Regina Marler on Ted Hughes’ Letters
Posted on Nov 21, 2008
He also offered increasingly penetrating analyses of the creative process, as shaped by his own engagement with—and artistic avoidance of—his psychic dramas. In another letter to Merchant, he confesses a belief that “whatever we work at, in the way of imaginative creation, operates as a conjuration, a ritual summoning of all energies associated with the subject matter—from levels that our normal activities can rarely tap. And those energies are good or bad for us—helpful or destructive—almost in the style of demonic entities—according to our subject matter, & the moral-imaginative interpretation we make of it.”
From my experience editing “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell,” I can attest that the hardest part—after deciphering your subject’s handwriting—is shaping a fluid narrative from the surviving manuscripts, a plausible “life in letters.” This is the story you defend from your publisher’s red pen. But Christopher Reid regards his task differently. In his introduction, as we’ve seen, the editor posits the “Letters” as part of the Hughes revival—a counterattack against four decades of sniper fire. Crucially, he also makes it clear that his book is not “a biography in disguise. … The story is above all that of Hughes the writer.”
This gets Reid off the hook in three ways: He isn’t required to present a biographical introduction or adequate chapter introductions; he doesn’t have to shape a biographical narrative from the surviving letters; and he isn’t obliged to present what he or the Hughes estate might regard as extra-literary material—for example, letters to Hughes’ several girlfriends after (and overlapping) Assia Wevill and later, during his marriage to Carol Hughes. The women are speaking out (to biographers, in memoirs, on the Internet) now that the charismatic Hughes is gone, but Hughes—as presented by Reid—is silent. We have, for that matter, no letters here to Carol Hughes, his wife of 28 years.
It may be that Reid feels that Hughes’ letters to his long-term girlfriends are of no literary importance—a valid decision if it is based on an examination of whatever letters may survive. Or such letters may be omitted in deference to the feelings of Carol Hughes. Why not state this openly? Few critics could argue that Hughes’ relationships with women have no bearing on his poetry, which frequently hinges on the male-female dyad playing out in mythology and life. But a reader from an alien planet—and maybe only a reader from an alien planet, given the publicity surrounding Hughes—would assume from these “Letters” that Hughes’ indiscretion with Wevill was a single regrettable mistake, not part of a lifetime pattern or a personal philosophy.
One of these girlfriends, Brenda Hedden, is mentioned in a footnote, but during a period safely between Wevill’s death and Hughes’ 1970 marriage to Carol Orchard. The larger story—untold in the “Letters” but explicit in Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Hughes—is that she overlapped both relationships. Another letter here that would have revealed this has the relevant paragraph neatly deleted. If a Hughes revival has any chance, it has to admit the whole truth about the man. He’s already waist-deep in controversy. Too late to guard his fishing tackle now.
There are other hints of editorial whitewash in the “Letters.” Reid includes an angry and aggrieved letter to A. Alvarez, a friend of both Plath’s and Hughes’ who had published the details of the poet’s suicide, but he does not include the ferocious, less articulate follow-up letter from Hughes, which would raise blisters on the hands of anyone who touched it. Both letters are quoted in “The Silent Woman.” Perhaps Reid felt that the first letter adequately got the point across. And just as well, for Reid’s larger purpose, since the second letter suggests a bullying streak in Hughes.
Reid also includes a kind and sensible letter to Aurelia Plath, written July 1, 1968, about the possible film adaptation of “The Bell Jar” (the film was released in 1979; there is a new one in preproduction) and publication of the book in America: “As for publishing it over there simply as a book—again, I think not. I imagine you seeing it on the bookshelf of everybody you know, as it would be, and it seems to me I should ask you not to think about whatever the book might earn for the children—the money is as likely to do them harm as to do them good.”
Interestingly, there are no further letters here from Hughes about his later financial decision to go ahead and publish “The Bell Jar” (with its brutal depictions of many living people) in America over Aurelia’s objections and despite her feelings. Reid doesn’t even footnote the eventual outcome. I’m not faulting Hughes for changing his mind, or for his decision to publish, but including this letter alone misrepresents his conduct as executor and the nature of his relationship with Plath’s mother, who developed such resentment toward Hughes that she kept a file of unsent letters to him, now in the Sylvia Plath archive at Smith College.
Nor does Reid include a stunning, accusatory letter to the poststructuralist critic Jacqueline Rose, discussed in “The Silent Woman.” Rose had the temerity to advance a lesbian interpretation for a critically resistant passage in Plath’s poem, “The Rabbit-Catchers.” Hughes responded with rage, suggesting, among other things, that Rose’s joie de texte was likely to deeply damage Plath’s children (then in their 30s). Any editor fond of Hughes would be tempted to omit the letter. He sounds like a wing-nut. But he also remarks movingly on his merciless treatment by Plath critics, a particular formulation found nowhere else in the “Letters”: “Critics established the right to say whatever they pleased about the dead. It is an absolute power, and the corruption that comes with it, very often, is an atrophy of the moral imagination. They move onto the living because they can no longer feel the difference between the living and the dead. They extend over the living that license to say whatever they please, to ransack their psyche and reinvent them however they please” (quoted in Malcolm).
The varied and exciting archive of drafts, letters and working journals that Ted Hughes sold to Emory a year before his death (his remaining papers have just been sold to the British Library) contains a sealed footlocker, not to be opened for many years. This is roughly what Reid has given us in the “Letters”—so much, but with a sealed footlocker shoved into a back corner. To honor Hughes, Reid seems to argue, is to protect him from another generation of harpies and detractors, to keep his less than commendable traits out of public view.
My advice to future editors: Let the sky fall. You may release a “gigantic, upheaval transformation” rather than a model of editorial decorum.
Regina Marler is the editor of “Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell” and “Bloomsbury Pie: “The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom,” both published by Pantheon. She is working on a re-examination of the life and loves of Edgar Allan Poe.
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