as they deserve', in which context 'toadstone' seems to echo its symbolic use in As You Like It:
sweet are the uses of adversity
which like the toad
ugly and venomous
wears yet a precious jewel in his head
In Birthday LettersHughes seems to pick up on the dark aspect of the toadstone motif in the poem '18 Rugby Street', with the line 'toadstone in the head of your desolation'. Yet, later in the sequence, in the poem 'The Prism', he uses it to confirm the toadstone's mystical potency as an ambivalent symbol; here it is recognised as mythical stone, whose magical powers are valued as amulet of the self: It goes with me, your seer's vision-stone/Like a lucky stone, my unlucky stone ('The Prism').
I find the toadstone a rather compelling motif and when I re-read 'Eavesdropper' like to imagine that as she worked through this poem the poet pushed through the defensive ambivalence she initially felt toward her new neighbour, and came upon a more supportive self-reflective realisation of that neighbour's own present mirroring life-experience to her own. Not artist, nor writer, nor mother; but Rene was a woman of her time; a woman with secrets; a woman living alone; perhaps, after all, a woman after the poet's own heart -
'Toadstone! Sister Bitch! Sweet Neighbor!'
I was thinking about the poem 'Eavesdropper', about the poet, Plath and the person, my late aunt and special god-mother, when I, with others of my family, said our farewells to her husband, my uncle Herbert - himself an amazing figure at 104 - almost two years ago in North Tawton church and cemetery. I recalled that some years ago, when I asked Rene if she might one day share what she knew of the Hughes couple she was adamant that she would not. She knew them both well. From many earlier conversations I knew she had confidences and secrets she could tell, yet out of consideration for Ted and his family was adamant she would never share them with the world at large. I respected her for her decision and did not try to press her. In retrospect I wonder if she might have changed her mind if she had been made aware of the poem. Given the merciless legacy of 'Eavesdropper' there seemed to me to be a bitter twist of irony in her decision; offered the opportunity to reveal all that she knew (of her 'eavesdropping sessions'), she chose to remain silent.
As I get older, and as my memories of my aunt begin to recede into the distance and as each time I come across 'Eavesdropper' its vindictive recrimination hits me again, and whilst assuming the poet's absolute right of artistic licence to distort and misrepresent, I am pleased that I've tried to redress the skewed imbalance of the poem. There may be others around who have identified Rene. As I've suggested above I am convinced that Hughes himself recognised the portrait of his neighbour - for Hughes and Herbert and Rene had many neighbourly interactions - and so held back that poem as he did others, so as to protect her. In his Memoirs Herbert tells of how, after his retirement, Hughes let him cultivate and use the neglected Court Green kitchen-garden:
One day our neighbour Ted Hughes came in to see what changed to the cottage we were making. During his visit ... I broached the subject of what, in previous times, was the kitchen garden of Court Green ... it was completely overgrown with nettles and other weeds, masses of raspberry canes gone wild, saplings and even full-grown hawthorn trees ... Mr Hughes agreed a reasonable rent and got a solicitor to prepare a lease, and I set about the task of clearing the weeds and brushwood, burning the same and digging the ground ... I continued to use the plot until I was approaching 80.
Hughes indicated his affection for the couple through presenting them with a signed copy of each of his books as they were published. I guess he may have been a little more cautious to do so on publication of his first wife's Collected Poems, in 1981, when 'Eavesdropper' finally made an appearance in the UK. I'm not sure they had a copy, though they certainly had Ariel and Winter Trees. If they did I guess neither of them would have spotted the portrayal of Rene. Although they always admired their poet neighbours both Hughes' and Plath's poetry was obtuse and foreign to my uncle and aunt - who were more at ease with Betjeman, Yeats and Rupert Brooke - the latter of whose poetry I know Rene was especially fond. More recently, before his death, Hughes made a special exception for Rene when, during his last illness, during a period in which he was not signing texts, she asked if he would sign a copy of Birthday Letters for her niece (me) - who he did not know. I treasure this book.
Having undergone angst about even attempting to write this particular blog piece - for reasons which by now must be obvious - I am now just a little more reluctant than usual to press the publish tab. How do you try to convey in just a few paragraphs a sense of what a special, loved person has meant to you over a lifetime? This piece is very much a first try to put what I want into words and is, I fear wanting; perhaps one day I might decide to expand my reading of 'Eavesdropper'.
But now I seem to hear an inner voice and my late godmother Rene's gravelly laugh, her wicked sense of humour; she's cheering me on. I muse about how the two women's neighbourly acquaintance may have evolved if Plath had returned to Court Green as indeed it seems she planned: would they have ended up bosom pals, or bitter rivals?
‘… It’s my plan to return to Court Green in the Spring … Aprilish …please plan on coming back to Devon with me! It would be such fun to open the place up in the Spring there with you.’ (Letter from Plath to Ruth Fainlight, Jane and Sylvia - in Poetry Society).