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British Library Acquires Olwyn Hughes Archive

The British Library has acquired a significant collection of letters sent by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes’ sister

Announced at the sixth International Ted Hughes Conference at Pembroke College, Cambridge, the archive contains 41 letters from Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath along with literary papers including early poetry and prose drafts and some previously unpublished material.

The total cost to purchase the archive of Olwyn Hughes was £29,500. The archive will be catalogued and made accessible to researchers at the British Library by early 2011.

The unpublished material by Hughes includes a partial handwritten draft of an untitled play and unpublished poems that are believed to date from the late 1950s and early 1960s. The literary drafts in the archive highlight the creative development of both poets and many of the drafts were later published in Lupercal and The Colossus in 1960 by Hughes and Plath respectively.

The letters which date from 1954 to 1964 shed light on different aspects of Ted Hughes’ life and early career from time spent in the US and life with his first wife through to the development of his career and his opinions on contemporary poets and writers.

Writing from the USA where he lived from 1957 until 1959 Hughes often described his feelings on life in Massachusetts in comparison to post-war Britain that he had left behind. In one letter from 1957 he wrote how: ‘luxury is stuffed down your throat – a mass-produced luxury – till you feel you’d rather be rolling in the mud and eating that.’

Hughes’ letters also provide an insight into early developments in his career including the publication of Hawk in the Rain and time spent at Yaddo in New York State, where life according to Hughes was ‘perfect’. As keen theatre goers Hughes and Plath were also aware of new talent and in a letter from 1960 Hughes wrote to his sister that ‘everybody’s full of Harold Pinter’ who was then emerging as an exciting new playwright following the first production of The Caretaker at the Arts Theatre in London.

Family life is illustrated in the letters written jointly by the couple. In most cases Plath added her news to the reverse or end of Hughes’ letters providing an interesting juxtaposition of handwriting, opinion and subject matter. Reflecting on the travels they made during the first years of their marriage, Plath explains how their experiences provided inspiration for the literary work they created.

Helen Broderick, Curator of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library, said:

“This exciting new acquisition provides a real insight into the early careers of both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath as they sought publication and recognition for their work. Hughes’ insights into life in America are particularly fascinating and the archive complements the British Library’s existing Hughes collections by covering this key period of change and development in his life.”

Image: Ted Hughes Letter

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world’s greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world’s largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library’s collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation. It includes: books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages.

The British Library is a leading partner in the work of the UK Literary Heritage Group (UKLH), which is working to establish and take forward a national strategy for literary manuscripts and is lobbying for changes in the current tax laws to benefit living authors wanting to deposit their papers with UK libraries.

The sixth International Ted Hughes Conference, From Cambridge to “Collected” is taking place at Pembroke College, Cambridge between 15 – 18 September 2010 with plenary lectures from Jonathan Bate and Simon Armitage. Following the conference the Elmet Trust is offering an optional tour of the Calder Valley for conference members from 18 – 20 September 2010.

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