Title: Her Husband
Author: Diane Middlebrook
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
First Published: 2003
Pages: 350 (with the bibliography but sans the index)
I feel somewhat obliged to inform the reader that this isn’t so much a book review as it is a raw reaction to work, which I consider greatly illuminating. It’s no secret that I’ve been a big fan of Sylvia Plath’s for years. I have such few passions, but the brightest flame that’s got me alit from the very marrow of my bones is Poetry.
And since that life-changing day in high school when my Creative Writing professor read Mirror in class, since I caught a glimpse of the White Goddess in the echoes of the person and works of Plath, I have looked up to the infamous poetess as a child looks up to its idealized mother. In her works, I’ve found the impossible benchmark to my writing.
What I love about “Her Husband” by Diane Middlebrook is that it shatters this extreme idolatry by, in a way, demythologizing Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. What Middlebrook does is she does away with the blame game, refusing to paint Hughes in any other light than what one can discern from both his and Plath’s memories and writings. Through extracting the very essence of the poets’ works and revealing memories from close friends and relatives, the author explains the nature of Plath’s and Hughes’s relationship. One learns that beyond the obvious erotic and magickal pull between these poets, you have this mutually beneficial writing relationship where one calls and the other answers through poetry and prose.
The book also reveals intimate details about Plath, Hughes, and their relationship. We learn about their quirks, personal interests, fears, insecurities, and even their pet names for each other. I guess those details were the most jarring of all. We always seek to unveil our champions, to get under their skin. Find out what makes them tick. I wonder, is it human nature to cringe at the sight of their humanity too? Perhaps cringe is a strong word, but the intimate baring of Plath and Hughes in this book had me feeling a bit ‘uncomfortable’ for a while. It felt as if I’ve waded in the sea of their memories, an unwelcome visitor scared to be treading such private waters. But what can one expect from a good biography? And this one is one of the best biographies I’ve read, after all.
One of the most surprising ‘reveals’ in the book was how Plath actually liked Wevill the first time they met. Wevill had even gone out of her way to get Plath a small gift after they met. Of course, this only served to make the entire thing even more tragic for Plath. It was particularly heartwrenching to read about the humiliation Plath must’ve felt immediately after the split. On the day Hughes packed up to leave their home, she interrogated him about his relationship with Wevill:
“Where had he been? Why had he tricked her? Did he mean to abandon his children? How much money had he spent? How good was sex with Assia? Unfortunately, he answered her questions—‘fed me the truth with leer after leer,’ she [Plath] told her mother. (p.183)
There were certain points in the book where one wondered how Hughes could stand to hurt Plath that way. Obviously, the attraction between Assia and Ted must have been immense for both to act so recklessly as to ruin their marriages. At times, it was easy to paint Hughes as the ‘bad guy.’ But Middlebrook handles this dilemma (this tendency for immediate bias) deftly. She does this by presenting Hughes’s side by quoting a letter Ted had written for his brother:
“The one factor that nobody but close friends can comprehend is Sylvia’s particular death-ray quality,” Hughes wrote to Gerald. “In many of the most important ways she’s the most gifted and capable and admirable woman I’ve ever met—but, finally, impossible for me to live married to.” (p.180)
Hughes had grown restless, the way he was restless before he met Plath. The man and the woman pulled away from each other as the writers in them continued to draw from their wellspring of shared experiences. Eventually they had to call it quits, though Hughes claims that weeks before Plath’s death, a reconciliation may have been in the works.
We all know about Plath’s final creative burst and her tragic death. But this book also talks about Hughes and how he dealt with both Plath’s and Wevill’s suicides. How, after being forced into the role of the ‘relic husband,’ Hughes finally came to terms with being Plath’s collaborator and conduit even after her death. I think it was this point when he began creating his most ‘honest’ and vulnerable works. I’ve always admired Hughes’s writings, but I’ve felt that his latter works were less cerebral, less swathed in obscurity, but more meaningful—more relatable. And that’s a big thing for me.
All in all, I think this is one of the most skillfully written, revealing, and unflinching biographies about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. It’s a great read if you love Plath, Hughes, or poetry (and its processes) in general.