by Diane Middlebrook.
Well, thank God someone has finally written a Plath book that isn’t all Plath. Kudos to Diane Middlebrook for writing about the infamous Ted Hughes as he related to his wife Sylvia, the poetess extraordinaire, the yin to his yang, or as some believe, the yin to her yang and giving us at last the balanced portrait that we’ve been searching for all these years.
No matter how you look at it, Plath and Hughes were meant for each other in some weird cosmic way, destructive as the union may have been, Plath and Hughes were a perfect couple, and Middlebrook does a remarkable job of presenting each of the partners in this ill-fated marriage (who doesn’t know that Plath committed suicide, and that later, Hughes next paramour for whom he left Sylvia, Assia Weevill, also took her own life and that of her daughter by Hughes, Shura, in the same way as Plath.) As Plath and Hughes both said in their work, “Fixed stars govern a life.” Indeed, both believed that the stars had contrived to join the two, and both were heavily into all sorts of magic and astrology that they believed had predestined their lives from the moment of conception.
Given this theory, there is little room for a life that one can choose, since under this type of thinking, a life is essentially predetermined. Small wonder, then that if you believe this, it is far easier to give up hope as Plath did and take your own life; she would have believed it was her destiny to do so. How can one live a life in which the self, according to the logic, has no control over events or circumstance; if everything is so pre-determined a sense of helplessness would inevitably set in during bad times. The good times, by contrast, would all be attributed to the stars and not to any sense of self congratulations. Where is there room for a sense of self or sense of accomplishment in this belief system?
Was it that Hughes was such a dark creature as many would have us believe and so Plath was “driven to her death” by such an ogre (this has been the Myth for many decades now, since Plath’s death in 63), or was it more that he was attracted to a certain type of woman that was already predisposed in some way and that it was exactly this type of mad intensity that drew Hughes to such woman as Plath in the first place. No one ever says that perhaps in his way, Hughes was misguidedly trying to save such individuals – an impossible feat, but certainly a theory that few seem to give any credence.
The latter seems more likely, though unless one was in the room it’s hard to say. Certainly, Hughes was not the best husband as Middlebrook points out very well and without any sense of vengeance. Here we meet an equal and balanced portrait of both Hughes and Plath in the context of their marriage. We learn of Plath’s moodiness as well as Hughes and the many difficulties that the couple had to face in their life together, their lack of money for one, that both wanted to make it as writers – Hughes would succeed in his lifetime, and Plath too to some extent, though the majority of her fame came, sadly, posthumously.
It should be noted that Plath spent a great deal of her energy and time making sure that Hughes’s work was seen and read and constantly being recycled to various magazines and journals. Though Hughes clearly had the raw talent, it was Plath who in many ways was responsible that the talent was seen at all, for without her, one wonders whether or not Hughes would have had the discipline to send the work out in the first place or even the belief in himself. Not to confuse; Hughes was clearly a great poet and indeed, a Poet Laureate, but it was Sylvia who was his number one fan and who acted, really, as a kind of agent and publicist, often putting her own work and importance away and focusing mostly on her husband’s work.
Her Husband is an excellent title for this book. So many disregard Hughes and too easily at that. He has been viewed only in the context of his marriage to Sylvia. There are the same shrill feminists who really aren’t seeing clearly at all when they went about desecrating Sylvia’s gravestone because it said “Sylvia Plath Hughes” and changing it back to simply Sylvia Plath. Yet it was Plath herself who signed her name Plath-Hughes and why should we or anybody have the right to change what the author herself would have wanted on her tombstone. This is just one issue that Middlebrook notes in her work and she is right to do so. How can one have such enormous respect for Plath and yet desecrate her gravestone and go against a name she wanted herself. Such actions show a complete lack of respect and regard for the dead poet herself and this is just one part of the Plath Myth that comes back again and again. The issue was finally resolved by removing the tombstone altogether and now, in its place there is a simple wooden cross and the occasional flowers left by a visitor. How sad that our Sylvia never got her own tombstone.
A great deal of Middlebrook’s book is an accounting of the Plath-Hughes union from the beginning to the end. Yes, it recounts the stories we’ve all heard too often, about the fated meeting of the literary journal in which Hughes had just been published. The party at which she bit his cheek until it bled and he took her earrings from her ear saying, very much like a poet, “HAH, these I shall keep.” which sounds just a wee bit affected and different accounts have it worded less poetically, but this just goes to show how much is built and layered upon the Plath story as it grows over time. One never tires of the story it seems, for every year there are yet more and more Plath books.
Midddlebrook’s book. like Jillian Becker’s personal account (reviewed here as well earlier on), is a book well-worth reading for it gives the most balanced account I have read to date. Gone are the days when Bitter Fame by Anne Stevenson was the only or the biggest portrait and an unbalanced one at that, written with the permission and help (as one could say ) of Hughes’s sister Olwyn Hughes, executor of the Plath estate and as myth has it, a woman who never got on well with Sylvia. Such a curious choice for executor, though Hughes himself named her so, since he felt he couldn’t handle it himself as he had become such a hot target for the Plath groupies who sought such blood lust and blamed him for her death.
There was some truth in the story. Yes, Hughes had cheated and he could be cruel and harsh and his lack of faith in his marriage was, in the end, just one thing that lead to that fated morning when Plath took her own life. Yet any reader would do well to remember that Plath had a thing with death long before she met Hughes and had attempted suicide while still a student at Smith. Her history of mental illness long predated Hughes. Yes, one could argue that knowing this Hughes had a responsibility not to push those buttons, particularly the one that signaled her fear of abandonment (this after her father, Otto Plath, had died while she was still a young girl in Winthrop, Massachusetts).
I would agree that to be involved with anyone who is damaged or hurt in this way, then one has a greater responsibility to tell the truth. If you can’t handle that responsibility, then better to get out of the relationship. This isn’t to blame Hughes – not at all. Only to say that he should have though more carefully about his actions and less about pure sexual desire. In many ways, as Middlebrook details with stories about the marriage that at least, this reader had never heard before, the union was a perfect one. The lust for Assia Weevill could easily have been temporary if things had been given more time, though admittedly this is pure speculation. Further, if handled differently, it’s possible that Sylvia wouldn’t have taken her own life.
We can never know, but what we can know is that for her own life, Sylvia herself must take final responsibility. Circumstance is what it is and we all must face it at the end of the day. More, we would do well to remember that anyone cruel enough to push our buttons is clearly not worth our time in the first place and frankly, instead of taking one’s own life, the clearer option or feeling would be of fury toward them. Suicide is just murder turned around and while I’m not advocating murder by any stretch what I am saying is that Plath could have been better served by less of blaming herself and more placing the blame and failure where it belonged. The infidelity was Hughes’s doing, not a failure of her own. While Plath was indeed a difficult person in many ways, she is not responsible for what Hughes did any more than he is responsible for what she had done and continued to do and ultimately did do. Each of us is responsible for our own actions.
Middlebrook provides a well-balanced and interesting and rather surprisingly new account of the marriage including photographs of all parties that at least this reader had never before seen. Photos of Assia Weevill and the Plath –Hughes are punctuated throughout the book in appropriate places, making it an easy reference for readers as they go along in the book.
Though the book is a large one and clocks in at about 290 pages, it is a quick read and a worthwhile one. It also provides a good accounting of other existing biographies and their involvement with the Plath estate and how it influenced the writings of writers like Anne Stevenson of Bitter Fame who was forced to capitulate to the desires of Olwyn and her versions of the stories.
For anyone interested in more than just the myth of Hughes and who wants the real dope, Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband is a worthwhile read and recommended to be read in concert with Birthday Letters – a collection of poems that Hughes wrote that address many of the issues that had plagued his life after Plath’s death. Each, in their way, gives an accounting of a marriage that was at once the perfect union and a fatal match.
Fixed stars do not have to govern a life; the choice is yours.
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