Deadlines are generally a good thing but when it comes to this book it’s a good thing that I didn’t have one. I bought it of my own volition and read it, and thought about it for a long time, and attended a Q&A with the author, and only now am I about ready to get my thoughts on it down on, well, this blog.
There are many biographies of Sylvia Plath, and rightly so. She is one of the most acclaimed and influential American poets of the 20th century, and an icon of some kind for many an aspiring writer – or indeed, a lost soul. Sylvia Plath was just that – lost.
This new book focuses on Plath’s life before she met her husband Ted Hughes, and I was instantly intrigued by this fact as it is almost impossible to read anything about Plath without reading about Hughes and their relationship at the same time. Hughes’ position as her widow and her editor meant that he had a huge influence on the way Plath was viewed by the reading public after her death, especially since only one volume of poetry was published during her lifetime. Throughout the publication of her novel, The Bell Jar, and countless other poetry collections (including the seminal Ariel), Hughes was in charge of what was seen and read by the world. He presented his wife as he thought she should be seen. He famously dismissed her early writing and her numerous short stories as ‘juvenilia’ that were part of a ‘false self’ that did not showcase her talent fully. Scholars and readers of Plath’s early work, particularly since Hughes’ death in 1998, have largely disagreed with his opinion. As Andrew Wilson deftly shows in this new biography, Plath’s early years and early work were an integral part of her whole self.
Wilson chose the title Mad Girl’s Love Song after reading an early poem of the same name, written by Plath in 1951 while she was a student at Smith College. It was inspired by a boyfriend at the time and depicts a woman trying to work out if her lover is real or a figment of her imagination. She wonders if their passion is real of if she made him up “inside her head”. I can see why it was chosen – in some ways it is so evocative of Plath’s state of mind throughout her life, conflating what is real and what she has imagined for herself.
This theme comes up again and again throughout the book when it comes to Plath’s friends and boyfriends, and even her family. She sees all of them not quite as they really are, but how she wants them to be, casting them as idealised or exaggerated versions of themselves. Devastated by her father’s death when she was eight, Plath spent the rest of her life looking for a “colossus” that could replace him, seeing all her dates and boyfriends (including Ted Hughes), as well as male friends, as potential father-figures that could protect her and make her happy. Inevitably, none of them lived up to her ideal. “Colossus” was the name of the only poetry collection published in Plath’s lifetime, and the term comes up again and again throughout this book when Plath refers to ideals of men.
At a reading and Q&A on 13th March at Waterstones in Covent Garden, Wilson stated that Plath turned certain people in her life from real people into “spectres” of themselves, projected images of what she wanted them to be. This happened mostly poignantly with Eddie Cohen, a young man who wrote to her after reading one of her short stories in a magazine. They became regular pen pals and discussed almost every facet of their lives, from writing and art to sex and relationships. As an objective and, crucially, detached male voice, Cohen gave Plath his opinion on how she should conduct herself with men, and how he felt she was progressing as a writer. Reading snippets of their letters in Wilson’s book, I did not always like Cohen for his harsh judgements of Plath and his insistence that he was right and she was wrong. Despite his criticisms they continued to correspond and it seems that Plath benefitted from a critical voice that told her when she being an idiot and when she was on the right track. Wilson’s research and carefully chosen quotes suggest that Cohen knew Plath better than most of the people in her life. As someone entirely separate from her everyday life, she was able to share more with him than with those around her, whose judgements could potentially damage her.
When Cohen turned up unexpectedly at Smith College one day, Plath was furious, and he left after only a few hours. She felt as if he had violated her privacy and she could not stand to see him in real life – as a real person. She needed him to remain as a spectre, as a critical and reassuring voice that came to her only in letters and entirely removed from her personal, physical self.
It seems to me that Plath had a tendency to ‘dream away’ what she didn’t like in her life and replace it with fantasy and writing. As her state of mind deteriorated throughout the early 1950s, she seemed less and less real to her friends, and lived more and more in her own head, particularly after her 1953 suicide attempt and hospitalisation.
Ted Hughes looms large in the distance towards the end of Mad Girl’s Love Song. You know she will meet him soon, and indeed their meeting in included in the book. When Plath met Hughes, she was still involved with Richard Sassoon, the man that has come to be called her “great love”. They had a passionate, intense relationship and spent blissful hours in hotels and restaurants, and even a trip around Europe. But when Plath had to go back to Cambridge, Sassoon had to go to Spain – and in his absence she returned to her fledgling romance with Hughes. She later severed all contact with Sassoon and married Hughes, four months after they had met.
At the Q&A Wilson keenly pointed out that he was not ‘anti-Hughes’ and that he hopes that now we can live in a world where readers and scholars are not divided into two camps, one supporting Hughes and one supporting Plath. Neither one was right or wrong. Yet it is inevitable that, after reading this intense and fascinating book, one might feel some anger towards Hughes for the fateful role that he played in Plath’s life, and the emotional damage that he did to her. However, one might also feel angry (as I admit I do) at Plath for not always addressing her problems directly and her rage and anguish overwhelm her. There were times when I was reading this book that I wanted to shout at Plath for running off with another boy or venting at Eddie Cohen instead of dealing with her issues head on. I wanted her to fight, more than she did. But I think she fought as much as she could, and reached a point where she just could not fight any more. I may not agree with all her life choices, and I may regret certain circumstances (if only Sassoon had been able to stay with her!) but the flow of life cannot be changed. The past is the past.
Sylvia remains captured in it, somewhere between a moment of intense happiness, and one of equally intense despair.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted was published in January 2013 by Simon & Schuster in the UK, and Scribner in the US.