Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes

I just finished reading Diane Middlebrook’s biography of Ted Hughes (and Sylvia Plath), “Her Husband: Hughes and Plath – a Marriage”. I knew that Plath was a poet who committed suicide, and that Hughes lived a long life and became poet laureate of England. I also knew that he had administered and edited Plath’s work, and that he had been viewed very critically in some quarters, having been accused of tampering with the work (i.e., leaving out things that would have been embarrassing to himself).

Of course, there is much more to know than that, and the world is filled with people who have written about Plath and her poetry, as well as with people who seem to have read everything that anyone has written on the subject.

But I was a newcomer, and I have to say that the book carried me right along.

It is an unusual book, I think, and clearly Plath and Hughes were most unusual people. Plath was a young American graduate of Smith College who believed that she could be a literary star, once she discovered her right place in the world. Enrolling for graduate work at Cambridge University, she made it a point to live a free wheeling life, designed to optimize her experience and put her in contact with England’s literary elite. She was ‘pushy’, personally and sexually, and she set her eyes on Ted Hughes, whose early poems she had read. Unfortunately, Plath also wanted to be the perfect wife and mother. Her domestic and intellectual goals presented a serious conflict, and she was not good at dealing with conflicting emotions, already having survived a suicide attempt and hospitalization during her college years.

Hughes was also striving to be a literary giant; in this way, he and Plath were a perfect couple. But Hughes did not have the desire to be the perfect husband, or any kind of husband, and he was a much less refined individual, dressing down while she always looked her best, and thinking of himself more as a outdoorsman and hunter than a long term domestic partner.

The seeds of the problems were planted in their very different personae, and it was only a matter of time when Hughes, clearly attractive to the opposite sex, was lured into an affair, which drove Plath crazy.

They separated, and she soon put her head in an oven, leaving two very young children behind. An obvious tragedy and one, like to many suicides, that may never had happened, had she been able to get through that one night.

Hughes was terribly affected, and now became a single – parent, surprisingly, perhaps, devoted to his two children. His new love object remained with him for a time, a time long enough for her to have a child who, although given the birth name of her husband, was clearly Hughes’.

And then the ultimate tragedy occurred. She too committed suicide, this time giving her young child sleeping pills as well. Two more deaths.

You can imagine how Hughes felt, as even more tragedies befell his life, and as he tried to remain productive himself, to manage the affairs and literary creations of his late wife, to raise his children, to keep on good terms both with his parents and with Plath’s mother, and to maintain a series of new relationships with various women, all of whom (with one important exception) appeared to become his muse of the day. The exception was the woman he married, not a literary person, who remained his wife for the rest of his life, in spite of his constant betrayals.

I don’t think I know anyone with the psychological make up of Plath or Hughes. That is part of what makes their story and this book so fascinating. Middlebrook is also a first class literary critic, and her interpretation of both Hughes’ and Plath’s work, rooting out themes and tying them into their lives apart and lives together, adds much to the book, as does her somewhat folksy way of delivering complex material.

The book is obviously well researched, from the notes and bibliography. I assume the facts are accurately presented. As to the literary criticism and psychological interpretations, I can’t say, but they certainly add up to make a credible, if somewhat incredible, story.

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