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Pain, poetry and death

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- A Marriage; Diane Middlebrook; Viking: 362 pp., $25.95

October 12, 2003|Susie Linfield | Susie Linfield, a contributing writer to Book Review, is acting director of the Cultural Reporting and Criticism program at New York University.

Like a grotesquely bloody car crash that replays itself over and again, the story of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes continues to fascinate us four decades after her death. Plath and Hughes' exultant sexual passion and artistic drive; his betrayals; her suicide; the motherless children....Who can look away?

Yet it is not only lurid attraction, or schadenfreude, or some inchoate sense of relief (no matter how bad things get, for most of us they haven't gotten quite that bad) that draws us to this tale. The catastrophic marriage of Hughes and Plath -- a catastrophe that, not coincidentally, produced great art -- also raises fundamental questions that we need to ask and can never answer: about how love grows and why it dies; about the relationship between madness and creativity; about the power of men and the power of women; about the price of staying in a marriage, and of leaving it; about depression and despair, and whether either love or art can heal them. As literary critic Jacqueline Rose wrote, thinking about Plath means thinking about "some of the most difficult points of contestation in our contemporary cultural and political life.... She writes at the point of tension -- pleasure/danger, your fault/my fault, high/low culture -- without resolution."

Not surprising, then, that a widely variegated literature has grown up around Plath and Hughes, centering sometimes on their lives and sometimes on their work but almost always, by necessity, considering the relation between the two. At the lowest end of the spectrum is the shamelessly voyeuristic novel "Sylvia and Ted" by Emma Tennant, who has dined off her affair with Hughes far too long. But there are works of subtle intelligence too, such as Rose's "The Haunting of Sylvia Plath" and Erica Wagner's "Ariel's Gift." Diane Middlebrook's "Her Husband," a provocative and compelling attempt to understand the marriage of these poets by looking at their work, places itself firmly in this best tradition. It is a mark of Middlebrook's skill as a writer and her insight as a thinker that her book is a pleasure to read though her subject is tragic.

Middlebrook never shies away from the emotional torment at the heart of this tale, but she knows that the stakes are not those of a soap opera. "How mock-heroic is the war between the sexes," she writes. "It's a real war, though, which is why the marriage of Hughes and Plath is of enduring interest." The author of an acclaimed biography of Anne Sexton, Middlebrook places the Hughes-Plath marriage, and the work it produced, within "a thick cable of twentieth-century texts" by Yeats, Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence: "Each of these great modernists attempted to wrest ordinary marriage into a myth." In the years 1956 to 1962, Middlebrook claims, Hughes and Plath created "one of the most mutually productive literary marriages of the twentieth century" -- albeit one of the briefest and most disastrous.

Because so much bad work has been done on Hughes and Plath, Middlebrook's approach is impressive, first, for what it rejects. She does not adhere to the reductive feminist line that Plath, who killed herself at age 30 in 1963, was a helpless victim of Hughes' infidelities in particular or patriarchal oppression in general. But she rejects in equal measure the idea that Plath was simply a chronic depressive whose life and poetry address no reality larger than her own.

Middlebrook's vision is more complex; take, for instance, her discussion of the Hughes-Plath honeymoon (a ritual, she notes, that "gives newlyweds plenty of opportunity to discover the ways they are going to make each other unhappy"). Hughes brought along his Shakespeare, Plath "The Joy of Cooking."

At this point many a reader will groan, and there is no doubt that the conflict between housework and intellectual work (and between wife-muse, mother-artist, etc.) is very much a part of Plath's story. But not the whole story. Middlebrook writes, "Nothing illuminates Plath as a figure of her historical moment better than do these entries [in her journal] on her womanly competence, written as if under the aegis of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But Plath also viewed cooking as a practice that advanced her aim of developing a writing style grounded in womanly experience.... She spent several hours one day avoiding the philosophy of John Locke by studying [Irma Rombauer's] 'The Joy of Cooking,' 'reading it like a rare novel.'... Plath's journal entry provides some context for understanding the hidden pathway of association that glides from Locke to Rombauer. She is groping for a specifically female version of moral philosophy."

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