Sylvia Plath: Jillian Becker on the poet's last days

Sylvia Plath with her son Nick
Image caption,
Sylvia Plath with her son Nick

In February 1963, American poet Sylvia Plath killed herself in her flat in London. Plath had been struggling to cope with the separation from her husband, Ted Hughes. During the last months of her life, Plath became friends with the writer Jillian Becker - this is Becker's account of their last days together.

On a freezing afternoon in February 1963, Sylvia arrived with her children, Frieda and Nick, at my house on Mountfort Crescent, off Barnsbury Square in Islington.

She had called to ask if she could come, so I was expecting her. As soon as she came in she said she would like to lie down.

It was no surprise to me. She was plainly feeling low, even more so than had been usual in the five months or so that I had known her.

I had met her in September 1962, shortly after her marriage to Ted Hughes had broken up.

I felt sorry for her. I admired and envied her talent. Our times together had not been merry, but still I liked her company.

She had given me a signed copy of her book of poems, The Colossus, and we had talked about poetry and many other things.

I led her upstairs to my eldest daughter's room. My husband Gerry was sleeping off a bout of flu in our bedroom.

I took the children to play with my youngest daughter, Madeleine, in a downstairs room where the noise would not disturb the sleepers. Nick was about the same age as Madeleine, a little over one year old. Frieda was nearly three.

Sylvia slept for an hour or two, then came to find us. She told me she would "rather not go home".

It was easy for me to let them stay. My two older girls, Claire and Lucy, were away for the weekend, so I had a room for Sylvia and another for her children.

She handed me the keys to her apartment in Fitzroy Road and asked me to fetch a few things for her - toothbrushes… nightclothes… her medication… a particular dress… a couple of books she had started reading - which I did.

When I got back, I bathed and fed Frieda and Nick with Madeleine, and when all three were settled for the night, I made dinner for Sylvia and Gerry and myself.

Chicken soup was ready as a remedy for Gerry's flu, and it seemed to do Sylvia good too. We followed it with steaks from a great French butcher in Soho, and mashed potato and salad. Sylvia ate heartily, and said how good it all was.

I don't remember what we chatted about, only that it was not about her own predicament. Not then.

But later she asked me to come and sit beside her, showed me bottles of pills and told me which of them helped her to sleep and which got her going in the morning.

She swallowed sleeping pills at about 10 o'clock, but prattled on for an hour or more about people I didn't know as if they were mutual friends.

She seemed to be rambling, and I thought it was because she was growing sleepy.

Then her tone changed, and she talked emotionally and energetically about Ted and Assia Wevill, the woman he had left her for.

Image caption,
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes on their honeymoon

She was bitter, she was jealous, she was angry.

Ted had taken Assia to Spain. She wished she could take the children to Spain, to somewhere in the sun, away from this freezing weather. The children, she said, had not been well, they needed to go somewhere warm, somewhere by the sea.

I said I would take her and the children to sun and sea in the Easter holidays, though I'd prefer Italy to Spain. "Easter," she said, "is a long way off. "

It was almost midnight when she fell asleep and I was able at last to go to bed myself.

But an hour or so later Nick woke up. I warmed a bottle of milk for him and, hearing Sylvia call out to us, I took him to her so that she could feed him. Frieda came to her mother's bed too.

After I'd got them back in their own beds, Sylvia asked me if I thought it was time for her to take her wake-up pills. I told her no, it was much too early.

But she couldn't sleep. She asked me would I stay with her a while. I sat near her bed with the lamp switched off and only the light from the landing slanting into the room.

She would close her eyes, but suddenly open them, and once half rose, saw that I was still there, and lay down again as if reassured by my presence.

When I was certain she was asleep I went to my own bed.

In the morning, after she'd taken her medication and devoured a good breakfast, she phoned a young woman who had promised to come and stay with her as an au pair to help look after the children but had changed her mind. Sylvia spent a long time trying to persuade her to change it back again with no success.

Her doctor spoke to me on the phone. I had known Dr Horder for longer than I had known Sylvia. He told me not to do everything for the children, that Sylvia must look after them, she must feel that they needed her.

So I asked her to come with me when I took them to the bathroom, when I prepared their meals, when Nick needed feeding and changing. But she didn't pick up soap or towel, or a spoon, or a safety pin.

I'd leave the room, but she'd wait for me to return. My choice was to let them go unwashed, unfed, unchanged, or do the job myself. Mostly I did it.

On the next evening Sylvia put on the blue and silver dress I had fetched for her.

She had taken time and trouble over her hair. She almost smiled - certainly seemed pleased - when I said she looked beautiful.

She told me she was going to meet someone, but not who it was.

She kissed Frieda and Nick goodnight. Frieda followed her to the front door, and just before Sylvia opened it, she bent down to the little girl and said, "I love you!"

I learnt days later that it was Ted she met that night. He drove her back to our house. I don't remember what time she returned, or anything she said.

I do remember that the next day she joined us at the table for our usual ample Sunday lunch of soup, roast meat with the usual trimmings, and cheese, dessert, and wine.

I remember that she enjoyed it. She fed Nick. She seemed, if not cheerful, at least far less dejected. We lingered over our coffee, talking contentedly.

The children went to sleep, and as the wine had made us sleepy too, we all three went to our rooms to lie down and doze until about four o'clock.

We had tea. Gerry, well again, played with the children. The winter evening was closing in.

Claire and Lucy would be brought home soon. I was considering how I would accommodate everyone.

There were two spare rooms and a bathroom on the top floor and I was trying to decide whether to put Sylvia and the children up there, or keep them on the same floor with me and move my daughters to the top rooms, when Sylvia suddenly said: "I must get back. I have to sort the laundry. And I'm expecting a nurse to call in the morning, the one who came to help with Nick while he was ill."

And she began briskly gathering things together and putting them in carrier bags. In those moments she actually seemed invigorated, almost elated, as I hadn't seen her before.

Gerry asked her if she was sure she wanted to go. She said she was.

So he drove her cautiously through the snow-slushy streets in his car - an old black London taxi with the meter removed.

It was a rattler, and sitting alone in the front he couldn't hear what anyone in the back might be saying.

Only when he stopped at a red light did he hear the sound of weeping. He parked the car and went to sit on a jump seat opposite Sylvia.

As she went on crying, the children began crying too. He took them on his knees.

He implored her to let him bring them back to our house. She refused. She became calm and insisted they go on to Fitzroy Road.

He saw her into her apartment. He promised her he would look in on her next day.

He came back and told me that he wished she had stayed on with us, that he didn't think she could cope on her own.

I knew he was right, yet I wasn't entirely sorry she had left. I would not have to go on being nurse to her and her children.

My daughters would not have to give up their rooms. I would have no more interrupted nights.

And pity tires the heart.

For which thoughts I was to endure long remorse.

On the Monday morning at about eight o'clock the phone rang. I answered, and Dr Horder told me Sylvia had put her head in the gas oven and was dead.

Jillian Becker was interviewed by Lucy Burns for the BBC World Service programme Witness. Listen back via iPlayer or browse the Witness podcast archive.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook.

Around the BBC