I’ve felt mysteriously shaken by the suicide of Nicholas Hughes, son of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. In part it’s because I remember with such affection the tenderness in Ted Hughes’s letters to and about Nicholas, whose deep knowledge of the natural world Hughes loved and admired. But part of my feeling involves the dread of Death Eaters; not those demonic Harry Potter wizards and witches, but their literati equivalents: critics, biographers, opinion page hacks and the like.
Already we have this lurid howler of a headline in The Mirror—”Sylvia Plath’s Son Nicholas Hughes Hangs Himself, like His Mother” (Plath, of course, did not die by hanging); then there’s the pop-psych ghoul Coline Covington with her article, “Sylvia Plath and the Child She Killed“, and a farcical piece of idiocy by Geoffrey Levy, headlined “His father drove his mother to kill herself. So what does the suicide of Ted Hughes’ son tell us about his poisonous legacy?“
Ted Hughes always hoped this kind of craven babble would diminish over time (Plath was a feminist icon, and members of that camp famously and repeatedly would chisel Hughes’s name off of Plath’s gravestone in Heptonstall Churchyard). In fact, he felt confident enough about the situation to publish Birthday Letters, his last collection of poems, dealing with his marriage to Plath. Evidently he had no clue about just how near the surface all these virulent creatures were still swimming; I imagine that even Hughes and Plath’s surviving child, the poet and painter Frieda Hughes, has been blind-sided by the resurgence of this particular nightmare.
It’s brutally sad, I think, so see Nicholas Hughes’s death used as an excuse for half-wits to commit more wastage of paper and ink. What’s worse is that these Death Eaters have pushed the poor man back into the shadow of his parents’ marriage. The obituaries so far bury his impressive career as an evolutionary biologist far down in the text; but then they are really not concerned with Nicholas Hughes: they are interested primarily in disinterring his parents so their bones can be picked over by Grub Street types for the benefit of … who, exactly? Don’t ask. Your question will be drowned out by the jingle of coin and the keyboard noise of new items being added to already padded résumés.