Her Husband: Hughes and Plath – A Biography of Their Marriage, Diane Middlebrook, New York & London: Penguin Group, 2003
After finishing Diane Middlebrook’sHer Husband: Hughes and Plath – A Biography of Their Marriage (New York & London: Penguin Group, 2003), I was struck by the difference it makes to have this first significant product of research based on the Hughes’ papers at Emory University. Up to now, those of us especially who are oriented toward matters Plath, have seen little of Hughes from the inside as it were.
Starting with the meeting of Sylvia and Ted in 1956, Middlebrook explores in detail the intense interaction of their psychic and artistic lives, now illuminated further by what is revealed in the Hughes’ papers and from informants sought out by Middlebrook. Ted emerges more three-dimensionally than we have seen him before: Ted, the bright Yorkshire boy, who is brought up on hunting and gutting small game on the moors with his older brother becomes Ted, the aesthete of animalistic instincts blended with his motherís astrological mysticism and his own academic mastery of mythology.
All of Ted’s, wild machoid roughness energizes Sylvia like an addictive drug. Indeed, as we learn later in the book, a succession of women proceed to bed him for this reason. On the other hand, Sylvia’s intensity and artistry with language energize Hughes. Both prosper as artists because of their collaboration, even though their inner selves remain far apart. In time, according to Middlebrook, Sylvia’s manic obsessions, together with her jealous possessiveness become unbearable for Ted, who must always do his thing, as we say, so he splits. And so the marriage falls apart as Ted shacks up with sexy Assia, and Sylvia’s depressions become worse even as the ups and downs of her life generate her finest art, a poetry of self-renewal.
The latter part of the book follows Ted’s life after Sylvia’s death–a life of guilt and torment amidst his successes and fame as a poet. The marriage with Sylvia lives on in his head and in his art as a stoker of myth-making the Sylvia-myth and his own Ted-myth. Middlebrook exonerates Hughes from guilt for Sylvia’s death. Depression killed her, she says, and Ted’s primal instincts are what made him do what he did in his affairs with other women. Ultimately, however, he redeems himself best (and at times worst) by having edited and promoted her writing, and by composing and assembling his proof of his devotion to her in Birthday Letters.
Middlebrook’s perceptive readings of Plath’s and Hughes’s poems in relation to the events of their lives make her book worthwhile even if one thinks the author is a bit too soft on the big guy. In my own view, a vain and self-indulgent artist who ruins other people’s lives cannot be excused because of his artistic temperament. Yes, ars longa, vita brevis, but life is not to be made such fodder for art as we have sometimes seen. In my book, a person of character does not exploit or hurt others. Isn’t that a quaint belief for these times we live in?
Sharon, Vermont, USA
Tuesday, April 27, 2004