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HER HUSBAND, by Diane Middlebrook
By Sylvia Brownrigg
Sylvia Brownrigg's most recent book is "Pages for You," a novel.
October 26, 2003
HER HUSBAND: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook. Viking, 361 pp., $25.95.
When Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath met in the late '50s - both were attending Robert Lowell's poetry seminar at Boston University - they talked, according to Sexton, "of death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric bulb." When Plath committed suicide in 1963, Sexton publicly mourned the loss of her friend and fellow poet; privately, she railed jealously to her therapist, "That death was mine!" She believed her own suicide, should she ever commit it (as she did a decade later), would seem imitative and therefore less interesting.
It is true that Plath's suicide exerts a cultural fascination that Sexton's does not. When will we collectively get over our shock at Plath's death in London at age 30, before her great work, "Ariel," had been published? Will watching Gwyneth Paltrow go through the motions of Plath's life in "Sylvia" cure us once and for all? In all likelihood no. And unquestionably, the dramatic power of Plath's tale has a great deal to do with the marriage that disintegrated shortly before her death - her union with fellow poet Ted Hughes.
In her new book, Diane Middlebrook, a scholar and writer best known for her much-praised 1991 biography of Sexton, turns to the subject of this marriage. The story of the Plath-Hughes partnership is familiar enough to Plath fans from her letters, her journals and various biographies. But in "Her Husband," Middlebrook focuses primarily on Hughes: how marriage to Plath shaped his development as a poet and how in his own work, particularly his last volume, "Birthday Letters," he eventually turned "the marriage into a resonant myth."
In recognizing Middlebrook's accomplishment in "Her Husband," which takes its place alongside Janet Malcolm's "The Silent Woman" and Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift" as a careful, feminist reappreciation of Hughes, it is important to recollect how demonized Hughes has been in the past. If Plath was the fallen icon of a female writer struggling to find her own raw, beautiful, rageful voice, Hughes was seen by many as the man who felled her (and robbed readers of two volumes of her diary, which he claimed he lost or destroyed; an act of negligence that to a large degree obscured the significant labor and devotion he spent publishing, editing and annotating all of Plath's other work). At its height, anti-Hughes sentiment led protesters at literary festivals he attended to wave placards reading "You murdered Sylvia!," and pilgrims to Plath's Yorkshire grave to scratch out the name "Hughes" from her tombstone.
In 2003, we may have moved beyond the simplistic notion that one person - even an unfaithful husband - can "cause" another's suicide, but Hughes was without doubt a dark and complex character, with a cruel streak Plath herself recognized early and which is evident in his own sometimes violent and painful work. That the woman for whom Hughes left Plath, Assia Wevill, also committed suicide (and simultaneously killed their 4-year-old daughter) only made Hughes seem more cursed and dangerous, even to himself - though that didn't stop him marrying again, in 1970, to Carol Orchard, a woman who weathered his subsequent affairs and remained married to him until his death in 1998.
As was clear with the electrifying 1997 publication of "Birthday Letters," a collection of intimate, potent poems Hughes had written to his dead wife over a period of many years, Hughes was as hypnotized as anyone else by the story of his love for Plath, their shared literary apprenticeship, the complementarity of their imaginations and the eventual collapse of their union.
For those unfamiliar with the story's contours, the book's account of the marriage may be rather confusing. In thematically dividing the period Plath and Hughes were together, 1956 to 1963, into "Struggling" and "Prospering," Middlebrook gives herself license to dart back and forth in the chronology - now moving ahead to their time teaching in Northhampton, Mass.; now dipping back to their honeymoon in Benidorm, Spain; now analyzing a poem Hughes wrote after the birth of their daughter Frieda, now backtracking to Plath's anxieties over when and how she might get pregnant. The method is an attempt to tease out what was always difficult for the couple - their sometimes explosive conflicts, their money worries - and what deeply united them - their shared ambition, their overwhelming belief in and support for each other's work, their exchange of ideas and influences.
Middlebrook is at her subtle best in examining the latter. Her literary scholarship draws us in as she analyzes poems in which Plath or Hughes played with and responded to each other's language, borrowing images and refiguring them for their own purposes. As Middlebrook movingly details, it was an exchange that continued long after Plath's death, when in the course of his years of stewardship over Plath's writing, Hughes was inspired to write poems that answered some of Plath's - one of the many ways he found to keep her work and spirit alive.
These later chapters of "Her Husband," whose writing was facilitated by the opening in 2000 of a trove of archive material Hughes sold to Emory University shortly before his death, are Middlebook's significant achievement. Her knowledge of modernist writers who influenced both poets (notably D.H. Lawrence) deepens her readings of their work, while her appreciation of Hughes' own critical writings (on Eliot, Yeats and Shakespeare, among others) helps her to identify his own literary project in his later years, the shaping of his persona as a poet - and to see that this persona was inextricably linked for him with his identity as Plath's husband and with Plath's own poetic persona as he understood it.
Chilly phrases such as "the challenge Plath's death posed to his creativity" might reinforce some readers' impression that Middlebrook locates her own sympathies with Hughes rather than Plath (as does an early description of Plath as "a decidedly unrelaxing person to be around, though not everyone found this unpleasant"). This prejudice is perhaps less important than the lack of other cultural shadings that might have given Middlebrook's account greater depth. In tracing the couple's self-consciously literary life, particularly once they returned to London in 1960, Middlebrook makes no mention of the role the Bloomsbury literary community must have played in their imaginations. Virginia Woolf was the female master that Plath most recognized and sought to surpass, while Hughes' desire for a more communal life in the country seems reminiscent of the Bloomsbury circle.
Finally, it is another of literature's iconic figures who comes most vividly to mind as one absorbs the portrait of a tall, dark, troubled man, alive with the spirit of the wilderness and his own primitive passions: Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, conceived a few miles from the Yorkshire moors over which Hughes rambled as a child. Hughes' tremendous attraction both for readers and for those who knew him surely draws on that dreamy, romantic hero of all wistful schoolgirls, while Plath is the cruelly dead, ever-returning Cathy. It was only after Hughes' death that their story could come to its natural resolution, the star-crossed lovers united again beyond the grave. With Middlebrook's wise and humane book, we can read and reappreciate the couple as they lived and died, and be grateful that their words will survive long after our fascination for their biographies has dimmed.
NEW YORK metro.com
Better Off Ted
A new biography argues that far from drowning them in domesticity, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s marriage enabled them to write.
By John Homans
Diane Middlebrook’s new book, Her Husband, is perhaps the first book about the marriage of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to have a happy ending. The story, in its horrifying particulars, is familiar—a domestic goddess martyred, the House of Atreus furnished in mid-century style (the little cloth she folded to rest her head on in the oven was a particularly Martha Stewart–ish touch). Six years later, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath (her stranger-than-fiction name was Assia Wevill) killed herself and her and Hughes’s daughter by turning on the gas.
And who brought down this curse upon their heads? Many women had a suspect. Pickets shadowed Hughes on his trips abroad, waving placards accusing him of killing his wife. He became, along with Hugh Hefner and Bobby Riggs, one of feminism’s great villains.
But Middlebrook, a former Stanford professor and author of an excellent biography of Anne Sexton, the other suicide princess of mid-twentieth-century American poetry (interestingly, Middlebrook’s husband is Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill), breaks gender ranks by writing a book that not only acquits Hughes of the most serious charges—“Depression killed Sylvia Plath,” Middlebrook pointedly writes—but goes on to argue that in certain ways, their marriage never ended. Tragic though it was, she sees it as far from a failure. On the contrary their marriage made possible their poetry.
Long before they were famous, both Hughes and Plath lived as if being filmed. Middlebrook makes a wonderful set piece of their famous first meeting, with Plath striding long-legged through a crowded party, loudly reciting one of Hughes’s poems, the concluding line of which, prophetically raising the question of guilt and innocence, is “I did it, I.” Hughes’s then-girlfriend was instantly a footnote. Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, leaving a mark that lasted a month. Hughes confiscated her hairband as insurance of a future meeting.
When they met, the two were moving in opposite directions. Plath was a transitional figure, a protofeminist trying to have it all: The Joy of Cooking, great sex, babies, and superstardom, too. Hughes, as always, was doing the caveman thing, exploring the relation of instinct and culture—poetry, he thought, could help bridge the gap.
For Plath, for a time, these were the ingredients for a happy home. She tried (and failed) not to nag him about his wardrobe and personal hygiene—“Shut eyes to dirty hair, ragged nails. He is a genius, I his wife,” she confided to her diary, trying to convince herself.
Hughes cuts an impressive figure, in all his animalistic, greasy-haired glory, his ostentatious masculinity, and Middlebrook may have a little crush on him. She’s immensely sympathetic to his masculine project, listening with rapt attention as he explains the jury-rigged underpinnings of his poetry, a home brew of shamanism and astrology with a keen, predatory naturalist’s eye developed hunting on the heath above his boyhood home in West Yorkshire.
Plath’s suicide in February 1963 certified their genius and ushered the pair—for Hughes, often unhappily—into the world of celebrity. (Her competitors recognized it as a brilliant career move: “That death is mine,” Anne Sexton jealously complained to her psychiatrist. Hughes brought the The Bell Jar out under Plath’s own name—it had been published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas—and it became a best-seller. One of her poems got a full-page treatment in Time magazine.
Against Hughes’s critics, Middlebrook musters the poetic version of the insanity defense: The instincts made me do it. She’s his posthumous enabler, cutting him plenty of slack for his male needs, allowing him to poeticize his libido, making his affair with Wevill an artistic necessity. “His life as an artist henceforth would require his wife’s acceptance of the sexual practices to which his deepest inspiration was attached,” she writes at one point, in a formulation even a domestic saint wouldn’t agree to.
By definition, Plath is the love of Hughes’s life, the main event, which makes the last third of the book, and the greater part of his life, an anticlimax. He’s managing her posthumous career, trying to reconcile in death with the woman he couldn’t stay married to in life—Ted at Colonus, coming to grips with his blasted marriage.
Except that, frequently, Hughes seems more like Mr. Magoo, proceeding forward with more good cheer than one would imagine possible under the circumstances, somewhat clueless about the chaos in his wake. Plath’s manuscripts, strewn freely about his workroom, have a habit of “walking off,” being pilfered by the visitors constantly traipsing through the house. Various women moved through, too, solace for the grieving poet. Middlebrook writes of one of his mistresses: “Barber was the first but not the only woman who filled the role of reinstating wildness in Ted Hughes’s psyche during the years he was seeking his soul.” To which one wants to reply: So that was what he was seeking.
Hughes in this book is an oddly abstract figure, partly because Middlebrook sets herself the difficult task of reverse-engineering the man from the poetry. “Anyone can make him into an ordinary person,” she says at one point. His almost unimaginable guilt from two consecutive suicides, too, is largely unplumbed, though probably not unfelt. Hughes is still a cipher; while there’s no evidence to suggest that he was a monster, Middlebrook doesn’t make much of a case that he wasn’t.
“Hughes held the view that commentators on literature had an obligation to serve as stewards of the achieved human voice to be found in poetry,” writes Middlebrook. And she follows his injunction, letting him keep possession of his story. Even a reader who’s sympathetic to Hughes still wants him put on trial.
It’s not that Middlebrook is a partisan of Hughes’s, rather, she’s a partisan of poetry. The lives are the means, and the art is the end. With Hughes and Plath, however, this formulation seems incomplete. Their poetry will always be at war with the brutal simplicity of their human story. The reason they’re interesting is that we wonder about, and can’t solve, the problem of their guilt and innocence—somehow, together they brought down this curse. Instead, Middlebrook has covered Hughes’s retreat into poetry—where the two are reconciled. It’s an ars longa situation, that old romantic idea. In Middlebrook’s book, they die happily ever after.
Baltimore Sun, October 12, 2003
Hughes and Plath: clearing the record
Victoria A. Brownworth
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: Portrait of a Marriage, by Diane Middlebrook, Viking, $29.95, 416 pages.
Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married from 1956 until 1963, when Hughes left his wife for another woman. Six months after the dissolution of their marriage, Plath committed suicide.
Merely tragic, were Plath and Hughes an ordinary couple. But Plath was one of the premiere female American poets of the latter 20th century and Hughes became England's poet laureate; their brief but volatile relationship and her subsequent suicide have assumed an aura of literary and cultural myth. A plethora of new books (as well as a film to be released next week starring Oscar-winner Gwyneth Paltrow), have focused on the "sturm und drang" of the couple's relationship, intensifying that mythos.
Unquestionably the best book written thus far on these complicated geniuses is Diane Middlebrook's. Best known for her stellar biography of another brilliant poet (and suicide) of the same era as Plath, Anne Sexton, Middlebrook has also written books of criticism on modern poetry. Thus she brings a compelling illumination of the poetry as well as the specifics of biography to her subject.
In the 35 years since Plath gassed herself to death in the London flat she shared with her two small children, one allegation has resonated: Hughes
was a brutish womanizer who drove Plath to her death. Compounding this theory: the ghastly suicide of Hughes' second wife, Assia Weevil (Hughes and Weevil's daughter was also killed), the woman for whom he had left Plath. Combine those tragedies with a rising feminist influence in the 1960s and theory became fact: Plath was elevated to tragic feminist icon.
Middlebrook quashes the perception of Plath as imperiled victim to Hughes demonic misogynist. Here the couple are fully drawn, fully realized individuals. Middlebrook reveals their personal histories, explores the virtues and villianies of each and explains how their relationship made them the poets they were and became - and whom, she asserts, they would never have been without the other.
Plath and Hughes met in February 1956. She was 23, he 26 and both were students at Cambridge, Plath on a Fulbright Fellowship. The intensity of their passion for each other blazed immediately; they married three months after that first incandescent meeting, a meeting Hughes believed was fated.
Hughes emerged as such a powerful poet, Plath's early ascendancy has been dwarfed and minimized. Middlebrook re-establishes the balance between the work of each, illuminating how they fed off and also nurtured each others' work.
Plath was a compulsive note-taker and planner. Every event became potential material for poems, stories and essays; she wrote assiduously and prolifically until the literal day of her death. Hughes wrote with similar prolificity but was a much more undisciplined talent before Plath's aegis; during his relationship with Plath and through her critiques of his work and his examination of hers he begins to draw on the material of his life that would elicit his most compelling work.
Middlebrook's title is elucidating: Hughes has been defined by Plath, even in England where his brilliance earned him the poet laureateship. This assessment, however, explains Middlebrook, is nevertheless accurate: Hughes himself accepted it. His lifelong belief in Jungian archetypes, shamanism, astrology and other mysticism made Hughes believe Plath was ordained to be his muse and he hers.
As executor of Plath's voluminous work (some of which he destroyed, for which he has - rightly - been vilified), Hughes could never divest himself of his connection to her and, in fact, was intensely protective of her memory. His final works before his death in 1998 were in part a paean to their relationship.
Smartly, objectively and compassionately written, Her Husband rips the covers off a wildly passionate marriage fraught with violence and sexual intensity to reveal its complexity and show how it formed the basis for literary excellence in two geniuses - both troubled, one to madness.
Middlebrook's assessment of the inextricable link between these two poets re-individuates them, lifts them from devaluing myth and places them on the literary pedestals - separate, equal yet side-by-side - on which they both, assuredly belong.
Victoria A. Brownworth has published several books of poetry as well as numerous collections of short stories and essays. She teaches writing at the Univeristy of the Arts in Philadelphia
'Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage' by Diane Middlebrook
In life, Sylvia Plath was Ted Hughes' muse
Sunday, November 02, 2003
By Irina Reyn
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage
By Diane Middlebrook
Ever since her suicide in 1963, the cult of Sylvia Plath has continued to grow unabated. In addition to countless biographies and memoirs about her life and work, Plath is now being portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie "Sylvia."
Despite the plethora of material available on Plath, Diane Middlebrook provides us with a wise, empathic and eminently readable study of art, passion and the literary persona.
More important, by focusing on the lasting impact her marriage to Ted Hughes had on his creative life, this book ingeniously accesses Plath's posthumous legacy through the poetry of her husband.
The romantic, ultimately tragic story of the couple has ensnared the imaginations of many in its intricate web. They met in 1956 at Cambridge University, when Plath, a Smith College graduate, was on a Fulbright scholarship. They read each other's work in the university journal and were drawn to each other magnetically.
"Hungry, hungry those taut thighs," Plath wrote euphorically after meeting Hughes at a party. "And I run flaring in my skin."
They eloped only four months later, and over the next six years they read, critiqued and encouraged each other's work, creating an environment that allowed both literary talents to flourish.
The story of Plath's death at the height of her creative powers eventually morphed into a well-publicized case of female oppression. The public was quick to pounce on Hughes, who had left Plath for a married woman.
Shortly after their parting, Plath killed herself by inhaling gas from her kitchen one winter morning before her children woke up.
It did not help Hughes' case that he admitted destroying the journals Plath wrote before her death, journals presumably containing entries unflattering to himself.
The furor escalated six years later, when the woman for whom Hughes left Plath killed herself and their young daughter in exactly the same fashion.
Consequently, while biographies of Hughes and Plath proliferated, they offered varying degrees of value; some suffered from the biographer's over-identification with Plath, while others were forced to rely on the limited generosity of the Plath estate, run by the famously tight-lipped Hughes and his sister.
Like Elaine Feinstein, author of the excellent recent biography "Ted Hughes," Middlebrook has had the advantage of working with the personal papers Hughes sold to Emory University in 1997, one year before his death.
Mercifully, Middlebrook concentrates on the ways in which Hughes and Plath spurred each other to poetic mastery rather than revisiting the exhausted debates focused on assigning blame.
Even more crucially, as the title of the book (drawn from the name of a Hughes poem) indicates, Middlebrook argues that while Plath was alive, she provided Hughes with lasting artistic inspiration.
After her death, "the persona created in his work is her husband; and that persona is his contribution to the history of poetry."
Middlebrook, in addition to being an astute reader of Plath and Hughes' poetry, is brilliant at making her subjects leap off the page. She paints a balanced portrait of the Plath-Hughes marriage as a deeply emotional, erotic union and an extraordinarily productive one.
"Ted and Sylvia each stumbled into the other's power to transform mere human beings into characters in a myth," Middlebrook writes.
Ultimately, it was the coming together of these two extraordinary people that provided the world with the vital poetry and prose we love today.
Irina Reyn is a Pittsburgh-based writer and the book review editor of the literary Web site "Killing the Buddha."
BY STEVE PFARRER
Friday, November 07, 2003 -- The controversy over the turbulent life and untimely death of poet Sylvia Plath continues, fueled in part by an important collection of her papers at Smith College
She was the ambitious high achiever who'd walked off with an armful of academic awards at Smith College. A published writer at just 22. A Fulbright Scholar in England in the mid-1950s whose bright red lipstick, expensive luggage and brassy manner caused many she met in Britain to think of her as ''the flashy American.''
Several years later she had become something altogether different: a pale, thin woman embittered by her adulterous husband and plagued by depression and anxiety over an uncertain future. Yet in a fever of last-minute creativity, she composed some of the starkest poetry of the 20th century, with lines that seemed to tap deep reservoirs of anger and pain - and determination.
Not long past her 30th birthday, she killed herself by sticking her head in a gas oven.
But 40 years after that February 1963 suicide, Sylvia Plath is still making waves - perhaps more than ever before.
Aside from the posthumous publication of her most critically praised poems, Plath's name has lived on in a virtual cottage industry of biographies, memoirs, critical studies, novels, even plays. She's celebrated as a writer who gave voice to feminism just as the movement began to take off in the 1960s. Her relationship with her husband, the late English poet Ted Hughes, has been probed, dissected and mined for every conceivable clue that might explain her suicide and provide further perspective on her life and work. Online forums discussing all things Plath have blossomed in recent years as well.
And the examination continues: Next week Smith College will host a presentation by the authors of two new books about Plath and Hughes. She's even been brought to the big screen in ''Sylvia,'' the biopic starring Gwyneth Paltrow that opened last month.
Karen Kukil, associate curator of Smith's Mortimer Rare Book Room in Neilson Library, where some 4,000 pages of Plath's original writings are housed, says that's not the end of it: A complete collection of Hughes' poetry is due out soon, one that undoubtedly will be scrutinized by scholars for more insight about the couple, she says. As well, a biography of Assia Wevill, the woman Hughes took up with after he left Plath, is also in the works.
''I don't think we've heard the last of this,'' says Kukil, noting that a vast archive of Hughes' letters and journals, now at Emory University in Georgia, is still mostly unplumbed by writers and scholars.
Susan Van Dyne, a professor of English and women's studies at Smith who's been teaching Plath's work for about 30 years, says her students are as interested in the poet as ever. ''Every semester,'' Van Dyne adds with a laugh, ''I have one student who believes she's Sylvia Plath incarnate.''
WHAT'S BEHIND the continued fascination with Plath? What would compel someone to make a film where the lead character kills herself with gas, after leaving out bread and milk for her two young children sleeping upstairs?
There's no one answer to those questions, but Plath's marriage to Hughes is undoubtedly a huge part of it. It had all the ingredients of melodrama that might well attract a screenwriter: sexual attraction and tension, the raw ambition of two talented writers, volcanic arguments, jealousy and infidelity, and, ultimately, tragedy. A double tragedy, actually: Seven years after Plath's death, Assia Wevill also killed herself, and the daughter she had by Hughes, via a gas oven.
Images from the Plath-Hughes marriage leap out as if ready-made for film, like the time Plath intercepted a call for him from Wevill and ripped the phone from the wall. And of course there was their initial meeting at a party in England in 1956, where Hughes kissed her ''bang smash on the mouth,'' as Plath famously wrote in her journal, and she bit his cheek, drawing blood and leaving tooth marks that were visible for a month.
In fact it's not hard to imagine that if all this had taken place in today's aura of celebrity worship and tabloid sensibilities, someone in Hollywood would have written up a treatment for a made-for-TV movie within days of Plath's suicide.
''We love the scandal, the drama, and we love the image of the tragic victim,'' says Van Dyne, the author of a critical analysis of Plath's poetry. No other literary couple has inspired such interest among the general public, she says, with the possible exception of Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard.
Indeed, for many years after Plath's death, the image of ''tragic victim'' clung to her like a wet bathing suit: abandoned by her husband, left to care for their young son and daughter in a dreary London flat in the middle of one of England's coldest winters on record. Hughes assumed the mantle of arch villain - ''a convenient punching bag,'' as Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam recently termed him - and for years his readings would sometimes be disrupted by women who tried to shout him down while waving posters reading ''You killed Sylvia!'' Her married name was repeatedly chiseled off her gravestone in England by Hughes-haters.
Beyond that, there was Plath's history of depression and suicide attempts, like the one during her Smith College days that landed her in a psychiatric hospital and inspired her autobiographical novel ''The Bell Jar,'' an eventual best seller (and a 1979 movie) and for many years a mainstay of high school and college literature courses.
Van Dyne notes that Smith students and other young women are often initially attracted to Plath because of her troubled personal history. ''They like that dark, romantic image of the tortured writer,'' she says. That's especially true when it comes to poetry, she adds: There's a notion that poets suffer the most for their art, in a sort of pure and noble way.
Lynda Bundtzen, a professor of English and women's studies at Williams College in Williamstown and the author of two books on Plath, says one of her female students, after reading Plath and some other contemporary female poets like Adrienne Rich, once said to her, ''Are there any happy female poets?'' Then, says Bundtzen, the student added, ''Well, actually, morbid is better than happy.''
Anyone looking for morbidity or darkness, particularly in Plath's later poems, could find it readily in works such as ''Lady Lazarus,'' where she penned the lines ''Dying/Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well./ I do it so it feels like hell./I do it so it feels real./I guess you could say I've got a call.''
Shannon Hunt, a Smith College senior who has studied Plath's writing for many years, says she was first drawn to the poet ''because of that appeal to teen angst. And reading her journals, I realized we experienced some of the same things, the same feelings.'' With a laugh, she notes she felt a particular kinship with Plath when her parents told her the first word she'd ever recognized was ''stop.'' Plath, when she was 2?, had also pointed out that word to her mother on a stop sign, reading it backward as ''pots.''
But Hunt, who's been investigating the Plath archives ever since arriving at Smith three years ago, also finds her poetry difficult to deal with at times. Of late she's been helping Kukil prepare an electronic archive of some of Plath's original manuscripts, so that scholars worldwide will have access to the material online.
Reading through all the work, says Hunt, is ''very draining - there's such intensity in her later poems, and there's darkness, too.''
PLATH, WHO WAS born in Boston and graduated from Wellesley High School in 1950, was a superstar at Smith College, scoring a prestigious summer internship at Mademoiselle magazine one year. And she was nothing if not a prolific writer in her short life: She wrote about 230 ''mature poems,'' as Van Dyne calls them, and penned over 400 more while at Smith, according to Hunt.
There was also ''The Bell Jar'' as well as numerous articles, essays and book reviews for an array of magazines, and she worked at one point on a second novel. Janet Malcolm, author of ''The Silent Woman,'' a 1993 study of various Plath biographies, writes that Plath might well have developed into ''a first-rank novelist'' had she lived.
And Plath filled hundreds of pages in some 23 journals between 1950 and 1962, almost all of which were issued in a collection three years ago that Kukil compiled and edited. Much speculation still abounds over what Plath wrote in her last two journals, which have never been publicly viewed: Hughes claimed he destroyed the final one not long after she died, saying he didn't want their children ever to read it. The other reportedly disappeared.
But what put Plath on the literary map was the 1965 publication of her 41 ''Ariel'' poems, most of which she wrote in just a few months in late 1962 and early 1963 - sometimes composing two or even three a day - after Hughes had left her. The collection, which Hughes brought to a publisher, has generally been deemed among the best work of any 20th-century poet, with striking imagery and structure; Robert Lowell said the poems appeared to have been written by ''hardly a person at all ... but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.''
Poems like ''Daddy'' reverberate with anger and with wordplay that seems to have been spit out between clenched teeth. In ''Daddy,'' Plath invokes images of the Holocaust and Nazi generals to rail against a male figure or figures - perhaps her own father, who died when she was 8, or Hughes, or both - and give vent to feelings of betrayal: ''There's a stake in your fat black heart/And the villagers never liked you./They are dancing and stamping on you ... Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I'm through.''
''I find her word choices and phrasing just phenomenal at times,'' says Bundtzen, the Williams College professor. ''Her poetry is still very, very powerful.''
The anger and pain in her poetry, coupled with Hughes' desertion and Plath's suicide, fueled the initial impression of Plath as wronged victim, whose husband left her for another woman after she had sacrificed to further his career; early on in their marriage, she had typed Hughes' poems and worked hard to get them published, putting her own writing aside while his won acclaim in Britain and the United States. That Hughes ended up the guardian of her estate - and the recipient of her writing royalties - only added to the bitterness of Plath's supporters.
But Van Dyne and many feminist scholars in particular argue that much of what appears bitter or morbid in the ''Ariel'' poems is actually positive: The poems represent her determination to wring creativity from personal hardship, to strike off on her own and shuck off the burdens imposed on her by a male-dominated society. It's that defiance and focused intent that's made her appealing to new generations of women, says Van Dyne.
''She was waking up to a pattern of gender relations that she had fallen into herself,'' says Van Dyne. ''Like Robert Lowell, she made her poetry out of her life experience. She was finding her own voice, her own way.'' Viewed in that context, she says, ''Daddy'' becomes an indictment not so much of her ex-husband or father but of male oppression in general.
In fact, thumbing through her journals provides plenty of evidence that Plath had long questioned the assumptions of her day that women were supposed to marry and raise children while their husbands had careers. She was fiercely determined to be a writer - a highly successful one to boot - and worried that marriage would stifle those goals.
Plath also frequently wrote about her desire for sex and her need for a man who could match those desires. ''If only I can find him - the man who will be intelligent, yet physically magnetic and personable,'' she wrote during her Smith College days. ''If I can offer that combination, why shouldn't I expect it in a man?''
Diane Middlebrook, author of ''Her Husband,'' a new biography of Plath and Hughes, says that by the mid-1950s, Plath was a good deal more sexually sophisticated than most women her age. And her journal entries during early 1956, covering the time when she first met Hughes, are ''one long erotic fidget'' where ''she frankly appraises every man she meets for sexual compatibility,'' writes Middlebrook. Nice girls in the Eisenhower era weren't supposed to think - or act - like this.
And nice girls wouldn't write the tough-sounding ''Ariel'' poems, either. Janet Malcolm, in ''The Silent Woman,'' says Plath's ''not-niceness'' is a big source of her appeal: ''Women honor her for her courage to be unpleasant.'' Along those lines, ''The Bell Jar'' is an indictment of 1950s America, Malcolm says: ''It's a girls' book written by a woman who has been to hell and back and wants to revenge herself on her tormentors. It's a girls' book filled with poison, vomit, blood, and volts of electricity ... and peopled by creepy men and pathetic older women.''
Hughes himself spoke to his ex-wife's passion and independent spirit in an introduction he provided for some of her poems that appeared in a poetry journal several months after her death. Though her work could display signs of ''prevailing doom,'' he wrote, ''it is impossible that anybody could have been more in love with life, or more capable of happiness, than she ever was.''
INVARIABLY, THOUGH, any view of Plath is at least partly filtered through the lens of her life with Hughes. Kukil, for one, agrees that minus the failed marriage and the suicide, interest in the Plath/Hughes story, and perhaps in their work, would not be as high. As Anne Sexton, the American poet who killed herself in 1974, put it, Plath's suicide was ''a great career move.''
But Kukil says the couple's poetry still speaks for itself: ''It wouldn't be a story if they weren't great poets.''
Moreover, it's clear that Plath and Hughes both shaped and inspired each other's poetry, in a way that makes their marriage inseparable from much of their work. That in turn has given scholars a seemingly endless source of intrigue: Many have come to see their poetry as a sort of ''call and response'' to one another, a conversation that Hughes, who became Britain's poet laureate in 1984, continued after Plath died.
That's a main thrust of Diane Middlebrook's study, in which she says Hughes and Plath had an intense creative partnership and that Hughes, in the wake of his wife's death, essentially reshaped his poetic vision, making his own life and his marriage to Plath a primary inspiration and theme for his work. Shortly before he died in 1998, he published ''Birthday Letters,'' a best-selling collection of poems that looked back in detail at their relationship and spoke of his love for Plath. In some cases the poems were direct responses to those in ''Ariel.''
''They had a creative marriage,'' says Kukil. ''They were both very ambitious.'' It's unusual in these kinds of artistic partnerships, she adds, for a woman to strive as much as the man.
''Birthday Letters'' also marked a period during which a more sympathetic view of Hughes emerged. Rather than the womanizing monster who had driven his suffering wife to kill herself, he was cast by some biographers as a patient, even somewhat passive man who for several years put up with Plath's mood swings and fits of temper and jealousy until he could no longer stay with her.
Plath, in turn, was seen less as the martyred victim than as unstable, demanding, selfish and often highly critical of others. Hughes' defenders also point out that he shared child-care duties with Plath to give her time to write, during an era when few men spent any time with their young children.
There are still many, though, who see Hughes as the heavy: Was it just coincidence, some say, that two women he was involved with killed themselves? Hughes didn't help his reputation by refusing after Plath's death to speak publicly about her. His sister, Olwyn Hughes, became the public voice of his side of the story, and as such zealously guarded access to Plath's work, generally refusing to allow writers to quote from it if they had anything bad to say about her brother.
Van Dyne, for instance, sees ''Birthday Letters'' not as a heartfelt paean by Hughes to his onetime love but rather a calculated attempt to have posterity cast him in a more favorable light. By contrast, she says, Hughes published a different version of ''Ariel'' than Plath had prepared, deleting some poems he deemed too hostile to him and adding others that seemed to reinforce her image as a suicide queen. ''It's not just poetry that establishes your reputation, it's how you're viewed by history,'' she says.
Trying to navigate this kind of literary minefield is difficult, says Shannon Hunt, the Smith College student. ''You try to take a middle-of-the-road view,'' she says. Hughes, she adds, ''was a flawed man. I don't think he was evil.''
And Kukil says, ''[Plath] was a difficult personality.'' What's more, she says, Plath had set up a tall order for herself in marrying Hughes, who by all accounts had a brooding sexuality and an eye for the ladies. ''She knew his reputation, and she kept him on a short leash. She thought she could change him,'' Kukil says, by making him settle down.
And Hughes, initially, was as smitten with Plath as she was with him, says Kukil, referring to two love letters he wrote to her in the early days of their relationship. ''They're amazing letters - I would have fallen in love with the guy, too,'' she says with a laugh.
THE MYSTERIOUS circumstances of Plath's suicide have only added to the story's pull. Most observers today believe Plath was a manic depressive, and she often wrote in her journal about her feelings of depression and anxiety. The most severe case occurred in the summer of 1953, after her junior year at Smith and her internship at Mademoiselle, when she tried to kill herself at home with sleeping pills. She spent several months afterward at McLean Hospital in Belmont, where she received electroshock treatments and seemed to recover fully.
Certainly she had reason to be depressed in late 1962 and early 1963 after Hughes had left her. But Kukil, Van Dyne and others point to the positive images in her poems, like ''Wintering,'' with its view of looking forward to the spring. And Kukil shows off a letter in the Smith archives that Plath, just days before she died, wrote to an old college roommate, telling her of her plans to visit her in Massachusetts; Plath also discussed the possibility of subletting her London apartment and the house she had shared with Hughes so that she could have an extended visit in the United States.
''Does that sound like the plan of someone who intends to kill herself?'' asks Kukil.
On the other hand, a doctor who had been treating Plath in London had recommended she be hospitalized for depression, according to Middlebrook. And ''Edge,'' apparently the last poem Plath ever wrote, contained this frightening image: ''The woman is perfected./Her dead/Body wears the smile of accomplishment ... Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,/One at each little/Pitcher of milk, now empty.''
One theory is that Plath had a bad reaction to an antidepressant she had begun taking shortly before she died, possibly aggravating her depression or causing her to act impulsively. ''It's a phenomenon I don't understand,'' says Kukil. ''If she was in so much pain she couldn't bear to live, it's one thing. But writing, for her, was the ultimate joy, and she clearly loved her children. So it's hard to see why she'd do it.''
IT COULD BE THAT Plath's ''great career move'' will continue to fascinate and generate interest in her story. Along those lines, Kukil sees the Gwyneth Paltrow film, so far garnering mixed reviews, as a positive step as well, as it will introduce Plath to people who likely are unfamiliar with her story and her writing.
Kukil, who first discovered Plath's work as a student at Trinity College in Hartford in the early 1970s, says she should continue to win admirers. ''She really connects with people,'' she says. Referring to the Plath archives at Smith, she says, ''We get international scholars here, we get students researching projects, and we get students who are just casually interested. There's something here they all can relate to.''
And Van Dyne says there's something timeless about Plath's later poems, in their examination, through her own experiences, of women and men and the roles both assume in society, or are expected to assume.
''They're about a cultural knot we're still talking about,'' she says. ''They speak to questions we still haven't figured out. To me, that's one of the things that's so fascinating about Plath.''
The Times - Picayune
Rather than focus on Sylvia Plath's depression, a new biography offers a rich textual analysis of her and husband Ted Hughes' remarkable work
Sunday November 16, 2003
Sylvia Plath's suicide sealed her place as a solitary literary figure championed by feminist critics and adored by her passionate readers. Her poems helped establish a goddess mythology, as she became "Lady Lazarus," capable of "eat(ing) men like air." Through her journals, readers became privy to the clicking mind of this troubled and brilliant woman.
Plath's life as a daughter, mother and wife is secondary to her persona as one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. And family histories rarely become less complicated as years pass. In a new biography, "Her Husband," Diane Middlebrook attempts to place Sylvia Plath in context with her family, rediscovering the woman behind the legend that surrounds her memory.
Forty years after her death, what more can be said? Plath's suicide evolved into something far greater than one woman's death. Many view her suicide as an empowering stance against the confines of motherhood and marriage in the mid-20th century. Various analyses resurrect her as a heroine, perpetuating the mythology or "Plathology" that separates her as a voice of feminine anger at its most pure. Yet, for those close to her, this death was a personal blow, not a statement. Attempting to reclaim Plath's private death, her family finds it challenging to voice their feelings in the midst of a din of speculation and interpretation. Recently her daughter, Frieda Hughes, published a poem blasting the current film, "Sylvia," in which Gwyneth Paltrow portrays her mother.
In 1995, Janet Malcolm's "The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes'' recounted the problems biographers have faced in writing about Plath. Part of the problem has always been separating Plath's thickly autobiographical work from her life. Some biographers and critics ask if Plath deliberately blurred those lines.
Another roadblock for biographers had been Hughes himself. Reluctant to speak about his wife's death, Hughes explained his silence (as well as his decision to burn her final journals) as a means to protect his children. As time went by, his children celebrated birthdays that their mother did not. As Hughes' desire for privacy lost popular understanding, he began to collect and write his own poems about his relationship with Plath. This culminated in the 1998 volume "Birthday Letters," published weeks before Hughes' own death. Hughes' poems provided literary scholars with the perspective they had lacked for years. In a sense, the husband spoke back, as an all-too-human man, struggling to love and live with a woman suffering from intense clinical depression. This interpretation informs Middlebrook's "Her Husband.''
Middlebrook focuses exclusively on the relationship between Hughes and Plath, zeroing in on its influence on their work, evident not only during the relationship, but also lifelong in its impact on Hughes. This editorial decision gives considerable weight to the importance of the marriage; it also fails to provide a thorough explanation for certain conclusions that the author appears to draw.
While Middlebrook sides with those who believe depression killed Sylvia Plath, her book offers very little about Plath's mental health history. Middlebrook avoids an in-depth discussion of Plath's clinical depression, choosing instead to highlight her erratic behavior and methodical nature. Plath's history of depression is no secret. Before graduating from Smith College, she suffered two documented nervous breakdowns, a suicide attempt and underwent shock treatment -- immortalized in her novel "The Bell Jar" and in numerous biographies. Previous scholarship has examined how her depression may have been affected by Hughes' infidelity and her own isolation in a foreign country with two small children. These major factors are hardly footnotes in Middlebrook's work.
Yet, one should applaud Middlebrook's textual analysis of Plath's and Hughes' work; she examines the spouses' profound literary influence upon one another in interesting detail. Of further interest is the light Middlebrook sheds upon the couple's mutual interest in shaping one another as "writers." Both Plath and Hughes were painfully self-conscious about their roles as poets. Their relationship, while wildly passionate, was largely fueled by the project of furthering their personae as writers.
Middlebrook shows a relationship that deteriorated into drama. While Hughes inspired Plath's most productive writing period, he also contributed to the mental anguish that lead to her death. Without stating it in so many words, Middlebrook insinuates that the increased importance of motherhood and writing in Plath's life proved too much for Hughes to endure. Although their tempestuous union stimulated a terrific body of work, it could not be sustained on an everyday basis. While Plath felt forced into retreat as a mother, Hughes retreated to another woman, who would ultimately take her life in the same manner as Plath herself.
It must be said that Middlebrook takes great pains to avoid blame or accusation, yet this even-handed approach seems like a cop-out in light of the great passion of Plath and Hughes' relationship. "Her Husband" is by no means the definitive work on Plath and Hughes, but it is an excellent companion for those more familiar with Plath's work than Hughes'. Ultimately, Middlebrook suggests her readers close the family history and return to the poetry -- of both. It's probably what the family would want most of all.
HUGHES AND PLATH,
By Diane Middlebrook
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer living in Philadelphia, where she is working on her first novel.
Diane Middlebrook talks about why the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes was a soaring success despite his infidelity and her suicide -- and why promising to be sexually faithful is folly.
Editor's note: This is part of our continuing series on marriage.
By Kamy Wicoff
Nov. 12, 2003 | Diane Middlebrook has never shied away from controversy. Her biography of the poet Anne Sexton was a critical success -- nominated for the National Book Award in 1991 -- but it was also a national sensation, drawing from transcripts of Sexton's sessions with one of her psychiatrists (with the family's and psychiatrist's consent) and revealing her affair with another. Her second biography, "Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton," explored the life of a female jazz musician, born in 1914, who lived as a man from the age of 19 until she died in 1989, having fooled Duke Ellington and five wives and having "fathered" three children. But controversy is decidedly not the point, or even of particular interest to a writer like Middlebrook. Instead, the heart of the mystery seems always to be: How do artists become?
In this respect her latest biography, "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath, Portrait of a Marriage," is no exception. It is not a biography of either Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath, but a biography of their marriage, and it is safe to say that Middlebrook took this approach because within this first, youthful marriage, two of the 20th century's most important poets came into being. For a time they prospered together. Like many married couples they also struggled: with romance and ambition, sex and work, children and mothers-in-law.
I first met Diane Middlebrook at a book salon in London, where she lives for part of the year with her husband, the chemist and playwright Carl Djerassi. (The couple spend the rest of their time in San Francisco, where Middlebrook is a professor emerita at Stanford University.) I told her I was writing a memoir about my experience getting married; she told me she had just completed a book about marriage herself. At first glance it seemed that our projects were very different, but Middlebrook knew immediately that we would have a lot to talk about, and she was right. Recently, we talked about "Her Husband."
Most people know what went wrong in the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. He fell in love with another woman, leaving Sylvia with their two very young children; she fell into a deep depression and took her own life. It ended notoriously badly. But in the book you argue that it was an extraordinarily productive marriage for both of them, even a lucky one.
Well, the marriage was about two things: One of them failed and the other succeeded. What failed was the formation of a new family. It failed because Sylvia Plath was not psychologically prepared -- and by that I mean something quite respectful and descriptive -- to absorb and accommodate a dimension of the man she was married to, which was just as characterological in him as her refusal of it was in her.
His need to ...
His need to have sex partners outside the marriage for the continual restimulation of his creative powers.
Huh. But you could also say that it was Hughes' fault for entering into a contract that according to most people requires fidelity.
You move immediately to the question of whose fault it was.
And I'm trying to be descriptive. My book is trying to say that you can understand these people if you set aside the question of who are you going to blame, and look at what happened. Because if this is a book about marriage, then it's a case study of a failure, at one level, that is pretty interesting and common, in which the female in the pair is absolutely antagonized and threatened in her emotional security by the behavior of the male in the pair -- and vice versa. Sylvia Plath's sexual jealousy was a burden to Ted Hughes. It finally became an intolerable burden to him. His behavior cannot be admired, but it was, I argue, a lifesaving act on his part. But that's quite aside from what they contracted for. They contracted to become a family.
But in her mind they'd also contracted to be faithful to each other sexually.
Well ... can you contract for that?
A lot of people when they enter marriage believe that they are doing just that.
OK, let's go to that question. Because I think the relationship that people form inside the contract of marriage is dynamic, and they mature and go on maturing inside of it through their psychological interaction. The notion that the contract can cover with rules the behavior of the people in it is, I think, highly questionable. I don't believe you can ever, ever, ever predict how human beings will develop -- there are too many factors at play.
But it's a fundamental idea that a lot of people have about marriage, that it's possible to promise yourself and your behavior for the rest of your life. That you are standing up there saying: By entering into this contract and this particular relationship, I promise for the rest of my life to behave a certain way, and faithfulness is part of that. The vows explicitly cover the sex question.
I don't believe so. You can say, "I will be faithful to my pledge to understand you in your needs, which are different from mine." But people don't know what's going to be expected of them. For example, if you have a rigid code that absolutely spells out not only what you may and may not do but what the punishment will be -- and that's a definition of "contract," in my view -- I don't know of a single one that actually says to men: You can't have sex with other women. Honestly I don't. It's females who are forbidden to practice adultery. It's not men.
So in that context you could say that Ted Hughes, in his marriage to Sylvia Plath, did not breach the contract between them.
Yes, well. I don't know what the contract was, you see.
It's specific to each couple?
All I know for sure is that relationships are dynamic, and people don't know what's going to happen. They don't know what's going to happen in life, and they don't know what's going to happen inside their relationship, either. What he discovered, I believe, was that he had some needs that he didn't understand at the time he married Plath, or that he didn't think were important.
It's not like it was premeditated ... murder.
No! No. Well, as far as I know Hughes was not unfaithful to Sylvia Plath; he did not have sex with other women, during the first six years of their marriage. Their partnership was focused on their writing.
Well, let's talk some more about that. We talked about how the marriage was in one sense a failure -- in what sense was it a success?
Was it a success! It was the success that made them people you and I know the names of. Unlike most married people. Why? Because they became poets together. At the time that they met -- I love this part of the story -- neither one of them had brilliant prospects for success as artists. They were pretty good, but they were college students, and they were good at the college-student level: full of promise without much testing in the real world. But when they met each recognized the other's talent and formed exorbitant expectations about where that talent might lead. When Sylvia Plath met him, the first thing she did was quote to him what he had written and published in a literary journal, that she had memorized. It was a magical moment for him and for her, too. It was the basis of their bond. Hughes calls it luck. In a letter to his brother, he says: Sylvia is my luck entirely.
He was mad about her! And one of the things he loved was that she had exactly the kind of literary education that could appreciate everything he did, everything without exception. She had not only a kind of daffy goofy appreciation of him, such as one has for objects of desire when one is desiring them, but she also had the same education he did, and very good literary judgment.
And you point out in the book that they were exceptionally good critics for each other, while being incredibly supportive.
Yes. They provided the lab conditions for each other in their purposeful pursuit of a ridiculous professional decision. You know? I mean ridiculous! You don't become a poet with any expectation of success in the material world. So how are you going to become a poet at all? How poets become poets always has a story of this kind somewhere in it. Somebody whose judgment matters to you keeps you going while you get to be good at it, which usually takes a hell of a long time even if you're very talented.
Plath was incredibly ambitious. But one of the very interesting things I found out about in the book was her conventionality, too, her very 1950s husband-hunting while she was at Cambridge.
Well, they were both conventional in the assumption that they should marry.
Although she proposed to him.
She proposed to him, but he said, why not? I think. Remember, he came out of a family where people married or they weren't respectable, or there was something wrong with them. Plath held the same view, as we know from her journals and from her poems. She thought that to be married was the only socially acceptable mature position for a woman. But he made a kind of unconventional marriage, and she did too.
They were a dual-career couple in the 1950s.
Yes. She figured out how it was going to work for her, and he figured out how it was going to work for him right away, because Sylvia Plath was not only a wonderful critic, she was a wonderful typist! So there was this ordinary side to their marriage, and then there was the extraordinary side, which was their discovery of each other as perfect counterparts in their developing vocations, the partner that luck had handed them. He said as much in "Birthday Letters," where he makes the astrological claim that the solar system married them the night they met.
Obviously this is an exhaustively written-about and thought-about couple. Paul Alexander's play "Edge" was performed in New York recently. He takes a very different view of their relationship. He presents it in a way that paints Hughes as the villain.
But Alexander is writing a play, which is a different genre entirely; it requires a dramatic arc. A biography is something else.
He's written a biography as well ["Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath"].
Well, to be charitable about the question, he didn't have the advantage of the Ted Hughes archive. I believe that that archive absolutely once and for all changes the base for making a judgment about him. Lots of things can be found out about Ted Hughes in 2003 that couldn't be known before.
So is it your belief that this entrenched view that has been so reinforced about Sylvia Plath as a victim of a husband who left her -- and a father who died and left her, I'm thinking of her poem "Daddy" and of Alexander's play -- is it your belief that with the Ted Hughes archive being opened that that view will change?
Who knows? Society, culture absorbs information in the form of stories. And in the 20th century, we had a favorite story, the victim story, which was widely distributed in our culture. "Sylvia Plath was a victim of a bad man."
She was made into a sort of victim poster girl.
I never thought that fit her very well, personally, but it was easily absorbed. Then too whenever people get a divorce, other people choose sides against one of the pair. Somebody is always to blame.
And when one member of the couple takes her life ...
Well, yes, and then Sylvia Plath kills herself, and people think she killed herself because he left her. How do they know that? Sylvia Plath had already tried to kill herself. The available evidence suggests that she was having a repetition of the major clinical depression that she had had when she was 18. Her obsessional suicidal thoughts were symptoms of her illness. Suicide was a solution to the problem.
Which she wrote about in "The Bell Jar."
"The Bell Jar" had just been published when she killed herself. I envision it as sitting in plain sight during the hours when she was deciding what to do. She had a suicide in her. And the options that Sylvia Plath might have seen would have been A) hospitalization, which she had been through before, and B) that her children might be taken away from her. I have never seen a shred of writing about this, but I feel pretty sure that that would have crossed her mind. Mental illness was held to be a very, very bad thing, and you definitely wouldn't want children being raised by "a nut case." As a British woman said to me, "Cut to the chase! Was Sylvia Plath a nutter or not?"
A nutter. That's nice.
It was an important question to hear put so bluntly. Honestly, I can hardly bear to think about those last hours of Sylvia Plath's life. I have a real rescue fantasy about this. If somebody had just put her in a place where she was safe, until she got better, and could come back to her children, I think she could have survived the breakup of her marriage.
And that marriage would have been a good thing for her. Just because a marriage ends doesn't mean it's a failure.
Yes, that's what I think. Though I used to say to my female students, men can marry, but women shouldn't.
Really. Were you married at the time?
No. I had observed in myself that I could have a relationship to a man that was pretty satisfactory, consoling, and even conflict-oriented, and that was fine as long as I wasn't married to him. But as soon as I got married to him, all of a sudden I had a script playing in my head all the time. And feminism was saying: Let's just take a look at this stuff. The personal is political, so where's the politics? Well, the politics was the politics of being the wife, in my head. When I married my current husband, my last husband, I had outgrown the script. I wasn't going to have children with him, and we both were well-established in our professional worlds.
You were beyond the script.
Literally beyond it. So we can make it up as we go along. I can't tell you how gratifying it is to make it up as you go along. It's wonderful! Because at any given moment you can say, I think we're doing this all wrong. I'm not happy with this. Or, what would happen if we did this? The conventions don't rule you the way they do when you're a reproductive pair. Because there's no question that women bear a different kind of emotional responsibility for child raising from men.
And still you think this is true? I'm certain it's true right now.
I just realized who I was talking to.
The three-months' pregnant writer. I think about this all the time. About how my husband and I will handle it, and what will happen to my work. One of things I was feeling, being a newly pregnant woman writer reading your book, was Sylvia Plath's worry and anxiety over whether she had to make a choice between her writing, her career, and being a wife and mother. And even now, in this post-feminist universe, I worry over it too.
The way she formulates her options in her journal is that marriage will probably require that her writing become secondary, so there's the conflict. She gives caps to writing and to life. For life, she needs to be married --
And to be a mother.
And to bear children. Let's preserve that distinction if we may, because childbearing is what she thinks about; she doesn't think about children. She's thinking about accessing her fertility, if you want to put it that way. That's not her phrase for it, but the consistent references in Plath have to do with a celebration of her fertility.
And with confirming it. She needs to know she's fertile.
And confirming it! But the outcome of being fertile is really not in her imagination. She's not drawn to children, she doesn't fantasize about them, their little shining faces.
She does seem, for awhile, to have it all.
Yes. And Plath truly enjoyed caring for her children.
She's so different from Anne Sexton in that regard.
And boy, I'm on Sexton's side in a lot of ways on this one. Let somebody else take care of the children! Women aren't good at taking care of children just because they're female. That is very important to know in life. It doesn't come with the territory of being female, at all. Plath understood this. Her poetry contains recognition of the biological bond, which is endocrinological, between herself and the baby while she breast-feeds. But what's voluntary, what has to be created inside her because it doesn't come with the breast milk, is love. Is fascination, is benign, benevolent curiosity.
It must have been fascinating, having written a biography of Sexton, who is so often connected with Plath. I was struck by how different these two women are, and how different their marriages were, if you want to look at that part of their lives.
Yes. Sexton had a wife, so to speak. (Her husband, Kayo Sexton.) Actually she had something better. She had the extended family in which the other people were caretakers. And thank god! Because women have to be able to hand off child care, if they're going to be able to do other things. If you're going to be creative you have to be able to hand it off. In Plath's case, she had a man who acknowledged, without apparent difficulty: We've got this child to take care of, so you get the morning and I get the afternoon.
They shared child-care 50-50!
Which he does mention to Aurelia Plath -- somewhat annoyed, like he doesn't get proper credit for this -- that Plath regarded her writing time as the most important writing time in the house. That was the most important writing time in the house! Now if we want to talk about selfish, my dear.
OK. Let's talk about sex. There's a lot of sexuality and sensuality in your book in talking about their marriage, and especially their courtship.
Which she wrote about so often. So vividly.
Especially in that amazing, famous journal entry you spend a lot of time on. Clearly they turn each other on from the beginning, if bleeding is any sign. How important was sex to their relationship?
Well, it was an instant test that they gave each other.
The poetry first --
Yes, poetry first, then sex. They established the priorities right away. I don't know much time elapsed from the time that she said, "I did it, I," till she bit his cheek and he grabbed her earrings and walked out of the door. But it wasn't very much time. Right away they knew that they were attuned to each other. They didn't follow up right away. It took a little while for things to clarify.
But that first encounter and the way they physically interacted with each other that first time was pretty telling ...
It was a paradigm, I think. At least it was the paradigm that Plath chose to write about. And we have to be aware that many of the things we think we know about Sylvia Plath come from her journals, and she's always heightening things.
The journals are one of the things Paul Alexander uses -- just to bring him up again -- to put forth his understanding of their story, in which Ted Hughes is somewhat abusive. They had rough sex.
Well, Kamy, may I just politely observe that "abusive" is another loaded cultural term? It's a huge umbrella! And it doesn't fit very well over sexual transactions, it seems to me. Because aggression is very important in people's sexuality, one way or another. In the spectrum of possible aggression-expression in sex, they seemed to have been on the heavy-duty end. But there is no sexual encounter that does not have some aggression in it. None! According to Freud, according to experience! And their sexuality seemed to have been most gratifying when it licensed some expression of the primitive. This is where D.H. Lawrence is very important.
We should talk about that. Lawrence was very important to both of them.
Like Lawrence, Hughes held the view that the authentic experience of sex is an expression of animal force, vitality -- animal vitality, that is. And in his lexicon there's a metaphorical violence to it. But sex is not experienced in words. It's experienced in physical sensation and the urge to do it! What flows from that intensity is language, of course, because we need to capture it. But I don't think the terms "abusive" and "violent" and even "masochistic" and "sadistic," "S/M," I don't think they can justifiably be applied to the register of their sexuality. It definitely was an expression of great importance -- given the frequency -- to both of them.
I love the New Year's resolution to have Friday afternoon blowups, followed by makeup sex.
That's right! Friday afternoon blowups, because the sex is better when you've had a blowup to stimulate you!
And they seem to be in sync.
Very much. And the pleasure principle seems to be the point there. I personally think that people who are trying to put together a brief against Ted Hughes can go to those things and say "violent and abusive," missing the point entirely. Their sexuality was a core expression of their bond, and it had a lot of intensity and negative charge in it.
And mutuality. That's probably the most important thing.
It is the most important thing.
I was struck by Plath being, for 1956, or the mid-1950s, a very sexual person.
And that she was sexually active, before marriage.
I was interested in tracking her discovery of her sexuality. And we can track it because of letters in her archive addressed to Eddie Cohen, a man she began corresponding with just before she went to college. Plath published a story in Seventeen magazine, and he wrote her a fan letter that initiated an active correspondence. After she confided to him her feelings about the injustice of the double standard, he more or less became her consultant on sex, giving her a man's point of view.
She was very angry about that idea that --
Men could have sex and women couldn't.
Right. Before marriage.
Right, for fear of pregnancy.
You get the feeling she'd be happy about your husband's invention of the pill.
She was happy enough when she got a diaphragm! But Cohen encouraged her to practice, practice, practice. He encouraged her to masturbate, and to experience orgasm. He said you had to learn how to do it.
That's very forward-thinking.
I'll say. And she did learn. I paraphrased the juiciest things I could find in her journal, about the way she achieved satisfaction by rubbing against her partner -- rubbing together their "tender pointed slopes."
Ooh, a very poetic description of a dry hump.
Right, a dry hump, as we would say. See? What a put-down, eh? But she gives it poetic language because she really loved it, it was delicious. And it was what she felt safe doing.
I have to say, I mean, on Hughes' side of things, he did seem to have a distinctive sexual style. It wasn't just in his relationship with her. When he went on after she was gone with other women, he seemed to think of himself as a hunter. Is that true?
Well, that's my account of him. I don't believe he applies that to himself and his sexuality, although his account, in a consistent, ongoing way, of men's sexuality is that they're driven by what he calls the zest of the sperm. There's this principle of vitality in you that's always looking for an expression of itself. And it has no interest in any social contract.
That's the heart of the matter.
It's biological. But Hughes knows that the zest of the sperm is also embedded in the religious tradition in the story of creation. God created Adam, and two women. There's Eve, and for her there's only one man. But there's Adam, and for him, there's Lilith!
His wife and his mistress, from the beginning.
From the beginning. And Hughes doesn't spell it out, by the way. I'm attributing to him an interpretation I made of his use of Lilith in the poem I'm thinking of, which was written to Assia, the "other woman" in his life with Plath.
I guess this brings us to one of the other things we've talked about before, which is the adultery dispensation for the rich, talented and famous. Mostly for men, but women, too -- Sexton, notably. If you look at the biographies of major artistic figures, or just of ambitious, extraordinary people, there's a lot of adultery there.
Yes, there's a lot of adultery in their biographies. And there's a lot of adultery in the literary world of London. It wasn't just adultery. There is a different social, sexual milieu of Englishness that makes Americans look puritanical. Now Ted Hughes was raised in a puritanical environment himself. But in the world of literary London, where people just freely exchanged partners and there was just a lot of casual sex, adultery was an expression of being a bohemian, so to speak.
In that sense he was almost behaving in a more conventional way than she was.
In a very conventional way! And that's why, his friends said at the time, and even put in their memoirs now, that she really made far too much of it. What she needed was some good advice from a maternal figure, you know: Let him get it out of his system. And that would have been the way a family-oriented advisor would have spoken to her.
Or a literary-bohemian-oriented advisor. There's some notion that a monogamous, rule-bound marriage is not functional for artists.
It's not functional for anybody, in my view.
You know what the rules are, and then you see that -- it depends on what "is" is. If only it were clearer what you should do in any given situation. If only it were! If only it were, how happy we would -- or no, how dull it would be. This is why people are interested in reading about other people's marriages. What do they actually do when push comes to shove, and people make -- I almost said "make mistakes," but I won't say that. Let me put it this way. When one person hurts another person, but actually loves them, too, how do both of them deal with it? Because the rules just don't cover all the cases.
I know in the book that you're really trying to look most closely at Ted Hughes' creative development and his creative crisis. But we do get to see that he marries again, and within that marriage he does find a woman who seems to be at least tolerant of his need to continue pursuing affairs --
Hughes doesn't have another marriage until 1970. Instead he finds a variety of rather unsatisfactory circumstances under which to take care of the children. Aurelia Plath wants to take care of them on her daughter's behalf, and Hughes refuses this. He hires nannies, he gets help from his sister, he involves Assia [the woman Hughes had the affair with while he was married to Plath], who has a baby, and as I say, he creates a tribe in which he's the chief. So the solutions are really kind of fluid until 1970 when he marries a woman who really has the ability and the desire, apparently, or the will, to take care of the children with him. He hasn't solved the problem of his creativity, though. That's what I'm talking about in my book. How is Ted Hughes going to solve the problem of being a poet on the scale he aspires to? A poet on the scale of Yeats, on the scale of T.S. Eliot. How did he get there? That's my question. Because he indubitably did. And I don't know what role his last marriage played in his achievement, but I do know what role his relationships outside his marriage played in it.
And you do know what role his marriage to Plath played in it.
Yes, I do know what role his marriage to Plath played in it. He referred to the marriage to Plath as a marriage that was his contact with what he would have called the feminine principle, the "goddess of complete being." Which doesn't mean she was complete in herself, but that his being is completed in conjunction with her.
So even after Plath's death, it remains important to talk about the two marriages, which you introduced at the very beginning of our conversation. Because while the reproductive unit marriage failed, and truly ended with her death, the other marriage continues.
It continues to the end of his life. And there is a poem which is the last poem in the marriage, which I designate: "The Offers." In this poem Plath returns to Hughes in a dream, younger than she's ever been, flawless, and she says to him, "This time, don't fail me." That marriage goes on, and he doesn't fail it.
Hence, "Her Husband."
So, I'm still hung up on this adultery thing.
One of the things I've been writing about, that I write about in my book, parts of which you've read, was my struggle as I contemplated getting married with the idea of fidelity, and my fear of failing at it. I felt like I had to believe that I could stop pursuing sexual relationships with other men, for the rest of my life, or I couldn't marry. I felt like I had to believe I could stop doing that.
OK, but can I interrupt you and say, presumably, that you were projecting into the future. But to be businesslike, how long is the future?
Till you die!
My dear! You have no idea how long you're going to live. I think if you're a serious person you understand that you are doing your best.
And you don't know what's going to happen in your life, but you are going to try your best.
I promise to try my best. Well, back to Plath and Hughes.
But you see, I wrote this book because I think this is so fundamental: Marriage is a commitment to form coping mechanisms with which to handle the unintended consequences!
I sensed that reading the book. It's a very literary book, but at the same time it's really dealing with marriage, not just Hughes' and Plath's marriage, but ideas about marriage itself. Do you see it as a book for people struggling and prospering in their own marriages?
Yes, because I've had three of them!
And your ideas about marriage were basically the same as Sylvia Plath's?
Pretty much. I was born in 1939 and she was born in 1932. But the world of Spokane, Wash., let's say there was a bit of cultural lag there. But marriage was the destiny of a girl; and nice girls did not have sex outside of marriage. I had sex outside of marriage so I married the guy I had sex with. Then I got a fellowship and I left the man that I'd had sex with and gotten married to. The conflict between my writing and my life, so to speak -- what a muddle. So I sympathized with Sylvia Plath's struggle very much. But I won't go on personalizing Sylvia Plath's script. I'll just say that as I got older myself I got more interested in the fact that men and women have different stakes in marriage.
What was it like writing about two people who have been so written about?
I limited myself to writing about their marriage, partly because it turns out to be such an important theme in the work of both of them. The availability of Hughes' papers after his death made it possible to probe this subject without inhibitions.
It is really a biography of a marriage.
Theirs was one of the most important literary marriages ever. And one of the reasons is that as her survivor, and as her executor, Hughes made Plath famous. He did! And then he wrote himself into the story of their marriage, and made them inseparable.
Would you ever do a biography of someone who was still living?
You didn't start this project until after Hughes' death.
Not just after he died, but also with the knowledge that Hughes himself had selected everything in the archive he sold to Emory University in Atlanta. I thought, well, Ted Hughes has a reputation in the world of a man who doesn't want to be known ... I don't think so! I really understood, too, how Ted Hughes got the reputation of being a man who didn't want to be known. He was protecting is privacy, but in addition, he wanted to write about his life. And he did. He didn't want journalists writing about his life. You make talk and journalists turn it into writing. And as Janet Malcolm says in "The Journalist and the Murderer," it's the journalist's story, not yours.
And it's the biographer's story.
What's next for you?
My next project is a biography of somebody who's been dead for 2,000 years, the Roman poet Ovid.
You couldn't be much deader than that!
No estate, nobody to interview, and actually, no history. Just me and him!
About the writer
October 29 - 4, 2003
By steering clear of the
lurid, the sordid, and the true, this new Plath biopic fails to live up the new
When Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven in 1963, envious fellow suicidal poet Anne Sexton called it "a good career move." It did make her immortal: This fall, witness the flawed yet compelling movie Sylvia (which opens Friday, Oct. 31, at the Harvard Exit); the Plath play Edge by Paul Alexander, whose Ted Hughes-bashing Plath bio Rough Magic was just reissued; and the landmark Plath/Hughes bio Her Husband (Viking, $25.95) by 1961 UW grad and Theodore Roethke student Diane Middlebrook, who shared her research with Kate Moses, author of the Plath novel Wintering, new in paperback.
Everybody's reading about Sylvia Plath. "But which Sylvia Plath?" asked Middlebrook on a recent visit to Seattle. Take your pick. In the play, she's the feminist martyred by Ted's patriarchal wandering shlong. For Ted's sister, Olwyn, Sylvia was a psycho harpy Ted fled to save his life. ("It was her or me," he muttered to friends after the suicide.) Middlebrook herself emphasizes the poet's many masks: "There was also the intense and really bitchy Sylvia Plath, the Sylvia Plath who had the joy of life, was very interested in her children, wrote like a demon, was very sociable there are incessant dinner parties in the journals." Sylvia Plath as Martha Stewart? "She was Martha Stewart, absolutely she was!" confirms Middlebrook. This posthumous feminist icon was no feminist, and it was motherhood that triggered her gift.
The movie tries to be kind to both Ted and Sylvia, sketching her contradictions while stressing her vulnerable side. It shows how literature bound them, how his magnetism attracted women like lint, and how her banshee jealousy helped drive him away. Sylvia really did say of her bosomy rival Assia Wevill (Amira Casar), "I conjured her." Gwyneth Paltrow radiantly conjures Sylvia, especially in the early scenes, when she spots Ted (craggy Daniel Craig) at a Cambridge party, engineers their erotic collision, outdoes his friends in competitive Shakespeare recitation, then enchants him by chanting Chaucer to a herd of cows. Paltrow's intelligent, lovely face even resembles Plath's.
Yet so much is missing! Paltrow's voice and physical mien capture the glamour-girl and sensitive-sufferer sides of Plath, but fail to convey her blowtorch intensity. Most movies try to sex up real stories; Sylvia unsexes an incredibly lurid tale of passion, jealousy, and betrayal. (Plath famously drew streaming blood on their first kiss.) Both Ted and Sylvia attained greatness by unleashing their instinctive inner demons, but Sylvia fatally soothes them. Paltrow's rages are too tame: She spends the movie dwindling into genteel, saintly sorrow, when the real woman was a holy terror.
YET AS DIRECTOR Christine Jeffs explained during her Seattle promo tour, the softening of the melodrama was partly budgetary. Of Plath's true, very Hollywood attempted suicide by car wreck, she says, "We didn't have time in the schedule to do a car crash, really." But it was also an artistic decision, consistent with her wish to honor Plath and steer clear of the sordid. "We tried to get at a more poetic way of getting across the emotion that she's come to the end of the road."
But where is it written that poetry shouldn't be sordid or that poets shouldn't live reckless, self-destructive lives? Again, Middlebrook reminds us, Plath was the product of a wild period. "They were mad about poetry, really believed in it as a vocation. That used to be true around here." One poet who made the early-'60s Seattle scene was the Hughes' close friend W.S. Merwin, and Roethke was arguably the crucial influence on Plath. "It was a poetry place. Very glam. Drunkenness was expected of everyone." Yet Middlebrook feels the film goes awry after the early, drunk-on-verse scenes, missing Plath's contradictions by drawing a straight line to suicide.
Thus, Sylvia shows Plath unsociably spoiling a party with a jealous scene, implying her behavior was part of the madness that killed her. Olwyn Hughes has popularized this view, too (see Anne Stevenson's 1989 Bitter Fame, for which she was the primary source). But Middlebrook says the madness only recurred very close to the suicide. "Plath was not mentally ill when she knew Olwyn. Somebody in a fit of rage is primitively regressed, but not necessarily crazy. Sylvia deprives Plath's rages of both their scariness and their fiercely unreasonable sanity.
IT ALSO FAILS to do full justice to Ted, blandly sanctifying him into a cipher. Though Craig is sexy and poetical enough, he's short, while Hughes was huge. Sylvia also cops out on his skirt chasing. It's vague about what went down in the love triangle with Assia. The last time Ted saw Sylvia, he told her they'd be back together by summer. "Hughes thought she would understand his need for indulging himself in this infatuation and that basically he and she were solid," says Middlebrook. "He just had to have this fling. A very bohemian attitude. He had social cluelessness and a great sense of entitlement."
That's tough to dramatize within romantic film conventions. And you'd have to read Hughes' newly published, 1,332-page Collected Poems complete with two dozen poems about Sylvia and Assia, who also killed herself, plus her daughter to grasp his nuanced feelings about his two lost loves. Also, Hughes wasn't a hypocrite: his deep, mystical belief in inner wilderness was consistent and had a cracked integrity.
Maybe a new round of Plathiana will emerge in 20 years, when Hughes' archives are unsealed at Emory University. Middleton thinks they may contain Plath's 1960-62 diaries, which Ted claimed (inconsistently) to have destroyed or misplaced. The box may also contain Plath's lost novel, which she called a "potboiler" about a betraying philanderer, with characters based on Assia and Assia's cuckolded husband, apparently influenced by Jules and Jim and Last Year at Marienbad. Assia wanted Ted to destroy it; maybe he didn't. It sounds like it would make a hell of a movie.