Dianne Middlebrook launches Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage
, appropriately, with the birth of the poets lives together. Through her retelling of the historic moment of their first meeting, Middlebrook sets the balanced, literate, and brutally honest tone that she maintains throughout the book. According to Middlebrook, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughess first encounter was violent and almost mythic, punctuated with kisses and biting. In 112 days they were married. Together, as Middlebrook shows, they formed a unique literary bond. They remained aggressive intellectual and erotic partners. But, six years later, Hughes left Plath and their two children for another woman. She committed suicide shortly after, while Hughes would go on to a long and successful career as a poet and as Plaths literary executor.
What Middlebrook brings to this story, outside of the almost voyeuristic details gleaned from letters, diaries, interviews, and past biographies, is a scholarly commitment to infuse the reading of Hughes and Plaths marriage with a reading of their poetry and prose. In less capable hands, using literature to reconstruct biography can lead to an undisciplined avoidance of real historical research. But Middlebrook drafts the writings to bolster her understanding of the couple in sophisticated ways that link their private language to their public statements in published works (especially Hughes Birthday Letters). At the same time, Middlebrook remains deeply aware that Hughes and Plath worked to re-construct themselves through their writings, often with conflicting self-portraits, for posterity. She is comfortable letting their contradictions exist side by side.
Her Husband is wonderfully told; it is difficult to imagine how this narrative of the marriage could be surpassed. One only hopes that Middlebrook will have the stamina to amend her own workif necessarywhen Hughess most private papers are made public in 2023. --Patrick OKelley
From Publishers Weekly
Joining the recent spate of books about Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, all of which concern the sources of their poetry and their dysfunctional marriage, Middlebrook's is sure to be the gold standard. Astutely reasoned, fluidly written and developed with psychological acuity, the work is a sympathetically balanced assessment of two lives that flamed brightly with the incandescent fire of creative genius. Accessing newly available materials in the Hughes archives at Emory University, Middlebrook (Anne Sexton) offers fresh evidence of Hughes's beliefs in shamanism, psychic telepathy and the predatory instinct, and she breaks new ground in tracing the couple's interactive creative relationship, suggesting that neither would have produced his or her best poetry without the other. She shows how Hughes's faith in mysticism not only led him to believe that his marriage to Plath was fated, but also acted as a counterweight, inspiring him to seek his muse in erotic entanglements with other women. She conjectures that Plath, too, needed erotic aggression to release her creative impulses, demonstrating the particulars of her struggle with the conflicting demands of motherhood. And she effectively demolishes Hughes as the demon who destroyed Plath, stating that during their marriage he displayed "a high level of tolerance toward what other people considered... antisocial, crazy... behavior"; she also writes that Plath's emotional breakdown was a recurrence of the clinical depression that occasioned her first attempt at suicide in 1953. In the end, the book is most valuable in interpreting Hughes's sources of poetic inspiration and emotional behavior, and in providing a balanced assessment of the legacy of a troubled marriage and the works of art it engendered.
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