‘It’s really strange to be reminded of your perpetually dead parents’: Frieda Hughes on her famous literary family and her magpie memoir George

·12-min read
Being Frieda, both on the page and in conversation, seems to be an unadulterated experience (Frieda Hughes)
Being Frieda, both on the page and in conversation, seems to be an unadulterated experience (Frieda Hughes)

Frieda Hughes’s memoir, George, is a love story about bringing up a baby magpie. But it does, of course, mention her parents. “When introduced, my name is all-too-often FRIEDAHUGHES-DAUGHTER-OF-TEDHUGHES-AND-SYLVIAPLATH,” she writes. Frieda is a poet herself, as well as a painter, and she describes the label to me in a neat image: “You get to wear it, a bit like a coat that somebody puts over your shoulders and you can’t really shrug off.” Between 2006 and 2008, she had been The Times’s poetry columnist; when her role was cut, she was dismayed at the loss of her independent identity. It makes me wonder when Frieda Hughes has felt the most, well... Frieda?

“Now!” she says, with feeling. “I feel the most Frieda all the time, except when that’s happening. And then people jolt me out of my being Frieda-ish, and hang me on these other hooks that are my parents.” Plath, the author of the seminal, semi-autobiographical The Bell Jar and of influential, excoriating poems like Lady Lazarus and Daddy, and Hughes, the brooding bard of the Yorkshire Dales and later poet laureate, had perhaps the most famous marriage in literary history. Frieda was not yet three years old when her mother, who had been treated for depression throughout her life, died by suicide in 1963 at the age of 30. Plath had separated from Hughes six months earlier, following his affair with Assia Wevill, and taken Frieda and her younger brother Nicholas to live with her, in a flat once owned by WB Yeats on Fitzroy Road in north London. After her death, Frieda and Nicholas were raised by their father. Frieda loves her parents; is proud of what they achieved. But “it’s really strange, on a personal level, to be reminded of your perpetually dead parents. Sorry, I shouldn’t joke, but” – this she says very bluntly – “once your family is dead, they’re not coming back.”

Being Frieda, both on the page and in conversation, seems to be an unadulterated experience; vivid, passionate, constantly curious. “I mean, are your parents still alive?” she asks me. Her habit of asking questions is disarming. On favourite pursuits: “What is your passion?” On writing personal material: “I mean, could you write about your innermost thoughts and feelings, and your bodily functions?” On the current fashion for tweaking famous texts: “Would you personally advocate the changing of a historical document to make it more politically correct?” She could chat for Britain, letting our interview go on so she can put off working on her garden’s new watering system. “Can you separate art from artist? Now you’ve posed a question that’s going to trouble me while I’m doing the drippers in the garden all day.”

Although George briefly refers to Frieda’s parents, really it’s a beguiling – sometimes frenzied, sometimes bittersweet – character study of the bird that flew into her life. It taps into the trend for nature memoirs, without their occasional lofty pretension; her voice, as in her poetry, is direct and immediate. Even over Zoom from her kitchen in Wales (“Good, you can’t see the washing up!”), glasses pushed back on her head, she’s startlingly present. She was the same with George the magpie. For the five months during which she reared him, having found him as a chick in her garden, she soaked up each second. “I was transfixed,” she writes of watching him grow, “and felt that if I left the room for a moment, I’d miss a whole other stage.” Later, George sits atop her head, or perches on her shoulder as she paints. Conscious that he is a wild bird, Frieda lets him fly away, but he keeps returning to her kitchen, where he builds piles of treasure. Magpies “have a tangible sense of humour”, Frieda writes. It was, she tells me now, “the most hysterical time of my life”.

This was all over 10 years ago, and there were plans to publish the book, written as a diary, at the time – but then Frieda’s brother Nicholas took his own life. “So that just made me put everything back in a box. I had to go off and deal with his death, and that took a year. By the time I got out of that year, I was a different person.” George’s presence, too, seems marked by the shadow of his own eventual loss from the start – she knew one day he’d fly away for good. I wonder if looking back on that time – which also coincided with the end of her third marriage – feels bittersweet. “This sounds really strange, but I feel quite homesick for George,” she says. Having built him an aviary, she told people she could rehome other birds in need – a crow called Oscar followed, before the 14 owls she now lives with. “If you ask enough people, they’re going to give you enough birds. That’s what happened. People realised I had ‘mad bird lady’ on my forehead. Print it backwards so they can see me in their wing mirrors.”

Animals certainly seem to like Frieda, who also has two huskies and a ferret among her menagerie; my cat keeps gatecrashing our interview. But that affinity with nature is linked to Frieda’s desire to put down roots. In the introduction to George, she describes her longing for “plants, pets and a home of my own that I would never have to move from”. As a child, she was never in the same place for long. “My dad moved around so much, the car was the one constant because we were always in it, shunted with piles and piles of books.” After living in Australia, she returned to the UK when her father, who died in 1998, became unwell; she’s been in her current home for 19 years. “I don’t want to move again, ever.”

That absolute commitment applies to many things in Frieda’s life, from her love of motorbikes to her writing and painting. When she first began to compose her own poems, it was compulsive. Aged 14, while having dinner with her American grandmother in a restaurant, she couldn’t stop the torrent of words. “I had to borrow a pen from a waitress,” she tells me. Later, she slipped off to a toilet cubicle to finish her poem. (It wasn’t written while on the toilet, she later emails to clarify.) Writing, she said in the preface to her collected poems, Out of the Ashes, is “like dragging splinters out of skin”.

It’s really strange, on a personal level, to be reminded of your perpetually dead parents

Frieda Hughes

“I feel I get clogged,” she explains. Her poems often emerge from “intense emotions” – like the time recently when “I got a bit annoyed with Prince Harry and Meghan, and I wrote a poem.” (“Queen as Touchstone”, her poem inspired by the death of the Queen, was published in The Times last year.) “The problem is, if we don’t answer our impulses as soon as possible, and the moment is gone, it becomes sidelined,” she says. She’s similarly urgent about her painterly inspirations. Sometimes she’s out on her motorbike, and will time her ride so that “I’m racing the sun home. Or sometimes there’s a cloud formation, and I think, ‘I’ve gotta get home! Quick! Get that down!’”

George is Frieda’s most personal book so far, stepping out of the allegory she hid behind in early poems. From a young age, she’d been “schooled very sternly: ‘Don’t tell anybody anything. Don’t speak.’” She would go to school and “feel completely struck dumb, because everybody’s talking about their weekend with their family, and I’d think” – she gasps – “‘Oh, I mustn’t do that.’” Who enforced this, she doesn’t say (although it wasn’t her father, she adds). In the book, she describes her Aunt Olwyn’s fury that her and Ted’s older brother Gerald had written a memoir about Ted; perhaps it was all part and parcel of the scrutiny that came with being one of the most famous literary families in England. But gradually, she says, she did find the confidence to say, “I also have feelings, and that’s where the writing comes from, that’s where the painting comes from.” Her father, after all, had found relief in publishing Birthday Letters, his deeply personal final collection about his marriage to Plath. When Frieda accepted the 1999 Whitbread Prize on his behalf after his death, she read a remarkable letter in which he declared, “How strange that we have to make these public declarations of our secrets. But we do. If only I had done the equivalent 30 years ago, I might have had a more fruitful career – certainly a freer psychological life.”

Alongside her own creative life, Frieda has also been the careful custodian of her mother’s literary legacy (Hughes’s estate is managed by his widow, Carol Orchard, whom he married in 1970). I wonder if, in light of changes to the work of authors such as Roald Dahl, Frieda would ever let Plath’s work be edited. “In my mother’s work, my attitude is very firmly: it was of an age. I think, in editing something out, how can the future learn what the past was, and what they did differently?” It is, she thinks, “a disservice. I think it’s also very patronising to readers.” Does it worry her that it could happen when she’s no longer around? “Well. I don’t know until it does. Do you think it should worry me?”

But that role of custodianship is something Frieda has been thinking about in recent years; at auctions in 2018 and 2021, she sold a number of her parents’ possessions, including their wedding rings. Her fear was of a future in which she was old, infirm, and “living in piles of detritus that have stacked up from my dead relatives”, no longer in any condition to shepherd their things. One morning she woke up and looked at an old chair, and realised, “One day I’m going to die and that’s £60 at auction. But Sylvia Plath sat in that chair with me and my brother on her knee and was photographed. And I realised that everything that looks ordinary will just vanish, and nobody would know that it belonged to anybody who loved it or was of any import. So that was very defining.”

Frieda Hughes with one of her owls, Eddie (Frieda Hughes)
Frieda Hughes with one of her owls, Eddie (Frieda Hughes)

Online, some expressed surprise about the sale – of the rings in particular. One article, unaware that Frieda herself was the seller, suggested that “the decent thing to do might be to buy [Plath’s] ring and return it to Plath’s daughter, who is still very much alive”. Frieda admits she initially felt hesitant – “I thought, I really can’t sell these” – but, in fact, felt “abject relief” once they were sold. “The relief was, I have to say – I mean, financially, it was good, yes – but the psychological relief was tremendous. I expected to be a bit relieved – I couldn’t afford to insure anything; I mean, God, if the house went up in flames, that’s it. But I didn’t expect the psychological relief, which was so huge. Just the responsibility. Oh my God, getting rid of the sheer responsibility was terrific.”

If dealing with the items was a kind of psychic exorcism, a literary equivalent may also be in the offing. Frieda seems, tentatively, to be looking around her and thinking about her own legacy, reclaiming her part in this story. To some, her father is a controversial figure, owing to the role of his infidelity in the break-up of the couple’s marriage, plus Plath’s explosive claims, in letters written to her psychiatrist and published in 2017, that he had beaten her; Plath’s grave has repeatedly been defaced to remove his surname. But in a 2015 BBC documentary about her father, Frieda condemned the “outsiders” who “make judgements that affect somebody in their life, for all of their life”, which she said is “a sort of horrible form of theft... It’s an abuse”. In a foreword to the second volume of her mother’s letters, Frieda wrestled with Plath’s allegations of abuse, noting that Plath had once ripped up Hughes’s manuscripts, and concluding, “While my father does not come out of them as a saint, neither does my mother. In my view, they are both flawed and impassioned human beings and I love them more for this.”

Frieda Hughes’s book ‘George’ (Profile Books)
Frieda Hughes’s book ‘George’ (Profile Books)

In George, Hughes is simply a doting dad, who stood for “stability, and a sense of permanence”. “If my father was in the room, then he represented warmth and safety just in his very being,” she writes. That was, she tells me, “almost like a form of repossession”. I ask if there are things about her parents that she’ll never tell – things she wants to keep for herself. “I think there’ll come a time when I want to say something. George is the beginning, if you like. Because I’ve never written anything except for poetry, this is my toe in the ocean,” she explains. Frieda is also conscious of “waste”. This is why, after the bereavements she suffered, she trained to be a counsellor. “I didn’t want to waste my experience of misery. And I wanted to put it to good use. So, in the same way, I don’t want what I’ve learned to be wasted. The trouble is, living people feel the pain of everything, don’t they? It’s hard to write when people are still alive. But my dad, my mum – I can write about bits of those. So I have to see where I go with that.”

Another memoir, then? “Another one. I’ll leak, Jessie! I’ll just leak another memoir every now and then,” she laughs, with a bright smile. A first draft for a book about her owls has already been completed. “There’s so much to write about. I would like to use it.”

‘George’ is out now, published by Profile Books