Review by Paul-John Ramos
HER HUSBAND: TED HUGHES & SYLVIA PLATH – A MARRIAGE
by Diane Middlebrook
375 Hudson Street
New York, New York 10014
2004, 384 pp., $16.00
Just like the Olympics, presidential elections, and the return of comets, literature goes through a time-cycle where every few years it must revisit the murky case of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. The marriage of these two artistic landmarks and its tragic aftermath—Plath took her own life 50 years ago this February—have drawn levels of interest well off the charts, extending to people who would usually have no interest in belles-lettres. It seems as if every intelligent person is familiar with them, is willing to lodge an opinion on them, and will go to extreme lengths to back up his or her argument.
The debate over Plath’s suicide at age 30 and the perceived guilt hanging over Hughes until his death in 1998 comprise one of those ages-old arguments that seem to defy the laws of physics: It is always resumed with the same brutal intensity and dropped because fistfights are ready to break out. This, however, is in a context of the layman, the casual reader. Things are a bit more civil but also more challenging in the field of professional biography, where researchers of Plath and Hughes are finding their area increasingly crowded. Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, published in 1989, is thought of by many as the standard-bearer for anything on the life of Plath, despite its controversies. Ted Hughes, largely because of the issues that have surrounded him and the unavailability of his private papers, lags behind, but was examined in Elaine Feinstein’s Ted Hughes: The Life of a Poet and is discussed whenever matters of Plath come up.
Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath – A Marriage is Diane Middlebrook’s effort to cover one of the last frontiers in Plath-Hughes scholarship by attempting a balanced view of the two poets’ lives, including that of Hughes in the years after their fallout. It also bases much of its argument on one of the last remaining forbidden cities, the Hughes archive of 108,000 items that was made available for research at Emory University in Atlanta thirteen years ago. Middlebrook, who previously wrote a well-regarded bio of Anne Sexton, timed Her Husband perfectly in that it was released during a media outburst caused by the film Sylvia with Gwyneth Paltrow and Daniel Craig. Middlebrook’s biography fares better than Sylvia, which completely bends history, but the quick turnaround of its publication makes one wonder if this actually kept Her Husband from being a stronger book—or, in fact, a good one.
For a book that aims to rehabilitate Hughes or at least encourage public understanding of him, Her Husband is a strange kind of product that doesn’t really achieve either. The now-late Middlebrook, a feminist scholar who willingly took on the challenge of biographing a condemned man, seems at pains to avoid dragging Hughes through the mud for another 300 pages. His literary achievement, never in real doubt, is puffed up through repetition of core beliefs (based on Robert Graves) and often superficial connections between his verse and the shamanistic concepts that filled his thinking. Middlebrook’s approach to the married couple also poses a built-in dilemma, in that Sylvia Plath, the American who overcame a suicide attempt to win her Fulbright scholarship, always strikes us as the more interesting person. And indeed, Plath seems ready to jog off with the storyline time after time before Middlebrook decides to push Hughes back into the foreground.
Middlebrook thoroughly researched her subject, which should be a given for any kind of biography on Hughes or Plath to see daylight; her sources are some of the most already-handled in academia. The one unique aspect of Middlebrook’s findings is the 2 ½ tons of provenance at Emory University that Hughes left for the public eye. Middlebrook is probably the first scholar to engage in large-scale research with these sources, which include Hughes’s letters, manuscripts, and notes. The documents shed new light on Hughes the man, though only in spots; part of the problem is that Hughes’s archive was his own carefully-arranged project in which he weighed the impact of every document that would reach outsiders (he offered an Australian scholar, Ann Skea, the job of arranging his collection but about-faced at the last minute). For all of the papers that are now open to us, they seem to project the image of a henpecked widower that Hughes worked at while still alive.
Where does Plath fit into all of this? Middlebrook, to her credit, tries to boost Hughes without taking crude shots at Plath and her history of mental illness. The book is arranged so that Plath and Hughes have their lives followed in alternation and the marriage is portrayed as stormy yet artistically beneficial. When it comes time to deal with the breakup and Plath’s suicide, however, Middlebrook waffles; we know Plath as being vindictive and having a streak of cruelty, but she gives few convincing examples that the poet was worthy of separation, other than unreasonable flashes of jealousy. There is also a need to ram home the idea that Plath’s self-annihilation was truly unavoidable, but she fails to do this. Middlebrook limply ends the pivotal seventh chapter with “Depression killed Sylvia Plath” (And what else could? The steak she burned a few nights before?).
The main crime of this biography is that I felt even more disgusted with Hughes after finishing than when I started. Her Husband is another biographical piece on Hughes in which the subject comes out of it badly; only this time it seems Middlebrook—I hope unwittingly—is a co-conspirator in glazing over facts here and completely hiding information there. Highlights of this include no suggestion of the abortion that his lover Assia Wevill underwent and the recovery she made in Plath’s bed after her death, facts that avail themselves in rival biographies; no mention of the impact, if any, Hughes’s open affair with Jill Barber had on his second wife, Carol Orchard, during the late 1970s; and no defense against the fact that Hughes profited greatly from Plath’s work after that defining moment when he stranded her and their two children to be with Wevill in Spain.
Hughes had the disadvantage of outliving Plath by 35 years and being able to make several moves that were thought unsavory and intensified public criticism. Hughes’s involvement in his wife’s legacy after 1963 has a vague odor to it and Her Husband is no exception when it moves into this stretch of time. With Plath out of the picture, we read through the whole sorry affair of Hughes and his sister Olwyn managing her literary estate, including the publication of her letters and journals that Plath might never have imagined to be seen openly. Hughes was particularly ambitious on this front after being hit with a large tax bill by the English revenue service in the late ’70s, seeing Plath’s archive as a bailout. Defenders of Hughes have made the argument that marketing archival materials is a regular part of literary commerce; but this explains nothing about the fact that he piled up massive royalties from his wife’s work after leaving her in an isolated state with two children, fully aware of her psychiatric condition.
There is no question that Hughes’s efforts helped to cement the legacy of Plath but both came out of their often fertile relationship completely destroyed. Had Plath survived, she would most likely be respected instead of world-famous, perhaps in the mold of Adrienne Rich, Louise Glück, or Maxine Kumin, while Anne Sexton would be known to all for “that” suicide. Hughes remained overshadowed by the marriage’s aftermath and the towering figure that Plath became. During the ’70s, lubricated by booze, he managed a string of extramarital affairs that sometimes overlapped each other. In 1984, he accepted the role of Poet Laureate, but only after Philip Larkin turned the offer down. His considerable literary achievement will remain clouded until at least 2023, when a sealed trunk at Emory University containing the last of his archive will be opened. Will it be opened to reveal Plath’s final two journals, one of which Hughes said he destroyed and the other of which he claimed was lost, or, perhaps, her second novel that has also mysteriously wandered off? Anything, at all, to clear his name in public? Hughes’s stained apparition can only hope.
Paul-John Ramos‘s work has recently appeared in Hobble Creek Review, Atticus Review, Mayday, Hypertext, and Blue Collar Review. He was also a finalist of the 2008 Black Lawrence Press Poetry Chapbook Competition.