Review: Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage by Diane Middlebrook

Andrew Motion revisits the marriage of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath through Diane Middlebrook's Her Husband

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath - A Marriage
by Diane Middlebrook
362pp, Little, Brown, £20

Diane Middlebrook made her name by writing the life of Anne Sexton - not just in the sense that she did it well, but because she defied one of biography's few remaining taboos by quoting extensively from the tape-recordings of her subject's therapy sessions. Some readers found this offensive: a breach of confidence and a contravention of medical ethics. A larger number felt that because Sexton was dead, because her surviving nearest and dearest didn't object, and because her own work was so concentrated on personal workings, it was an appropriate step, which allowed an unusually complete portrait of the artist to emerge. The outer life and the inner life had an equal weight, and an equal density of detail.

Since then, Middlebrook has written about Billy Tipton - a vivacious book, but of limited interest to the British market. Her new biography will bring her back to a larger audience. Although the Plath industry has been in full spate for decades now, and the Hughes-mill is already churning busily, there is no sign that public curiosity about the two poets is abating. On the contrary: Hughes's death in 1998 rekindled interest in his former wife and triggered a flood of gossip and speculation (as well as some more responsible biographising by Elaine Feinstein) about his own life. The transformation of the Plath-Hughes marriage from a fact to a modern myth was completed long ago. The best thing that could happen now is that it be turned back into reliable facts again.

This can or could happen with Plath: gradually, in his long life without her, Hughes made available the vast majority of her writing. But his own case remains complicated. We now have the gigantic Collected Poems, but the remainder of his estate (his enormous correspondence, and the two-and-a-half tons of archive material he deposited at Emory) is still off-limits. Middlebrook doesn't make any significant use of it anyway. There are snippets sprinkled through her pages, but by and large he is a reported rather than a speaking presence. There aren't many quotations from his poems, either, and only a few signs of interviews with surviving friends.

Whatever the reasons for this - permission problems, cold shoulderings - they mean that Her Husband is a lopsided book. We hear a great deal about Plath in her own words, but because these words are generally well-known, she seems an oddly wan and predictable figure. Hughes, on the other hand, is taciturn but potent. The imbalance feels all the more disturbing because while Middlebrook is always fair-minded and compassionate about Plath, she seems positively swept away by Hughes. She lingers over his feral handsomeness, refers repeatedly to the passion of his love-making, and sometimes descends into a style that wouldn't look out of place in a Mills & Boon novel. When the happy couple are together in the early days, she gushes: "But oh, Sylvia Plath liked the smell of Ted - any of his smells"; when she describes a photograph of Hughes late in his life, we are told that "his mouth is closed in a firm, relaxed line; a couple of days' growth of beard blurs the outline of his jaw. On his nose are large spectacles with amber frames from which a cord runs under the collar of an olive shirt that has been left unbuttoned at the neck far enough to disclose the grey hair on his chest. He is wearing khaki pants."

The depth of Middlebrook's sympathy with Hughes makes him the dominant figure in the book, and it has one advantage: it means that he is spared the absurd criticism, occasionally made during his lifetime, that he "murdered" Plath. The much greater disadvantage is that it dulls the edge of her analysis. This seems especially strange - let alone unfortunate - since Middlebrook's natural inclination is to engage in close psychoanalytical readings of character. (This is what distinguished her Sexton book.)

Her project is not just to show how the Plath-Hughes marriage worked, and then didn't work, but to demonstrate the ways in which Hughes developed his "autobiographical persona" through the often anguishing difficulties of his life. It is a sensible idea, with enough potential interest to drive the whole book. But it is too often compromised - either by the kind of schlock quoted above, or by a lack of proper interest in the poems as such (there is, for instance, virtually nothing about the form of Hughes's poems, and no attempt to differentiate between the best and worst of them), or by psychoanalytic writing that - as if to compensate for the gloopiness elsewhere - inclines towards a more solemn kind of cliché ("marriage opens a joint account in the language bank, with 'we' as the currency, and that pronoun yokes two individual identities with different stakes in marriage").

Middlebrook rightly traces Hughes's search for a workable persona back to his Yorkshire childhood, where his war-damaged father, his more visionary mother, and his nature-loving, creature-killing brother initially seemed too purely and strongly themselves to be assimilated into an artistic mythology. As a young writer, in fact, Hughes was actually reluctant to write autobiographically, saying in one interview: "Once you've contracted to write only the truth about yourself - as in some respected kinds of modern verse, or as in Shakespeare's sonnets - then you can too easily limit yourself to what you imagine are the truths of the ego that claims your conscious biography."

The help that Plath gave Hughes in this respect was one of her greatest gifts to him - but only once he had helped to mature it in her. Middlebrook does well to establish this reciprocity, beating back our sense of the tragic ending to their marriage by insisting that for most of their six years together they were happy, mutually supportive, and part of what Hughes called "a single shared mind". As Plath assembled the ingredients of her own mythology - the ingredients that were to combine so spectacularly in Ariel and other late poems - Hughes pursued a distinct but parallel course, immersing himself in Jung, pondering the role of the poet as shaman, convincing himself (as Middlebrook says) that "the greatest poets are those in whom the spiritual issues of their time find pathways into complex psychological representations, or images" - and yet all the while keeping his autobiographical self veiled or in reserve.

Plath's suicide, so soon and horribly followed by the suicide of Assia Wevill and the death of child she had with Hughes, drove him even more fiercely away from candid self-revelation. The result was the re-rendered self-lacerations of Crow, Prometheus on his Crag and Gaudete - the poems that Hughes wrote through the second part of the 60s and into the 70s. Middlebrook has very little to say about any of them, which suggests that she sees them as side-steps from the progress on which her thesis has set him. This is a pity, and makes her seem a less flexible critic than Hughes needs. When she breaks through to Moortown, and the apparently direct autobiography of Birthday Letters, she is once again more confident.

Middlebrook believes that by editing Plath during the last part of his life, Hughes reacquainted himself with her own strategies for establishing "the truths of the ego", and thereby finally discovered his own. There is much to be said for this idea, as there is for the way in which she picks her way through the bones of his complicated private life without raising too much dust. But there are problems, too. For one thing, the shape and texture of his second marriage remain frustratingly obscure: the values of tactfulness are all but overwhelmed by the disadvantages of silence. For another, the thesis which provokes interesting thoughts about the Plath-Hughes marriage cannot encompass the whole range of Hughes's work. Although it shows a life-long commitment to certain fixed artistic principles, it cannot be gathered and understood as a response to a single psychological imperative. It is too formidably expansive for that, too generous in its attentions to the inner and outer world.

· Andrew Motion is poet laureate

Andrew Motion

The GuardianTramp

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