WE CANNOT STOP talking about Sylvia Plath. Or rather, talking about Sylvia Plath has become a way of talking about other issues – issues which are unrelated to her poems themselves, issues which are precisely to do with what it is we are allowed to talk about. Those who write on Plath, whose own writing, as her husband Ted Hughes put it, went straight for the ‘central, unacceptable things’, find themselves confronting questions of acceptability too: about the acceptable limits of biography (how much it is possible to say about the marital breakdown of Plath and Hughes); the acceptable, ethical limits of editorial control (Hughes destroyed one of Plath’s journals, severely edited her work, and authorised the publication – or not – of all her posthumous writings); the acceptable limits of interpretation (what it is possible to say about Plath’s poems without causing offence to the estate). What it has been possible to say about Plath – about her six years with Hughes, her suicide in February 1963, those lethal last poems, which Hughes discovered, put together and ordered to form the work which sixth-formers and students all know as Ariel – has been controlled by the fiercely protective Olwyn Hughes, literary agent of the Plath estate, acting to preserve her brother’s and his children’s peace of mind. Olwyn Hughes’s monitoring of what can be said about Plath, together with Ted’s desire for ‘forgetfulness’, has meant that until recently she was someone we could barely begin, her estate hoped, to talk about.
This all changed in 1998, with the death of Ted Hughes and the publication of his Birthday Letters, a collection of autobiographical poems written over twenty-five years in which he addresses what it meant to have been the husband of Plath. By breaking his silence, Hughes ensured that we would talk less about the Plath constructed by her fans and readers and more about Hughes as he constructs himself in his vivid, visceral poetic sequence. It is Hughes’s mythologisation of himself as ‘her husband’, a persona he explored in the final years of his life, that interests Diane Middlebrook. This is the persona, she argues (surely rightly), that he hoped would survive him and ‘slowly work its way into the consciousness of posterity’, when the story of his marriage to Plath had become part of the cultural history of the twentieth century. When Middlebrook retells the by now so familiar tale, it is by reference to Birthday Letter and the lesser-known Howls and Whispers, consisting of eleven poems withheld from Birthday Letters and published in a limited edition of 110 copies. ‘Drawing from his books and papers,’ Middlebrook writes, Her Husband ‘follows a single line of inquiry through the maze of Hughes’s life as he enters into the partnership, struggles and prospers in it, loses the partner but not the relationship, and turns the marriage into a resonant myth’.
Who would be a Plath biographer? As if the estate, the myth, the many extant biographies (all of them, differently, flawed) and Birthday Letters did not provide an intimidating enough edifice to face, Middlebrook also has to overcome the major obstacle of two other devastating books published in the Nineties, both of which strip away any remaining ‘innocence’ there might be in writing about Plath. First was Janet Malcolm’s, nimble The Silent Woman (1993), in which she explores Anne Stevenson’s critically fatal collaboration with Olwyn Hughes in the 1989 biography, Bitter Fame. ‘Biography’, Malcolm writes, ‘is the medium through which the remaining secrets of the famous dead are taken from them and dumped out in full view of the world. The biographer at *work, indeed, is like the profession- a1 burglar.’ The second is Jacqueline Rose’s needle- sharp reading of Plath’s writing, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991). Rose includes, as part of her subject, an account of her dealings with the estate: ‘This book was called “evil”. Its publisher was told it would not appear. At one point an attempt was made to revoke previously granted permissions to quote from Plath’s work. I was asked to remove my reading of “The Rabbit Catcher”.’ Everyone who writes about Plath and Hughes takes sides, and while Malcolm is for Hughes and Rose is for Plath, they are both alert to the fantasies at the heart of these positions. No one will write about Plath and her legacy so well again; after Malcolm’s and Rose’s books, talk about Plath reached a new level. So what, given these circumstances, has Diane Middlebrook got to say? And whose side is she on?
Her Husband is an account of Plath and Hughes’s marriage, all 2,300 days of it, and Middlebrook is sympathetic to both parties. Indeed it is her great sympathy for the miserable fate of the couple which makes the book unputdownable; even Hughes’s endearingly bonkers obsession with astrology is granted respect, and Middlebrook will have even sceptical readers reaching for their horoscopes. A poet herself, Middlebrook’s originality lies in the new detail she reveals of Hughes and Plath’s astonishingly fruitful collaboration. Theirs was a literary seduction, a relationship founded on and organised around the love each felt for the words the other produced. From the time they met at a literary launch, where Plath chanted out to Hughes a poem of his she had memorised earlier in the evening, to the occasional frantic destruction of one another’s manuscripts and his putting together of Birthday Letters, Plath and Hughes could not separate themselves or each other from their writing, and Middlebrook does not attempt to do so either.
But Middlebrook’s approach to Plath and Hughes is best considered from the perspective of one of her previous biographies, a life of Anne Sexton, the American confessional poet who felt that Plath’s death had stolen the limelight from her own planned suicide, which she eventually achieved at the age of forty-five. As part of her research material for that book, Middlebrook was given by Sexton’s therapist the tapes of three hundred hours of psychotherapy sessions, which resulted, when the life was published, in a formal complaint about ethical misconduct, filed by another member of the American Psychiatric Association. Sexton, Middlebrook has argued, was someone who had no sense of privacy, as her poems testify (‘The Abortion’ and ‘Menstruation at Forty’ being two of her titles). Even her own daughter agreed that she would have had no objection to the her behind tapes’ being used. But while Middlebrook has since cited Voltaire’s dictum that ‘We must respect the living, but only truth is good enough for the dead’, in Her Husband she has chosen to investigate an area in which the issue of privacy cannot help but be part of her subject, and a man who vehemently believed that ‘each of us owns the facts of her or his own life’. For Hughes, the dead deserve at least as much respect as the living and the living need to be protected from whatever ‘truths’ the dead might have left behind them. What interests Middlebrook in this story, however, is the way in which the search for historical truth and the processes of mythologisation have blended to become indistinguishable. What we need to talk about, she suggests, if we want to understand the truth about Plath and Hughes, is the poems. They tell their own truth; the poems were the relationship.
It is in her access to, and interpretation of, the poems in Howls and Whispers that Middlebrook has her scoop. A central, unbearable image of Her Husband comes from the keynote poem, ‘The Offers’, in which the ghost of Sylvia Plath appears to Hughes three times, on each occasion testing him and on the last occasion warning him, ‘This time don’t fail me.’ For her own part, it is Ted Hughes, the mired bogeyman of Western feminism, whom Middlebrook does not want to fail. And he would not be disappointed.