Writing about Aurelia Plath’s decision to publish her daughter Sylvia’s letters home more than a decade after her suicide, Janet Malcolm used a prescient metaphor: “Now the legend opened out, to become a vast, sprawling movie-novel filmed on sets of the most consummate and particularized realism: period clothing, furniture, and kitchen appliances; real food; a cast of characters headed by a Doris Dayish Plath (a tall Doris Day who ‘wrote’) and a Laurence Olivier–Heathcliffish Hughes. In exposing her daughter’s letters to the world’s scrutiny, Mrs. Plath not only violated Plath’s writer’s privacy but also handed Plath herself over to the world as an object to be familiarly passed from hand to hand. Now everyone could feel that he ‘knew’ Plath — and of course, Hughes as well.”
The just-released Sylvia, starring Gwyneth Paltrow as a Doris Dayish Plath and the British actor Daniel Craig as a Laurence Olivier–Heathcliffish Ted Hughes, is a pretty movie, in a creepy sort of way. The morbidity is stylized: The cold-water flats where Plath stabs at her Smith Corona are painted thick high-gloss dark green or Atlantic blue. The furniture is Danish modern, Plath’s kilts are Scottish and her sweaters cowl-necked. After Plath and Hughes have separated over his infidelity, it is a Twiggyish Plath with false eyelashes and an alligator purse who comes on to a literary editor, a man to whom she has lately said, “Now he’s gone. I’m free. I can finally write.”
The movie’s working title was Ted and Sylvia — and then someone must have realized that in the ongoing agon between the Zeus and Hera of midcentury poetry, it’s impossible not to take sides. As the story goes: Sylvia Plath, a talented but troubled Smith girl on a fellowship to Cambridge, married Ted Hughes, an English poet who was into foxes and horoscopes, four months after biting his cheek at a party in the winter of 1956. They had two children and then broke up when she discovered he was having an affair with Assia Wevill. A few months later, in the winter of 1963, Plath killed herself with gas from the kitchen stove. (The movie, ahistorically, has a scene in which the estranged couple have sex on the night of her suicide, she begs him to leave Assia, and he says, “I can’t. She’s pregnant.”) Some blamed Hughes for her suicide; others said they couldn’t imagine how Hughes had put up with her as long as he did.
Plath’s manuscript “Ariel” was published posthumously, and contains the poems of the rack and the screw she wrote in the fall and the winter before her death. (As the executor and editor of this and all Plath’s subsequent books, Hughes scandalized her many followers — especially feminist literary critics — by rearranging manuscripts and cutting certain passages of the journals in what was assumed to be a self-serving way.) With “Ariel,” Plath became, in the words of Robert Lowell, who wrote the foreword, “something imaginary, newly, wildly and subtly created — hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not another ‘poetess,’ but one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines.” She became, in other words, the perfect role for Gwyneth.
Diane Middlebrook’s new biography, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath — A Marriage, takes its title from the alter ego Hughes created in the editor’s note of an early, abridged edition of Plath’s journals to explain why he’d destroyed one of them. (“He did not want her children to have to read it.”) But the awkward syntax brought about by Middlebrook’s allusion is another reminder of how hard it is to write anything balanced about these two. A former Stanford professor whose biography of Anne Sexton was a finalist for the National Book Award and a best-seller, Middlebrook has a theory about Hughes: that his significance as a poet has everything and only to do with Plath. “The persona created in his work is her husband; and that persona is his contribution to the history of poetry,” she writes. (Readers of Hughes’ Collected Poems, a 1,329-page volume coming out from FSG this month, are likely to draw different conclusions.) But is Middlebrook’s theory — supported by evidence that the poets played “an obsessive game of tag with each other’s images,” and her claim that “Hughes was yin to Plath’s yang” — enough to justify a work narrowed to include only the most succulent, cringe-inducing bits?
Biographies in general — but particularly those of Plath and Hughes — make for good, guilty reading. Their story suffers from an embarrassment of detail. Most of the people they hung around with were literary-minded, self-expressive to a fault, and over the years a number of them produced memoirs. Plath herself did a lot of the damage, with her copious, attitudinal journal writing. For a long time, Hughes said nothing, which was even slightly better for would-be interpreters: They could construe him any way they wanted. (It didn’t help his profile with the feminists that Wevill, whom he married, later used Plath’s method to kill herself and the young daughter she had with Hughes.) Biographers need to do very little to make this story titillating, and because of this, tone is everything. Sanctimoniousness is annoying, but glibness might be worse.
Middlebrook’s intention, it seems, is to popularize Plath and Hughes, to make them accessible — not a bad thing in itself. More than anything, she wants her readers to relate to her protagonists. “When relationships break down, the fault lines can usually be glimpsed by the way the pieces fall,” she writes. The literary criticism is in a similar vein — regrettably unintimidating. Of Plath’s masterful “Daddy” she writes: “Her poem assumes that other women were going to find in the nursery rhymes of ‘Daddy’ an explanation for their own love-hate relationships with strong men. The ‘I’ in the poem gives the reader a place to stand to get a good angle on the mirror. . . . It’s about a girl’s collusion with a man’s sense of entitlement to be in charge of her; and it’s a brutal work of art that — riffing on a single vowel sound and offending left and right — has a lot in common with rap lyrics. How many things can you find to end in ‘ooo’?” Elsewhere, the slapdash sentences seem flecked with a malicious glee: “In her abundant notes about their domestic life, it is the food that elicits the most sensual entries. About the joy of sex, not a syllable.” And more dispiriting, if extremely silly, are salvos like: “If Sylvia Plath had been hit by a bus during the time they lived in London, from February 1960 to September 1961, we would never have heard of her.”
The reason for the book, presumably, is the new material made available by the publication of Plath’s unabridged journals and in Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters, a collection of poems that came out a few months before he died. (Erica Wagner, the literary editor of the Times of London, drew from this same well for Ariel’s Gift, which appeared several years ago.) Birthday Letters was Hughes’ only retort to the kinds of people who protested his readings by chanting “You murdered Sylvia.” The tender, anguished poems refract what he once said in a letter to a biographer of Plath: “All those fierce reactions against her — which she provoked so fiercely — from people who thought, perhaps, sometimes, that they were defending me — were from my point of view simply disasters from which I had to protect her. It was like trying to protect a fox from my own hounds while the fox bit me. With a real fox in that situation, you would never have any doubt why it was biting you.”
Hughes’ detractors have always demonized him, figuring him as a domineering brute and Plath as a fragile genius. Middlebrook, to her credit, dismisses this — “Depression killed Sylvia Plath,” she writes sensibly in the last sentence of her chapter on Plath’s death, thereby dispensing with the Plathists’ most dearly held tenet. But by choosing to concentrate her analysis of Hughes’ poems on the domestic theme of “how men fail in marriage,” she ends up diminishing him. To Hughes, this biography might have felt like one of his own hounds going after him.
Her Husband: Hughes and Plath — A Marriage | By Diane Middlebrook | Viking | 361 pages | $26 hardcover