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STYLE & CULTURE

Poetic justice?

Forty years after the suicide of Sylvia Plath, a more nuanced portrait of her husband emerges.

October 19, 2003|Julia M. Klein | Special to The Times

You could say that the poet Ted Hughes helped guarantee his own bad press -- and not just by abandoning his wife, Sylvia Plath, for another woman.

The 30-year-old Plath killed herself in 1963, leaving in Hughes' care two young children, poems of radiant despair and a life story easily transmogrified into myth. As her literary executor, Hughes helped fuel the myth. But he also confessed censorship, burning her last journal and removing some poems critical of him from her posthumous collection, "Ariel," which, as she had predicted, made her name.

For decades, even as many of Plath's myriad biographers cast him as a philandering villain, the British poet laureate largely remained mostly silent about his seven-year marriage to Plath.

Then, in 1998, shortly before his death, Hughes published "Birthday Letters" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). A passionate, self-justifying paean to their relationship, the book showed, if nothing else, that he had never stopped thinking about her. Along with the opening of his papers at Atlanta's Emory University in 2000, it has helped inspire a more nuanced portrait of the man famously condemned by Plath in "Daddy" as a Nazi brute.

The two latest arguments for a (somewhat) kinder, gentler Hughes are the movie "Sylvia," which opened Friday and stars Gwyneth Paltrow as Plath, and the book "Her Husband: Hughes and Plath -- Portrait of a Marriage" by Diane Middlebrook, published this month by Viking.

On another front, the November release of Hughes' "Collected Poems" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is likely to enhance his literary reputation in this country, where his work has been available only erratically. Paul Keegan, its editor, says he hopes the collection will show the range of Hughes' poetic achievement and help redress "the baleful influence his life has had on perceptions of his work."

Middlebrook's book, a hybrid biography and literary study, calls the Plath-Hughes alliance "the most mutually productive literary marriage of the 20th century." Plath exerted "a gravitational pull" on Hughes' imagination, the biographer says.

In an interview, Middlebrook says she found Hughes "a considerably more interesting person, and also more cooperative, than he was thought to be." Instead of condemning him because both Plath and the woman he left her for, Assia Wevill, ended up killing themselves, "you might feel sympathy for him," Middlebrook suggests. "Here's a man who has been through hell."

There is no mention of Wevill's copycat suicide in the epilogue of "Sylvia." And as played by British actor Daniel Craig, "Sylvia's" Hughes, with his dark good lucks and resonant voice, is no murderous Bluebeard -- just a man caught in a situation beyond his control. Screenwriter John Brownlow and director Christine Jeffs ("Rain") paint the Hughes-Plath union as a tragic love story worthy of Romeo and Juliet, whom the film couple quote.

"Sylvia" producer Alison Owen says the movie tells "the ultimate 'can't live with you, can't live without you' love story." Their marriage was "much more committed and balanced ... than any of the biographies seemed to suggest," says Brownlow, who relied on original research, as well as their poetry. "Neither of them could be blamed for the breakdown of the relationship any more than they could be 'blamed' for embarking upon it in the first place."

Hughes' attraction

Not that Hughes-blaming is a dying art.

"Giving Up: The Last Days of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's Press), a recent memoir by her friend Jillian Becker, describes Plath's anguish at Hughes' adultery. After the suicide, Becker says the grieving Hughes was "self-absorbed" and "hostile" and remembers him saying: "It was either her or me."

Paul Alexander, author of the anti-Hughes "Rough Magic: A Biography of Sylvia Plath" (Viking, 1991), launches another fusillade in "Edge," a one-woman show set on the last day of Plath's life. Starring Angelica Torn in a searing performance, the show closed its limited off-Broadway run last month and will open in London in January.

Alexander says he understands why Plath responded to Hughes. "Ted Hughes," he says, "was absolutely the most fascinating man I ever met in my life. He was dark, demonic, sexual, fascinating, intelligent all at the same time -- a true giant of a man. I saw what Sylvia saw in him. He dominated a room. He was a unique demonic presence. Who's not attracted to that?"

Edge underscores the relationship's sadomasochism and faults Hughes for Plath's death. "She picked Ted because he was a violent person, because he liked to kill things," Alexander says. "She was looking for a man who would destroy her, and she found him."

Alexander's views hark back to the 1970s, when demonizing Hughes was a flourishing industry, when the poet faced angry protests at his readings and Plath's married name was routinely defaced on her tombstone.

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