Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A child of royalty speaks

I like biography and memoir as much as the next book freak, with a special fondness for biographies/memoirs about women. Basically, I want to see what I'm doing wrong, or be reminded how talentless I really am. Thus Judith Thurman's bio of Colette, Noel Riley Fitch on Sylvia Beach and Anais Nin, Alice on Gertrude, Virginia both about herself and as observed by others. And the list goes on.

But then there are other biographies...Linda Gray Sexton's Searching for Mercy Street. Diane Wood Middlebrook's Anne Sexton: A biography. Both of these books were controversial, Sexton's for its unrelenting portrait of her mother, Middlebrook's for its liberal use of the Sexton's psychiatric notes. Both books were revealing--arguably too much so--and created something of an industry around an alluring subject.

From here it isn't even a leap to the Plath/Hughes industrial complex, complete with movies starring Gwyneth Paltrow (as if) and Daniel Craig (currently making his mark as the new Bond), any number of scholarly and not-so-scholarly works, "fictionalized" books. An academic cottage industry based on attacking Ted Hughes for his decision to destroy part of Plath's journals to spare her children.

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A few years ago I attended a book awards ceremony. Before the proceedings, the nominees milled with the hoi polloi, everybody sipping white wine and attempting to appear relaxed. I found myself in conversation with Kate Moses, author of Wintering, a fictional account of Plath's final months. Moses was friendly if very shy, telling me she was there representing Wood Middlebrook, who had been nominated for Her Husband.

I was mortified. Of course I knew of both books; I considered my decision not to read them a political one. I was offended by the wholesale plundering of the Hughes' lives. Ted Hughes was dead, but his children with Plath, Nicholas and Frieda, were, and remain, alive and well. I could not--cannot--imagine how awful it must be to be born into such scrutiny, to have your family's life judged by people who never earned the right to invade. Most of us are fortunate in being born to non-public figures whose errors large and small are not writ into literary history. One more reason to be thankful this holiday season.

I was nice to Moses, pretended I'd never heard of her, her book, or Middlebrook. I sipped my wine. Her Husband did not win.

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Leap back to the present, finding me (again) in Pegasus, holding Frieda Hughes' volume, "forty-five." In her own words:

"On my fortieth birthday, April 1, 2000, I wanted to celebrate what was a significant date for me...Being a poet and a painter, I thought of writing a poem and painting a picture for each year of my life, from birthday to birthday--" (xi)

The poems are accompanied by paintings--not in the book, alas, but here.

The book is an extraordinary document. Hughes, to her credit, doesn't even try to set herself apart from her famous parents. Instead, she describes, and becomes herself in the description. Her life has been hellish, marred not only by her mother but a loveless stepmother, physical illness, bad men. Poverty that surprised me. Where is all that money from the movies and books going? Back to the creators, the writers and producers. How naive of me.

I am no Helen Vendler, and will not subject anybody to poetic analysis. The book is accessible to anybody, exquisitely worded, sad. That Hughes survived at all, making art in two mediums, is testament to her incredible strength. I suggest you leave the vultures, popular and academic, in their nitpicking trees and buy this book immediately.

Frieda Hughes: forty-five: poems. New York: Harper Collins. 2006.

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