Diane Middlebrook: Meticulous biographer and critic

Helen Diane Wood, writer and English scholar: born Pocatello, Idaho 16 April 1939; Assistant Professor of English, Stanford University 1966-74, Professor of English 1974-2002 (Emeritus), Director, Center for Research on Women (later the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) 1977-79; FRSL 2004; married first Michael Shough (marriage dissolved 1961), secondly 1963 Jonathan Middlebrook (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1972), thirdly 1985 Carl Djerassi; died San Francisco 15 December 2007

Diane Middlebrook was a rare being: fierce-spirited yet gentle, wise about what made a good-enough life, generous to her friends, students and fellow writers. She was also a talented, meticulous biographer, who believed in a craft she had taken up late in what was an exemplary academic career.

Her biography of the poet Anne Sexton (Anne Sexton, 1991) soared to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Her subsequent double life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Her Husband (2003), was both illuminating and judicious. It also marked an adventure in biography, in that Middlebrook found a voice which somehow managed to capture the spirit of her subject, while avoiding the tangle of jealous estates' hold over permissions to quote.

Born Helen Diane Wood, in small-town Pocatello, Idaho in 1938, to a pharmacist-father and a mother who worked as a nurse, she grew up in Spokane, Washington, final home, too, of the subject of another of her biographies, Billy Tipton, the jazz pianist and saxophonist who, though born a woman, lived her adult life as a man. The slippages between conventional understandings of masculinity and femininity long interested Middlebrook, whose dedicated feminism was ever subtle.

She graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1961 and went on to do a doctorate in literature at Yale. After an early first marriage, in 1963 she married Jonathan Middlebrook, with whom she had a daughter, Leah, in 1966. Her thesis, completed in 1968, was on Walt Whitman and Wallace Stevens and published by Cornell in 1974.

Poetry was her first love. Worlds into Words: understanding modern poems, which illustrates her qualities both as critic and teacher, came out in 1980, and was followed by an edited collection of essays, Coming to Light (1985), about women poets of the 20th century, and an edition of Anne Sexton's poems (Selected Poems of Anne Sexton, 1988). She also published a volume of her own poems, Gin Considered as a Demon (1983), though she rarely talked of herself as a poet.

In 1966, Middlebrook took up a post at Stanford University, one of the first women to join its English Department. She rose through the ranks to full Professorship, receiving fellowships from the Guggenheim and the National Endowment for the Humanities. From 1977 to 1979, she was also Director of the Stanford Center for Research on Women. She taught at Stanford for 35 years. On this side of the Atlantic, during her retirement, she was made an Honorary Fellow of Christ's College, Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

I first met Middlebrook in 1991 when her biography of Anne Sexton was poised to come out from Virago. Startlingly pretty, vivacious, radiating intelligence, though always measured and modest, she addressed a small group of us about the book and its controversial history.

Middlebrook had been given access to the tapes of Sexton's psychoanalysis by her doctor, Martin T. Orme, and Sexton's daughter. The questions raised about doctor-patient confidentiality, let alone the raw material of the tapes and the way in which Middlebrook had integrated them into her book, fascinated me. I was immersed in the writing of Freud's Women at the time, and we became friends, ever more so some years later when she and her third husband, the renowned chemist, part-inventor of the contraceptive pill and writer, Carl Djerassi, began to spend part of every year in London.

Diane Middlebrook had a gift for friendship. The couple's Russian Hill apartment with its 360-degree views of the bay in San Francisco was always filled with people. Their annual Fourth of July parties in London, hosted with their fellow academics Elaine and English Showalter, grew ever larger and became an annual marker for a growing contingent of writers, filmmakers, scientists and former students.

When she retired from teaching, Middlebrook had started a women's literary salon in San Francisco and soon there was one in London as well, which Sarah Greenberg, editor of the Royal Academy's magazine, and I co-hosted. This was no mere social gathering, but a way for often solitary people to engage with peers on the subject of their writing. Each salon began with an address by a writer on some aspect of her work, often in progress. Hilary Spurling, Sarah Dunant, Eva Hoffman, among many others, led distinctive sessions.

It was at a salon last March that Middlebrook gave us a taste of her extraordinary book on Ovid. She had long been fascinated by the Metamorphoses, and after finishing Her Husband had determined that she would engage on the adventure of writing a biography of the exiled Roman poet, despite the fact that so little is known of his life. The imaginative challenge of the work is in part what kept her battling through the long struggle of the illness which finally took her life.

She was as formidable and as distinctive in that battle as she was in her writing. It was as if fighting her rare form of cancer demanded research and engagement. Beating it was an experiment in living, let alone in medical treatment, just as her biography of Ovid was in writing. Death may have won out, but the pages she read to the gathered women were a testimony to that other triumph.

The last time I saw her, just before she left London for San Francisco in November, she intimated, in her practical way, that it really looked as if one end would precede the other. Her husband, Carl, had come up with a wonderful solution. The book would now be re-titled "The Young Ovid". We laughed. She was very frail. She talked of her pride in her daughter, Leah, herself an academic and writer, and of all the friends and life she would miss.

We will all miss the life that she was. It is a fitting tribute that at the Djerassi Resident Artists colony in the Santa Cruz hills, which her husband founded, there will now be a residence for writers.

Lisa Appignanesi