Today, 11th February 2013, is the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death. The night before, she put her children to bed and arranged for a friend to come and check on them early in the morning. By that time she had suffocated herself with the gas from the oven. Her story is intensely sad, but also fascinating and an unending source of discussion and debate. Debate arises over those who do or do not blame her then husband Ted Hughes for her death, given his affair at the time; but of course it is so much more complicated than that. Plath suffered from depression her entire life, as well as other psychiatric issues, and had harmed herself before, in her life prior to meeting Ted Hughes.
That life, before Ted, is the one that is now coming under scrutiny with the release of a new book, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. The cover shows Plath smiling in a sunlit garden and conjures an image of happiness and youth, entirely different from the usual image of her a depressive poet with a serious face. I plan to read this book very soon and am eager to find out what it contains about Plath’s early life. In the wider public consciousness she is seen as a tragic figure, a betrayed wife and, crucially, as part of a couple. Now, hopefully, she will be thought of more often as her own person, a poet in her own right, not forever associated with Ted Hughes and his presentation of her through his control over her estate (until his death in 1998 he controlled the publication of her work, and so many have argued that we have mostly seen her through his eyes).
I read The Bell Jar and Ariel while at university, and have recently revisited some of Plath’s poetry. I watched the film about her life with Ted Hughes, Sylvia, once, and probably won’t watch it again. Gwyneth Paltrow was typically breathy as Plath, and it was all just so sad I don’t want to get into it again. I do want to get into her writing again, however, and this new book about her early life. She deserves to be remembered as an influential and greatly admired poet and writer, and as an intelligent, defiant, and beautiful woman. Whatever you feel about her and her death, her life, just remember her as that.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson was published in the UK by Simon & Schuster, and in the US by Scribner, in January 2013.