November 10, 2003

Author explores lives of Plath, Hughes

By Stephanie Sonnenfeld

Although author Diane Middlebrook was slated to do the talking last Tuesday, Nov. 4, it was the smile plastered across her face that spoke volumes.

Middlebrook's latest book, Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: A Marriage , has strong ties to the Ted Hughes archives in Special Collections, where a large portion of the book's research was conducted. Middlebrook was invited by the Friends of the Emory University Libraries to speak on her book.

"If you have any empathy for me, then you know this is the moment I have been waiting for," she said, clutching the book as she stood at a podium in the front of the Jones Room. "This book--I didn't know it would look like this or how much it would weigh or what parts I would like best, but now I do. Thank you for permitting me to stand here in this historical moment with the book and say it's finished."

Her Husband explores the life shared between Hughes and his first wife, poet Sylvia Plath--a relationship that has reached mythic proportions since Plath's suicide in 1963. Rather than focus on the tumultuous aspects of the couple's well-publicized relationship, Middlebrook said her book focuses on their creative partnership and the "posthumous regeneration of their marriage" for Hughes.

"For me, the stimulus to write this book was the strange dynamic, the always changing, challenging and somewhat terrifying experience of attempting to be the partner of another human being," she said.

Plath and Hughes met at England's Cambridge University in 1956 and were married 112 days later. Throughout their six-and-a-half-year marriage, the two poets worked as creative partners--not as competitors, Middlebrook emphasized. They truly "fertilized" each other and their work, she added. To illustrate that point, she read Plath's "Morning Song" and Steve Enniss, director of Special Collections & Archives, read from Hughes' "The Moon and Little Frieda." She noted the shared imagery and similar approach the two poets employed in the poems.

More often than not, the deterioration of the couple's marriage is the topic of interest for many biographers and readers. By the end of 1962, they had separated, and Hughes became involved in a very public affair. In February 1963, Plath (who had long battled depression) committed suicide by placing her head in a gas oven. Her Husband asserts that depression, not Hughes, killed Plath.

Hughes --England's poet laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998--long remained silent for decades on the topic of the couple's relationship. Shortly before his death, Hughes produced the highly personal and introspective Birthday Letters , a book of poems exploring to the couple's relationship.

Reviews of Middlebrook's novel note its balanced, honest and academic approach and examination of the couple's relationship from a truly non-voyeuristic standpoint. Creating such a tone came from her intense study of the Hughes archive in Special Collections. "She says she would not have written the biography had she not had access to Hughes' papers," said a recent article in USA Today about Her Husband .

Emory obtained the extensive Hughes collection (which arrived in 86 boxes at a shipping weight of 5,000 pounds) in 1997, and it includes many drafts of his poems as well as literary correspondence, photographs and related materials.

"The fact is that when you begin working in an archive, you are so enormously ignorant," Middlebrook said. "It is truly an exciting experience because you need to be stripped of your expectations, stripped of your assumptions, stripped of your anxiety about how long things take, and just settle into your ignorance."

It was there in Hughes' archives where Middlebrook said she found the "coda" to her book. During an exploratory visit to Emory in 1999, she read a copy of Hughes' Howls & Whispers --a limited edition of poems--and read "The Offers," which made the "hairs stand up on her arms."

In his introduction of Middlebrook, Enniss noted her dedication to her research by detailing her preparation of a meal that Plath had made for Hughes. Middlebrook recreated the meal of eggplant soufflé, rabbit stew and lemon meringue pie, as detailed in Plath's journal.

"As one of the dinner party guests that evening, I'm tempted to say never has literary scholarship been put to such satisfying ends," Enniss said.

Middlebrook is professor emerita of English at Stanford University, where she taught courses in poetry and poetics, feminist studies and humanities. She is the author of Suits Me , the story of Billy Tipton, a female jazz musician who lived as a man for 50 years, and Anne Sexton: A Biography . She is currently working on her next book, about the Roman poet Ovid, which will be published in 2008.