THE BRITISH LIBRARY

English and Drama blog

24 October 2018

The Cambridge Love Letters from Ted Hughes to Liz Hicklin

by guest blogger Di Beddow, PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London, researching Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in Cambridge. Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have  been catalogued  (Add MS 89198) and are available to consult in the Manuscripts Reading Room via our online catalogue, Explore Archives and Manuscripts. Read more  on our Ted Hughes Discovering Literature page. Reach Di on Twitter at @DiBeddow, and read more about her work here.

Hughes stock image
Ted Hughes by Fay Godwin, Copyright British Library Board
 

Recently acquired by the library, letters and cards from poet Ted Hughes to Elizabeth Hicklin (née Grattidge) have been catalogued (Add MS 89198) and are available for reading in the Manuscripts Reading Room. Hicklin, a nurse at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge met Hughes when he was an undergraduate at Pembroke College in the early 1950s. The couple were in a relationship for several years with Liz meeting the Hughes family in Yorkshire and joining the students in The Anchor public house where according to Daniel Huws, a friend of Ted’s at Cambridge ‘She smiled indulgently at the proceedings’ (Memories of Ted Hughes 2010 p.16) The letters shed light on a period which is not as well documented as most of Hughes’s life and work; it gives insight into his views on Cambridge; his friendship groups; his family and his writing, travel and career plans.

Liz, the recipient of the letters, was from Manchester originally, but left both her home and Cambridge eventually to emigrate to Australia where she lives today.  At one point the couple thought they would both emigrate and join Gerald, Hughes’s  brother, but Liz left for America first and whilst the relationship did not survive her departure, the correspondence is warm and tender from Hughes. He calls her, ‘My darlingest bunnyown’ and ‘My darling Bunpussington.’When he considers the end of their relationship with the distance between them, he is totally candid - ‘I dare say you’d have shown more faith in me if I’d shown you more honesty.’  He appreciates that she may well meet someone else abroad, but he insists, ‘I love you Bun, don’t ever doubt that.’ The letters and postcards were sent over a two year period and shed light on the time when as he says in ‘Fidelity’ from Birthday Letters that he graduated, but remained part of the culture in which he had studied – ‘Free of University I dangled/ In its liberties’.

In one letter he writes of his plan for an autobiographical novel about Cambridge and a book of fairy tales for children.  This is significant in that traditionally it is given that Hughes wrote little whilst at Cambridge; he tells Liz though that he has ‘…an idea for a book.  Two books in fact. One is about Cambridge. An autobiography of a student written from I’m not quite sure what angle, during three years, and to sell as a soft back popular thing.’

Just six months later he was to meet Sylvia Plath in Cambridge and she was to start a book called Falcon Yard which was to tell the story of her meeting and relationship with Hughes in Cambridge.  He goes on to say that - ‘The book about Cambridge would be very cynicial (sic), I feel, very cruel to everyone I knew - but the interesting things about everyone I knew, now I look back, seem to have been their absurdities.  I don’t think that I remember it with much affection’.

This is a popular view of Hughes at Cambridge, as an outsider and a critic, for example, of the Cambridge teaching of English Literature; one recalls Hughes’s dream of a burnt fox which considered his latest essay and warned him “Stop this. You are destroying us.” ‘(Letter to Keith Sagar 16 July 1979) However, Hughes made strong and lasting relationships with several of his Cambridge contemporaries and he finishes his letter to Liz reassuringly, telling her that she is not incorporated in his slight of the Cambridge circle -  ‘You’re just no part of it, you’re nothing but a good memory, my very best. Ever’.

The postcards are all sent from Europe when Hughes was on holiday with his Uncle Walt. In one from Spain, showing the cathedral in Tarragona he says, ‘Nothing but tombs of gold and lapis lazuli…’ which resonates with one of Liz Hicklin’s anecdotes of their relationship written up in an article included in the folder; she tells that Hughes would recite his favourite poem, Yeats’  ‘Oil and Blood’ in the pub.  The poem begins, ‘In tombs of gold and lapis lazuli’ and it accentuates the mysterious phenomenon of decaying corpses in tombs, with heavenly or supernatural scents and oils.  Indeed, Hughes continues on the card - ‘…what a melancholy choosing faculty I have.’

Six poems and literary fragments are also included. The majority of the drafts are untitled with the exception of ‘Sheep’ and ‘Nessie’. Two of the drafts are written in another hand and not Hughes's. ‘Sheep’ is a typewritten copy of the poem which appeared in Season Songs published in 1976, whilst ‘Nessie’ has some skilled sketches for which Hughes became known whenever he was writing for children; signing publications for those dear to him, or simply when doodling.

Finally there are two photographs, one of Hughes fishing at the age of 22, taken by his brother Gerald and another, more interesting perhaps, of the couple at a May Ball in Pembroke.  Liz has written on the back that it was taken at 3 a.m. and Liz has sunk into an armchair with Hughes standing beside her. Linking this photo back to a letter Hughes sent home in May 1954, reveals that the similar profiles of the two were noted by several peers.  Hughes writes in a letter home - ‘There is a girl here that I shall take with me (to Australia) if I still feel like it, and probably marry her before I go…She is a nurse and from some angles looks very like me, everyone says.’ (Selected Letters p.25)

Liz’s article on her memories of the relationship is added to the material and proves to be a useful commentary on the folder.  Hughes’s courtship of Liz bears strong resemblances to the way he courted Plath, using pet-names, reading poetry and what he calls in Birthday Letters (‘The Owl’) his ‘masterpiece’, aping the sound of a hurt rabbit in order to attract owls.  Liz describes this in terms similar to that of Plath’s amazement - ‘Ted made a whining sound with moistened lips and a cupped hand.  Creatures appeared from nowhere - rabbits from their burrows, a stoat at his feet.  Birds swooped overhead. “They think it’s an animal in distress,” he said.  A trick learnt as a small boy, trailing his big brother over the moors, trapping rabbits and delivering newspapers for the family business.’

The wit of both Hicklin and Hughes brings their mutual attraction alive; she recalls receiving a written invitation from Hughes, ‘Would you like to come to tea? I have a ghost in my room.’  When she does attend his room she is taken aback by the drawings of birds with clawed feet and hooked beaks over the walls.  When Hughes tells her he intends to be a writer of children’s stories, she notes the murals and induces, ‘You’ll scare them to death.’

This folio of material enchants with its anecdotes and proves to be a rich resource for the lesser-known Cambridge period of Ted Hughes.