Diane Middlebrook’s new book, Her Husband, is perhaps the first book about the marriage of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes to have a happy ending. The story, in its horrifying particulars, is familiar—a domestic goddess martyred, the House of Atreus furnished in mid-century style (the little cloth she folded to rest her head on in the oven was a particularly Martha Stewart–ish touch). Six years later, the woman for whom Hughes left Plath (her stranger-than-fiction name was Assia Wevill) killed herself and her and Hughes’s daughter by turning on the gas.
And who brought down this curse upon their heads? Many women had a suspect. Pickets shadowed Hughes on his trips abroad, waving placards accusing him of killing his wife. He became, along with Hugh Hefner and Bobby Riggs, one of feminism’s great villains.
But Middlebrook, a former Stanford professor and author of an excellent biography of Anne Sexton, the other suicide princess of mid-twentieth-century American poetry (interestingly, Middlebrook’s husband is Carl Djerassi, the inventor of the birth-control pill), breaks gender ranks by writing a book that not only acquits Hughes of the most serious charges—“Depression killed Sylvia Plath,” Middlebrook pointedly writes—but goes on to argue that in certain ways, their marriage never ended. Tragic though it was, she sees it as far from a failure. On the contrary their marriage made possible their poetry.
Long before they were famous, both Hughes and Plath lived as if being filmed. Middlebrook makes a wonderful set piece of their famous first meeting, with Plath striding long-legged through a crowded party, loudly reciting one of Hughes’s poems, the concluding line of which, prophetically raising the question of guilt and innocence, is “I did it, I.” Hughes’s then-girlfriend was instantly a footnote. Plath bit Hughes on the cheek, leaving a mark that lasted a month. Hughes confiscated her hairband as insurance of a future meeting.
“‘Depression killed Sylvia Plath,’ Middlebrook writes, but argues that Plath and Hughes’s marriage was far from a failure.”
When they met, the two were moving in opposite directions. Plath was a transitional figure, a protofeminist trying to have it all: The Joy of Cooking, great sex, babies, and superstardom, too. Hughes, as always, was doing the caveman thing, exploring the relation of instinct and culture—poetry, he thought, could help bridge the gap.
For Plath, for a time, these were the ingredients for a happy home. She tried (and failed) not to nag him about his wardrobe and personal hygiene—“Shut eyes to dirty hair, ragged nails. He is a genius, I his wife,” she confided to her diary, trying to convince herself.
Hughes cuts an impressive figure, in all his animalistic, greasy-haired glory, his ostentatious masculinity, and Middlebrook may have a little crush on him. She’s immensely sympathetic to his masculine project, listening with rapt attention as he explains the jury-rigged underpinnings of his poetry, a home brew of shamanism and astrology with a keen, predatory naturalist’s eye developed hunting on the heath above his boyhood home in West Yorkshire.
Plath’s suicide in February 1963 certified their genius and ushered the pair—for Hughes, often unhappily—into the world of celebrity. (Her competitors recognized it as a brilliant career move: “That death is mine,” Anne Sexton jealously complained to her psychiatrist. Hughes brought the The Bell Jar out under Plath’s own name—it had been published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas—and it became a best-seller. One of her poems got a full-page treatment in Time magazine.
Against Hughes’s critics, Middlebrook musters the poetic version of the insanity defense: The instincts made me do it. She’s his posthumous enabler, cutting him plenty of slack for his male needs, allowing him to poeticize his libido, making his affair with Wevill an artistic necessity. “His life as an artist henceforth would require his wife’s acceptance of the sexual practices to which his deepest inspiration was attached,” she writes at one point, in a formulation even a domestic saint wouldn’t agree to.
By definition, Plath is the love of Hughes’s life, the main event, which makes the last third of the book, and the greater part of his life, an anticlimax. He’s managing her posthumous career, trying to reconcile in death with the woman he couldn’t stay married to in life—Ted at Colonus, coming to grips with his blasted marriage.
Except that, frequently, Hughes seems more like Mr. Magoo, proceeding forward with more good cheer than one would imagine possible under the circumstances, somewhat clueless about the chaos in his wake. Plath’s manuscripts, strewn freely about his workroom, have a habit of “walking off,” being pilfered by the visitors constantly traipsing through the house. Various women moved through, too, solace for the grieving poet. Middlebrook writes of one of his mistresses: “Barber was the first but not the only woman who filled the role of reinstating wildness in Ted Hughes’s psyche during the years he was seeking his soul.” To which one wants to reply: So that was what he was seeking.
Hughes in this book is an oddly abstract figure, partly because Middlebrook sets herself the difficult task of reverse-engineering the man from the poetry. “Anyone can make him into an ordinary person,” she says at one point. His almost unimaginable guilt from two consecutive suicides, too, is largely unplumbed, though probably not unfelt. Hughes is still a cipher; while there’s no evidence to suggest that he was a monster, Middlebrook doesn’t make much of a case that he wasn’t.
“Hughes held the view that commentators on literature had an obligation to serve as stewards of the achieved human voice to be found in poetry,” writes Middlebrook. And she follows his injunction, letting him keep possession of his story. Even a reader who’s sympathetic to Hughes still wants him put on trial.
It’s not that Middlebrook is a partisan of Hughes’s, rather, she’s a partisan of poetry. The lives are the means, and the art is the end. With Hughes and Plath, however, this formulation seems incomplete. Their poetry will always be at war with the brutal simplicity of their human story. The reason they’re interesting is that we wonder about, and can’t solve, the problem of their guilt and innocence—somehow, together they brought down this curse. Instead, Middlebrook has covered Hughes’s retreat into poetry—where the two are reconciled. It’s an ars longa situation, that old romantic idea. In Middlebrook’s book, they die happily ever after.