A Family Romance

Birthday Letters

by Ted Hughes
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 198 pp., $20.00

That the myth of Sylvia Plath retains its strength may be seen in some of the responses to Ted Hughes’s publication of the present sequence of poems about her. This is from Katharine Viner in the London Guardian:

Even if she had not committed suicide on February 11, 1963—abandoned by her husband, weeks away from divorce, a single parent at the peak of her literary powers—Sylvia Plath would have been a feminist heroine. She wrote about love and death, passion and babies, placentas and wounds and anger; she articulated female experience and achieved fame in her own lifetime in a way few women had done before.

Of course, this last assertion is quite untrue. Plath received only modest recognition in her lifetime, and her claim to fame as a poet lies largely with her posthumous work. But the facts cannot be allowed to stand in the way of a writer (Viner) eager to blame Hughes for desertion: “The reason Ted Hughes has come to be seen as a villain is not just because he left her to look after two children when she could barely look after herself.” Hughes’s status as “feminist enemy” is also due to his “abuse of the Plath estate” and to his thirty-five years of silence about his former wife, who “died for her art.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, in a friendlier response, and without any of Viner’s vicious self-righteousness, tells us in The New York Times that Hughes’s “refusal to be interviewed about Plath has for decades angered the female public in much the way Queen Elizabeth’s silence after Diana’s death provoked outrage.” Now, however, the poems in Birthday Letters “offer a peculiar affirmation of the power of Plath’s art, for they record his slow awakening to the inner life of a woman as talented as himself…. Ted Hughes now endows Plath’s literary achievement with the laurel of prestigious understanding. It is a big concession.”

The idea that Hughes has only just come around to recognizing Plath’s talents is to an extreme degree improbable. The notion that such a recognition would represent concession is hard to derive either from these poems or from what Hughes has told us in prose about Plath’s creative outpouring toward the end of her life. But the Plath myth is a story that insists on being told (with all its variants) whether it fits the facts or not. Two poets, a man and a woman, get married. The marriage fails. The woman commits suicide. The myth demands that the man killed the woman, or failed her, or tried to kill her posthumously, or was in some way the inevitable enemy of her talent. Hughes’s silence over the years must be in some way sinister. It cannot be attributed to grief, to a legitimate desire for privacy, to a wish to protect his children from a painful exposure to the past. Hughes has no right to silence. It “angers the female public.”

It is worth recalling briefly that it…

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