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'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

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."

 
 
"Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage"

By Diane Middlebrook

Viking ($25.95)

   
 

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."

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