Sunday, February 10, 2013

Diane Middlebrook’s “Her Husband” on the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death

A couple of years ago I bought a biography of Katherine Mansfield (by Kathleen Jones), simply because it was about Katherine Mansfield. Having read a lot about her already, I wasn’t sure how much I would read that was new- however, I couldn’t resist, especially because it looked like such a big, beautiful book. To my surprise, it ended up being just as much about her husband, John Middleton Murry, than Katherine Mansfield herself. It chartered these fascinating years after Mansfield’s death in 1923 that I knew little about, including Murry’s subsequent marriages, his ongoing fascination with Mansfield, and the fact that he apparently to some extent reinvented her in the form of his first daughter. The book was a revelation because it was about so much more than Katherine Mansfield, and even the stuff I already knew was told with a lovely freshness and closeness.

I have just had the same experience all over again. At Sainsbury’s bookshop in Camberwell last weekend I came across ‘Her Husband’ by Diane Middlebrook. I thought this book would be yet another book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, similar to many I have read before. Again I was wrong. Most of the Plath stuff I knew, perhaps not in as much detail. But the book charts new ground for me in the subsequent chapters that deal with Ted Hughes’ relationship with Assia Wevill (I used to think it was an ‘affair’ until I discovered that their relationship went for six years, until Wevill’s suicide in 1969. Plath died at the start of 1963, and of course Hughes and Wevill had a daughter, Alexandra, together as well. Interestingly the book uses the term “affair” in its index pages). The book makes a big rush of the 80’s and 90’s (Hughes died in October 1998), however it charts the 70’s in good depth, an incredibly painful period for Hughes which makes fascinating reading- a decade of emotional turbulence and obscure poetry.

Well, it is now 50 years ago that Sylvia Plath gassed herself in her London home. It was a freezing winter back then in Jan/Feb 1963. I discovered this when I read about Keith Richards complaining about the same winter in his book in the chapters detailing the emergence of ‘The Rolling Stones.’ This seems to be one of the factors that may have led to her suicide. Perhaps, too, a factor may have been the fact that she had finally written the (‘Ariel’) poems that she said would make her name as a great poet. A sense of personal satisfaction, then, and accomplishment. Of course her separation from Hughes must not have helped. They were still seeing each other as friends at this time, propelled by the bond of their two young children, although this relationship sounds like it was very strained. Hughes was still seeing Assia Wevill, the woman he left Plath for. Plath must have felt incredibly wretched at being left in the lurch as a young woman with two small kids and not a lot of money. Her novel ‘The Bell Jar’ had just been published to mixed reviews. She was relying heavily on the support of friends and a good doctor who was extremely worried about her mental state. He must have known that she had tried to kill herself before. The story of how Sylvia Plath died has been told numerous times, and to her credit, Middlebrook spends little time on it. What I found much more interesting was the breakup itself, played in their home in Devon, with Plath’s mother as guest resident.

The story really begins in 1962 with a telephone call that Plath intercepts from Assia Wevill, meant for Hughes. After the call it is said that Plath ripped the telephone wires from the wall. Plath and Hughes spent several hours upstairs talking whilst Plath’s mother made herself and the children disappear discreetly next door. In the morning their daughter reported back to her grandmother that her parents were in the garden crying, and subsequently Hughes took a train to London. Plath’s mother later told the story of how her daughter made a big, blazing bonfire of her unfaithful husband’s work- manuscripts and letters.

Hughes then conducted his new relationship away from his wife (Assia’s Wevill’s husband subsequently becoming another victim), occasionally returning to his Devon home where for the sake of the children things became more civil. They even journeyed to Ireland together, which suggests they hadn’t entirely given up hope. It was there, though, at a friend’s house, that Hughes suddenly disappeared on the pretext of going fishing, and in fact went to Spain with Assia Wevill.

Eventually Hughes returned to Devon to pack his bags and move out. This was only four months before Plath would kill herself. Middlebrook describes the letters Plath wrote at this time as being “wild with pain.” She did, however, begin throwing herself into continuing to write the poems that would make her name- mostly ones filled with rage. This included her most famous poem, “Daddy”, written in fact the very next day Hughes left their home.

I don’t know why I find Sylvia Plath endlessly fascinating. Perhaps it is because her story is so raw and, like Marilyn Monroe, so well documented. This book also does a great job in making the Ted Hughes story endlessly fascinating as well.


No comments: