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by Diane Middlebrook
Penguin, 2003
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Apr 16th 2004

Her Husband

Most biographies of Sylvia Plath tend to take a side in the battle between her and her husband Ted Hughes.  Diane Middlebrook's account of their marriage instead emphasizes the strength of their bond and the powerful productive influence each had on the other.  Poetry scholars are probably in the best position to assess the plausibility of her claims, but on the face of it, she makes a powerful case.  She shows how Hughes was among those who encouraged Plath to write directly about herself, and she confirms the well-known fact that Plath did a great deal to further Hughes' career in sending his work off to publishers and using her connections in the publishing world.  Middlebrook also provides strong evidence that much of Hughes' poetry after Plath's suicide continued to refer to their relationship.  This is obviously true of his collection The Birthday Letters published shortly before his death in 1998, but she makes the case that many of his other poems carry on a dialog with Plath in more subtle ways. 

In the 1950s, Hughes and his fellow poets were devotees of the ideas in Robert Graves' The White Goddess.  Graves argued that poetry should have a pagan religious function in society, reminding readers of our animal nature and the old rituals and myths we shared before modern society crushed our spirit with its "civilization."  In a series of Cambridge lectures, Graves condemned all the fashionable poets of the time, such as D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and even Dylan Thomas, labeling them as "false" poets.  Poetry should embody both our creativity and our destructive drive, bringing us closer to the wildness of nature.  Tellingly, Graves approved especially of the work of the poetry of the mad, presumably on the assumption that the mad are not restricted by the demands of modern etiquette and social manners, and have more direct access to their primitive natures. 

Therefore, one can speculate that Hughes was especially attracted to Plath when they met in 1956 because she was certainly in touch her own self-destructive side.  Only a few years earlier, she had very nearly succeeded in killing herself.  In her journal, she writes that at the drunken party when they first met, "And when he kissed my neck I bit him long and hard on the cheek, and when we can out of the room, blood was running down his face."  (Kukil, 2000, p. 212).  Some biographers have reported that when they first started their relationship, their sex was passionate and brutal enough to leave bruises.  They soon married, and committed their lives to poetry.  In those early years, Plath's poetry started to take on imagery that had been very characteristic of Hughes', featuring wild animals such as crows.  One might see Plath falling under his influence, but Middlebrook argues that there was significant collaboration and mutual encouragement between the newly married couple. 

More than other accounts of Plath's life, Middlebrook is able to integrate discussion of her poetry with what was going on in her personal life.  Serious students of Plath and Hughes will still want to have an edition of their collected poems at hand when reading this joint biography, but one can get a good sense of their artistic lives through the information Middlebrook provides.  The book is also illustrated with photographs throughout the book rather than all collected together in a middle section, and this works well.  One gets a full understanding of the relationship between these ambitious young poets. 

The final three of the ten chapters focus on Hughes' life after Plath's death, including his subsequent relationships and marriages, his nurturing and reaction to the success of Plath's poetry and her novel The Bell Jar, his own amazingly successful career, and his attitude towards his role as the controller of her estate.  Middlebrook makes no bones about the fact that Hughes lost Plath's last prose manuscripts, and calls this a great loss to posterity.  But the account she gives does not paint overbearing Hughes as the monster that some of his more vehement critics have suggested he is.  He seems to express genuine regret about his mistakes in their marriage, even if his claims that they were on a path to reconciliation at the time Plath ended her life are dubious.  Middlebrook also pays attention to Hughes' works The Birthday Letters and the lesser known Howls and Whispers, arguing that they shed significant light on his relationship with Plath.  As in most other accounts, Hughes comes across as a strange man, both deeply private and yearning for public success, preoccupied with astrology and pagan religion.  His poetry is full of symbolic meaning that only are only apparent to those who have some insight to his idiosyncratic beliefs and his personal experience, which gives scholars and enthusiasts for his work a powerful motive to find out as much about his life as possible.  His conflicts and often difficult personality make him an rather unappealing figure, yet there can be no doubt that he must have had a great deal of personal charisma.

Her Husband is a fine work, telling the story of a great literary marriage.  Middlebrook is an accomplished writer, careful with details and sensitive to issues of poetic interpretation, yet able to keep the flow of events lively.  The chances are that most readers will be more interested in Plath than Hughes, but the book shows that in an important sense, one needs to understand the two of them together because their marriage was a real partnership. 

 

Reference:

Karen V. Kukil (editor).  The Journals of Sylvia Plath: 1950-1962.  London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

 

© 2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

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Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.




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