22 July 2015

A little minus, a little plus: A Review of A Memoir of Ted Hughes by Dr Nathaniel Minton

Review of A Memoir of Ted Hughes by Dr Nathaniel Minton (London: Westmoreland Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-0-9932660-0-3. 43 pages, £4.99. Amazon.com | Amazon.co.uk)

Dr. Nathaniel Minton's memoir of Ted Hughes is brief, but provides an additional perspective to Ted Hughes and the male company he kept. Previous memoirs by Daniel Huws (Memories of Ted Hughes, 1952-1963, 2010) and Lucas Myers (Crow Steered/Bergs Appeared, 2001 and An Essential Self: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, a Memoir, 2010) have also been published since Ted Hughes' passing in 1998. Another American in Cambridge, Bert Wyatt-Brown, published "Ted, Sylvia, and St. Botolph's: A Cambridge Recollection" (The Southern Review, Spring 2004).

In the Foreword written by Minton's daughter Anna, she reveals that her father's memoir was to be part of a planned book of memories to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hughes' death in 2008. I wonder if Daniel Huws' book was also to be part of that, and if Myers second book from 2010 grew out of that as well. And I wonder how different this memoir would have appeared compiled with others? A Memoir of Ted Hughes was published this year to coincide with what would have been Dr Minton's 80th birthday. Minton passed away in 2012.

Minton, Hughes, Huws, Wyatt-Brown, and Myers along with David Ross and Daniel Weissbort called themselves 'the gang' (6). These were the men behind the now famous Saint Botolph's Review (1956) that set in motion the now even more famous meeting of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath on that fateful February night in 1956. Minton fondly recalls the times spent in the Anchor pub singing, drinking. This activity is in other memoirs of Ted Hughes and seems to have made a significant impression in the bonds of their friendships.

The memoir is brief, just 41 pages with exaggerated spaces between paragraphs. We learn much about 'Than' Minton, perhaps the least known of the Saint Botolph's Review Crew. Minton published a story in the Review entitled "An Impression in Hospital" which was "based on and experience I had after a spell in hospital" (12). He comes across as a nice, gentle man, loyal to his friends. In fact, it seems as though all the people with whom Hughes surrounded himself were like this. Loyalty is an amazing quality and certainly one seeks for that in their friends. Hughes, too, seems to have been dedicated to them as well. I'm sorry, but this has to be said: it is a shame that this sense of loyalty did not transfer to Ted Hughes' relations with members of the opposite sex.

As nice as Minton comes across, some of his comments, particularly about Sylvia Plath, are questionable. Minton visited Hughes at 23 Fitzroy Road at some unstated point between 11 December 1962 and 10 February 1963. I wish it would have been possible to know the exact date. Minton's social call to the flat was to see Hughes as he was fresh back from years abroad. He was given Plath's address from David Ross but it is not made clear why Ross would not have given Minton Ted Hughes' actual address, at that time most likely 110 Cleveland Street. So he was likely lucky to call in at 23 Fitzroy Road at the given hour of a particular day when Hughes happened to be visiting his children and his wife. Minton's description of the flat is at odds with what has previously been reported. The story about Plath's death is that she has safely and securely sealed the door to the kitchen in an effort to control and contain the gas. Minton states that there was an "open plan room on the first floor. Sylvia was standing behind a wooden counter, cutting either carrots or onions with complete intensity" (25). This setting, with the "open plan room" is confusing.

There are lots of confusing, contradictory reminiscences and thoughts in this visit to Fitzroy Road section of the book. As for Plath's treatment of him: Minton said he felt unwelcome, regretted turning up, and left almost immediately seeming to recognize something was amiss though not knowing at the time the nature of the situation; that Plath seemed "irritated"; and that she "may have been on the edge of a psychotic, agitated depression" (25, 26). A friend of Minton's said that "Sylvia should have asked me to stay for supper" but then admits that he had turned up "uninvited" and that Plath "seemed to be emotionally overwhelmed" (26, 27, 26). At least he had the sense to leave the two alone. While Minton was a trained psychiatrist and psychotherapist, he does what many do and assigned a posthumous diagnosis to Sylvia Plath to try to explain her decision to commit suicide (she "may have been on the edge of a psychotic, agitated depression"). This is not only dangerous, it is unfair. His conclusion may be applying general theory on what defines depression or suicidal tendencies but I imagine a reputable diagnosis is only possible if it is about one's own patient based on sustained and involved therapy and notes. Minton met Plath only a couple to a handful of times which is not sufficient to make such a statement.

With many of the memoirs about a person, there is the sense of dedication to their friend that leaves one seemingly to overlook flaws or to make excuses for behavior not directed explicitly towards them. In the case of friends of either Plath or Hughes, there are clear sides taken and blind-spots. Minton writes that Hughes "was not a cruel uncaring man without feeling, but a deeply suffering and tormented man with a poignant range of feeling" (36). But of course there are multiple sides to people, and Minton was fortunately on the side of Hughes that one can admire.

Handsomely produced and reasonably priced, I came away from A Memoir of Ted Hughes liking Dr Nathaniel Minton quite a bit. He appears to have lead a good life, and was devoted to friends and his family.

1 comment :

A Girl Called Tree said...

Realistically, Minton may have been a "psychiatrist and a psychotherapist", but that means very little today, and it meant even less in the 1960's. Notably, depression isn't commonly thought of as being agitated, and psychosis would hint at a break in reality. I honestly have not seen a person in that state cutting carrots and preparing dinner yet. This was the terminology of that time period though. On the other hand, while I feel it is ethically irresponsible to hint at or make a medical diagnosis without interviewing and assessing the person, her writing and correspondence could be enough for an opinion as long as it was prefaced as just that. His memory is also going to be subjective because he already knows about her suicide. It is interesting though that he is willing to attest to her state of mind but doesn't seem at all worried about leaving two small children with her.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017. Forthcoming.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.