Sunday, 9 February 2014

Hughes & Plath

Over the last four years I have been reading every word that Ted Hughes published (more than a hundred books) and the tens of thousands of pages of manuscript drafts, letters and journals that he sold to Emory University in Atlanta and that, more recently, his widow sold to the British Library in London. This is arguably the most complete archive of a poetic imagination in the entire history of English literature. For a long time I was undecided as to whether to write a literary critical book or a biography, but over Christmas I came to the conclusion that the life and the work are so inextricably intertwined that it must be a biography – albeit a very literary one. So the time came to test the water, to put a toe in the water. And where better to begin than with his diary for the week of Sylvia Plath’s death. And so: this week’s TLS, where I was kindly given the amount of space that is only very rarely accorded to a single review essay (thnak you, Alan Jenkins). After all those years in which Hughes was demonised – even accused by one notorious radical feminist of being Plath’s “murderer” – it was astonishing to discover how hard he worked to save the marriage in that final week before she took her life. How many times have we read about him “deserting” Sylvia and “going off to live with Assia Wevill”? Never again. The blame game should now be over. Never presume to look inside a marriage or a separation until you’ve heard both sides of the story in full (and there is more, much more, to tell on both sides). But what his diary also reveals, of course, is the unbelievably awful effect on human behaviour of what in the piece I call “the volatility of manic depression.” It probably wouldn’t have happened with today’s more sophisticated anti-depressive medication. But then would we have had Ariel if Sylvia Plath had been stabilised by lithium?


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    Found your blog as a result of current Hughes furore - hope everything works out for your biography, coming from a Plath perspective I would be very interested to hear about these new materials.

    I felt Hughes's letter to Assia Wevill on 27th March 1963 contradicted claims that the marriage with Plath was salvageable, or that TH was interested in repairing things. Will be very interesting to read what you've uncovered.

    Best wishes,

  2. To save the marriage on his terms, it seems to me.

  3. Wonderful to read that you are about to write about Plath and Hughes. Can't wait. And so envious that you are able to spend your working life delving into these fantastic treasure troves of words.

  4. Jonathan, I have just read in Sunday Times that you are a judge for the Booker this year! Awesome, I do hope you will blog about this and tell us some interesting things!