“I looked on my stomach and saw Frieda Rebecca, white as flour with the cream that covers new babies, little funny dark squiggles of hair plastered over her head…she sucked at me a few minutes like a little expert…I have never been so happy in my life.”
Thus, in that letter to her mother, did American-born author and poet Sylvia Plath describe the arrival of her firstborn child on April 1, 1960. For Plath, the sweetness of that moment would not last. Three years later she committed suicide at her home in London, leaving behind Frieda and her little brother, Nicholas, estranged husband Ted Hughes and a collection of darkly personal writing that would become required reading for a burgeoning feminist movement.
While Plath’s celebrity (and the popularity of her only novel, The Bell Jar) grew only after her death at 30, her two children attracted little attention. Now, at 29, Frieda Hughes has suddenly emerged: A children’s book she has written and illustrated (The Meal a Mile Long) was published this fall (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $13.95), an exhibit of its pictures and some of her wildlife paintings opens in London this month, and she is now hard at work on her first novel. Even as a girl, says Frieda, “I wanted to be independent, to be master of my own life in my own way.”
Such mastery has been hard won, made more difficult by the legacy of two celebrated parents. Her father, a well-known poet at the time of Frieda’s birth, is now England’s Poet Laureate, a post he has held for the past five years. Following Plath’s death, he had quickly been cast as the villain in the feminist view of her suicide, and on four occasions the letters of Plath’s married name have been levered off her tombstone in the village of Heptonstall, Yorkshire. Hughes, 59, won’t discuss Plath in interviews and has dismissed any notion of his own blame as the “fantasia” of her cult followers.
Suddenly finding himself a single parent, he set to work raising the two children with the help of his sister, Olwyn, and his second wife, Carol. (Nicholas, 27 and an Oxford graduate in zoology, is now working on a doctorate at the University of Alaska.) The family lived in a centuries-old thatched house in Devon, and Frieda’s earliest memories are of Hughes “sitting at the end of my bed and telling me stories.” Daddy “did everything,” she says. “He took us to the beach, read to us and cooked for us.”
She says she remembers nothing of the winter morning when her mother’s body was found next to an open gas stove. “If it wasn’t painful for the family to talk about, they would have,” she says. “And they didn’t. All I knew was that ‘Daddy is here and make the most of it.’ ”
By 4, Frieda was “reading comfortably,” happily blessed with “all the books I ever wanted.” Yet there were signs that demons from her childhood lingered. At boarding school, she shed 50 lbs., dropping to 102 lbs. on her 5’8″ frame. “No psychological meaning,” she says, dismissing the anorexic episode. “Just a desire to be thin.” At 18, she was accepted at London’s prestigious St. Martin’s School of Art, but declined to attend. “I did want to paint and write so badly,” she says, “but I didn’t want to be judged for better or for worse because of my parents.”
Instead she became a waitress and a clerk, wrote and painted in her spare time and in 1979 married Desmond Dawe, a farm worker she had known since she was 16. The marriage lasted three years. Says Frieda: “My husband couldn’t understand why I wanted to work, or how painting and writing could be a job.” Eventually she reapplied to St. Martin’s and completed the three-year course last year.
She lives now in a modest southwest London apartment with real estate agent Clive Anderson, 47, whom she met three years ago when she went to his office looking for a flat. “I thought she was selling advertising space. I decided that whatever she was selling, I was sold,” says the twice-married Anderson. Says Hughes: “We haven’t been apart a day since. We share the cooking, the washing up—everything. There are no preconceived roles. We’re about as equal as you can get.”
Anderson is still awaiting a divorce from his second wife, but Hughes says that when it comes, there are no plans for marriage or children. “I don’t want to be Mrs. Anyone,” she says. “I don’t like Ms. either. I just want to be Frieda Hughes.” And for now, success as a painter and writer seem like quite enough.
Painting and writing: It is, of course, a natural path. Her mother studied art and writing too, but of Plath’s work, Frieda says only that “I am very proud of it, in the same way I feel a warm glow about Daddy’s poetry.” Like a sensible child caught in the middle of a grown-ups’ quarrel, she says she will never be drawn into the controversy over her parents’ relationship. Insists Hughes: “I’m very much out of it.”
—Fred Hauptfuhrer in London