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Poetic justice

Painter and poet Frieda Hughes has struggled all her life to escape
comparisons with her famous parents. She tells Mick Brown why she had to
keep creating

By Mick Brown
12:00AM BST 16 Jun 2001

IT is in the nature of poets, perhaps, to bare their souls. But baring their wounds is another thing
altogether. I had been acquainted with Frieda Hughes for less than two hours when she hitched up
her T-shirt to show me her scar. Some years ago, Hughes underwent a series of gruelling operations
for the treatment of endometriosis, a condition that attacks the inner lining of the womb.

Legacy: Freida Hughes honoured her father's memory by collecting


his Whitbread prize

'It crawls up through the groin,' she writes in one of her new poems. 'Nail hooks pick out steps in soft
red,/ Seeking places to implant. . .'
It sounds ghastly, I say. 'Unmitigated agony,' she says. 'I'm showing him my scar, darling,' she adds,
as her husband Laszlo comes padding into the room. Laszlo - a large, cuddly man with a greying
ponytail and twinkling smile - doesn't bat an eyelid. Perhaps he's used to this. Like Frieda, he is a
painter, and the large, rambling house they share in south London is a shrine to their work, their
paintings occupying every inch of the walls.
Frieda Hughes says that everything you need to know about her is to be found in her painting and
her poetry. Her paintings are straightforward enough - figurative works of landscape and wildlife,
they testify to her years spent living in the Australian outback, her love of nature, her sharp eye and
vibrant sensibility. Her poetry is rather more ambiguous.
Related Articles

 13 March 2000: The 'demon' that killed Sylvia [review of Sylvia Plath's journals] 
16 Jun 2001

 30 November 1999: Ted Hughes' final message 

16 Jun 2001

 31 January 1998: A mismatched marriage [review of Birthday Letters] 

16 Jun 2001

As the daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath - the most famous couple in contemporary English
letters - Frieda Hughes has tended to shy away from attention. In her life as a painter and writer of
children's stories, the shadow of her illustrious parents has never been an issue. Furthermore, she
has lived much of her life in Australia - 'A great place,' she notes, 'for being anonymous.'
Writing poetry, however, is inviting trouble. For a long time, Hughes resisted the temptation to
publish her work, on the quite reasonable grounds that 'I didn't want to have my head kicked in with
all the comparisons'. When her first collection of poems, Wooroloo, was published in 1998, it would
be fair to say that, if not exactly kicked in, she was certainly roughed up a bit.
Undeterred, she is publishing her second collection, Stonepicker, this week. Leave aside for one
moment any discussion of the degree to which Frieda Hughes, poet, is the child of her parents; the
first thing that strikes you about Hughes's work is that it is anything but serene. Many of the poems in
Stonepicker are terse, jagged snapshots of distressed lives: a woman blinded by dog-faeces; a
schoolgirl wounded in a playground fight. There is a poem about Dr Harold Shipman ('God is a
doctor?/ Counting down corpses on his abacus/ Ten at a time'), and another called Landmines: 'The
legs are waiting./ There must be places in Heaven/ Where they are stacked fifteen deep.'
Much of her work employs the imagery or language of the medical procedure. 'Well, I've spent a lot
of time in emergency rooms,' says Frieda, with a sigh. 'This is one of the problems . . '
Fear, for example, is prompted by the memory of a night spent awaiting an operation. 'He sits on the
bed end, my black foot/ Foul-mouth friend. Breath like hot bitumen,/ His smile is tangled in those
rotten teeth,/ His hand upon my ankle like a clamp.'
Hughes says she likes to get to the point. 'Probably not when I'm talking - certainly not when I'm
talking, I can talk for hours - but when I'm writing. If I want somebody to see something, I don't want
them to be falling over frills and furbelows. It's a bit like peeling an orange. You peel it first and then
give somebody the orange.' This statement is true on both counts. While her poems are pleasingly
direct, conversation with Hughes is a long, meandering lane with many detours and digressions -
medical anecdotes, philosophical asides, the virtues of positive thinking, here a pasture of happy
memory, there a thicket of despair - to the point where you not only forget where you started, but
completely lose sight of where you may be going.
A willowy blonde with a hyperactive manner, she is given to swings of emotion: one minute
effervescent, the next - reading one of her own poems about witnessing a fire - struggling to choke
back tears. 'The worst thing that could happen to me,' she says intensely, 'would be to be put in a
situation where there are no paints, no pens, no paper. I think a lot, and then the thoughts crowd in
on each other and they need to go somewhere.' Apparently, it was ever thus. Relatives have told
Hughes that she was a morose child, but the thing she remembers most from her childhood is
'thinking'.
'Everything was a constant internal dialogue. I used to think of everything from what my father went
through - trying to cook for two children, find schools for us - to looking at what my brother got up to,
my friends, their parents, making comparisons. And I thought all kids were like that. And as I got
older I started asking other children what they thought about, and they didn't think about much. And I
used to envy that - people who could not think.'
In her journals, Sylvia Plath wrote lovingly of her daughter Frieda, 'glowing & beautiful & good at
table'. For her part, Frieda says she has only one or two 'private' memories of her mother. She was
three when Sylvia shut her and her younger brother Nicholas in the bedroom of their flat in Fitzroy
Square, north London, carefully sealed the door with towels, walked downstairs to the kitchen,
swallowed a handful of tranquillisers and turned on the gas. Three months earlier, Plath had walked
out on her husband, Ted Hughes, following the discovery of his affair with Assia Weevil.
Frieda was brought up by her father at his home in Devon, initially with Weevil, later with his second
wife, her stepmother, Carol. As a child, she says, she always wanted to write and paint, although
she had no awareness of her father's work or his eminence. 'I knew he wrote, and he told us stories,
but as a very young child the poetry was not something I was aware of.'
She was sent to Bedales, the progressive school in Hampshire. 'You had to be self-motivated. If you
can't teach someone what to learn, the gift you can give them is a curiosity and a wish to learn. And
that is something my father did very successfully; he encouraged curiosity.' Her adolescence was
difficult. She was anorexic, and at the age of 19 already married, to a biker. Swept off her feet by a
BSA 500?
'No. It was Triumphs and racing Suzukis.'
The marriage lasted two years. 'I always thought, the younger you marry, the longer you have
together. What I forgot, being young, was that the younger you marry, the more you're going to
change as you get older. And you can try and change together but it doesn't always work.'
She went to art school, married for a second time, and earned a living writing children's books, doing
illustrations and painting watercolours. When that marriage, too, came to an end, she moved to
Australia in 1988 to concentrate on her painting. This middle period of her life seems to have been
rocky. She was, she admits, 'deeply unhappy' in her early 30s, stressed, a workaholic, at one point
smoking up to 80 cigarettes a day. A prolonged love affair with an environmentalist ended unhappily.
For three years she suffered from ME, which left her severely incapacitated, 'as if my thoughts were
going into a wall'. And she underwent the gruelling series of operations for endometriosis which left
her unable to have children.
It was at this point, in 1994, that she met Laszlo. She was walking down the garden path to a party;
he was walking in the opposite direction. 'We looked at each other and fell madly in love.' The
moment is mythologised in a large painting by Laszlo which hangs above their bed, depicting them
as two ethereal beings enveloped in heavenly light, while the rest of the world fades to grey. They
are clearly utterly devoted to each other; Laszlo a pillar of support and forbearance.
At the time they met, says Hughes, she was so weakened by ME she could barely lift a paintbrush.
'He just put a mattress in front of my canvas and said, "It's very simple; when you want to sleep, just
fall over and go to sleep." And I did. When you have ME you have to become totally selfish.'
Hughes says she had written poetry since she was a young girl, but had always promised herself
she would not publish it, 'because it would be very foolish considering my parentage. I made that
decision quite early on, which was difficult. I would sling it in a box and not look at it again.'
Struggling with ME, however, she was too enervated to paint or to concentrate on her children's
books; writing poetry suited her limited energies. 'That was when the frustration of keeping my poetry
in a box, and not giving vent to myself because of perceived reactions, got more difficult to put up
with than I felt the criticism would be.'
When Wooroloo (named after her home in Australia) was published in 1998, critics made the
inevitable comparison with her parents' work, drawing attention to the themes of earth and beast
(dad) and the imagery of febrile neurasthenia (mum).
Hughes emits a deep sigh. Whether people believe it or not, she says, the truth is that she had not
read her parents' poetry, 'because I didn't want to be influenced by them. People say, you should
study your parents. But why? Everybody else is doing it? there are so many other poets to look at.'
As a schoolgirl she was excused study of their work. 'Although Daddy did offer to help me if I studied
him. I had to point out that a) that would be cheating and b) they'd probably disagree with his
conclusions.' She consciously avoided it thereafter.
It was not until 1995 that she bought a collected volume of her father's work, and, coincidentally, a
friend gave her a copy of her mother's book Winter Trees. 'I'd been working at my kitchen table, day
after day; and I had this pile of poems. And I thought I'd better find out. So I sat and read some of
their poetry, and I didn't think I was anything like them.'
This is the problem, she says. If she writes about foxes - which she does, because she was brought
up with foxes - then, 'that's his. And if I mention skin or blood, that's my mother. So I can only use
words that are 15 syllables or upwards, or I could use words like "and" and "but", because everybody
does? But if people are making comparisons between me and my parents, a) they are missing the
point, and b) they have not sat down and read the poem with me in mind.'
None the less - and discomfiting as it may be to Frieda Hughes herself - the critic who wrote that her
poems invite 'forensic examination' was right. It is inevitable that they will be scoured not only for
evidence of the similarity or otherwise to her parents work, but also for any clues as to what it has
meant to be the child of those parents.
Hughes hardly knew her mother, of course, and growing up, her father spoke of Sylvia only with
fondness and warmth, shielding his daughter from the facts of her mother's death and its unpleasant
aftermath. 'I grew up thinking of her very much as an angel,' she once said. 'And of course, as I grew
older it began to dawn on me that that was impossible, because she was a human being first.'
She has carefully avoided becoming embroiled in the fierce discourse about her parents' marriage -
the elevation of her mother to feminist martyr, the demonisation of her father as callous, insensitive
uber-male - 'a man in black with a Mein Kampf look', in Plath's own much-quoted phrase.
She has never contributed to any books about her parents, nor does she intend to. 'There's nothing I
could say. In my mother's case, everybody's made it up already and they're sticking to their stories.
And in my father's case, no.' There is also the simple matter, as she notes wearily, that 'I do have my
own life, which is rather full and busy.'
However, in her first volume of poetry she did launch a fierce attack, in the poem Readers, on those
who have made a cult of her mother's death, appropriating her misery for their own agenda.
'Wanting to breathe life into their own dead babies/ They took her dreams, collected words from one/
Who did their suffering for them./ They fingered through her mental underwear/ With every piece she
wrote. Wanting her naked./ Wanting to know what made her.'
Hughes says she wrote the poem as 'an angry acknowledgement of the idiocy that goes into that
possession of somebody whom you know nothing about, other than through one small aspect of
what was a many-faceted life'.
It was also, she admits, 'me wanting my mother back'. The poem was prompted by a discussion with
her father about Plath's gravestone being defaced by irate feminists wanting to 'reclaim' the poet
from her marriage. 'For a child to have their parents so usurped and reinterpreted is very difficult,
because there are these people saying, this writer of note interests us, and we have taken on board
the struggles they had in their life. And in their understanding and care,' - Hughes's voice drips with
irony - 'they completely forget that this was a real human being who had real children who have to
watch what's happening. And for a child it's very painful. And when I say child, it doesn't matter what
age you are; you are always the child of your parents. So that was my acknowledgement. And it was
my first ever public acknowledgement of, yes, she is my mother - and by the way, she really is my
mother.'
The way in which Plath's life has been the subject of what Hughes describes as 'creative
accounting - leaving out all the facts that don't fit' is clearly a source of anguish. In 1998 she was
invited by English Heritage to unveil a blue plaque on the house in Fitzroy Road, where Plath killed
herself.
After discussing the matter with her father, Frieda prevailed upon them to place it instead on the
house in nearby Chalcot Square, where Hughes and Plath lived for two years, and where Frieda
herself was born. At the unveiling ceremony last year, a man approached her on the street and said
the plaque was on the wrong house. 'I said, 'Well actually, I'm celebrating a life, not a death.' There
seemed to be this myth that my mother wrote everything that mattered as this tortured woman, on
her own, in Fitzroy Road. She didn't. I looked at the dates. She was there for eight weeks and two
days, she was ill and she had two kids and she wrote three poems. She wrote everything else
beforehand. And she was the one who wanted to be on her own in the end. She'd been happy with
Daddy at Chalcot Square.'
Hughes sighs. 'Somebody actually said that the plaque should be on Fitzroy Road, because "that is
where your mother was a single mother." And I thought, I didn't know they gave plaques for being a
single mother.'
Ted Hughes himself maintained a stoical silence through the years of verbal assault and vilification,
finally providing his version of events only nine months before his death from cancer in 1998, with
the publication of Birthday Letters, a series of elegiac - and arguably exculpatory - poems
about his love for Plath, their marriage, its breakdown and her death. Hughes had sent the
manuscript of Birthday Letters to Frieda and her brother, Nicholas, some months earlier, effectively
soliciting their view on whether or not he should publish them. 'I was outraged that he should ask. I
phoned him and said, "How can you ask me, and why are you even waiting to ask? You should have
done it already." Then I asked him, "Have you just finished it?" And he said, "No, I've been writing
them for years." I hadn't known about them at all. He'd said nothing until then.'
When Hughes was posthumously awarded the 1998 Whitbread Prize for Birthday Letters,
Frieda accepted it on her father's behalf. 'I felt so proud of him,' she says. 'It was good that people
should feel those words were very honest. You couldn't get anything more honest.'
Her new collection closes with two poems about her father. In The Last Secret, she broaches the
subject of his illness, and his reluctance for his family to mention it or discuss it with friends. 'The last
secret/ Is the elephant in the room/ We can't speak about it, even though/ It stalks you. Thorny-
haired,/ Its eyes of nostril turning always to you/ As if you have some special smell.'
'It was my frustration about not being able to talk about it,' she says, 'because it was a private thing
for him. And I totally understand that. You don't want to be pitied. You want to be looked at for your
strengths.' Her father read it before he died, she says. 'I'd never ask him what he thought about my
poetry, but I'd ask him to put it in two piles - the good pile and the bad pile. He just put it in the good
pile and smiled and didn't say anything.'
The final poem, Conversation With Death, is an expression of her anger at his dying at the
relatively early age of 68. 'It's me feeling I was talking to death, and saying, "Why did you take him
when you did?" And the only way that death could have had him that meant anything to death, was if
Daddy was at his most brilliant. I would have liked to have had him very much longer.'
Frieda Hughes says she believes we cannot own people, only borrow them, and then give them
back. 'And we're lucky we had them for the time we did. I was very conscious when I was younger of
how fortunate I was to have somebody who was so kind but also very understanding. He wasn't just
special because he was my dad; he was special because he had a quality I didn't see in many
others, which was a compassion and an understanding of people - too much sometimes. So writing
the poem helped me. That, she says, is why she writes poetry. 'To acknowledge the natural cycle of
life, in order to move on.