In the 50 years since Sylvia Plath’s death, hordes of fans have heaped blame for her suicide on her philandering husband, Ted Hughes, the future Poet Laureate of England – Ted had taken up with another married woman, leaving Sylvia with their two young children, and his mistress was expecting his child. Who wouldn’t want to put their head in the oven?
Well, hold on a minute, says journalist Andrew Wilson, who, after exhaustive research into Plath’s personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs and poetry, and conversations with her acquaintances, family and friends, constructs an even more tangled web for us to consider.
Wilson traces Sylvia’s short life in minute detail, starting from her childhood when she published her first poem at the ripe age of 8, to her years as a scholarship student at Smith College, her internship at Mademoiselle in New York, the Fulbright scholarship which took her to England where she lived until her death at 30. Page after page, we are with Sylvia as she writes and publishes prolifically, accumulates awards and struggles to accommodate herself to the family’s financial limits. Wilson has painstakingly recreated Sylvia’s life, sometimes it seems, if not minute by minute, then day by day. We see that her success is due not only to her enormous talent but her addiction to achievement. We see that her circumstances (cramped living quarters, sharing a bedroom with her widowed mother, little income) were difficult and that, like most women, she had a strained relationship with mom.
Puberty seems to have been very stressful for Sylvia. She had a strong sexual drive and felt imprisoned by the 50’s double standard of enforced chastity for women and laissez-faire attitude toward men’s peccadilloes. It did not sit well with her that boys had all the fun. What’s more, she was incredibly fickle in her relationships, switching partners frequently, going from infatuation to boredom in the span of days.
Wilson hints at her troubled thoughts throughout her childhood and young adolescence, but it proves very hard for him or the reader to get inside her head. He tells us she is troubled by the death of her father when she was 8 – he died from untreated diabetes, never seeking medical treatment for his symptoms, and he was a scientist and a professor! We gather that she is competitive with her brother, Warren, but not particularly close to him. Her poems, of course, reflect her mental instability and suicidal thoughts.
Wilson drops hints that Sylvia was perhaps manic depressive or had borderline personality; she herself wondered if she were schizophrenic. She felt hollow inside, she said, and tried to act like a typical girl. But she could never hide her intensity, her manic highs, her enthusiasm of the moment.
What’s clear is that she was very serious about a career as a writer, studied the craft and read the classics constantly, always striving to perfect her work. In fact, she was quite compulsive about succeeding at everything she put her hand to. Any failure to place a story or poem or captivate a beau and she was devastated. There are indications that she may have tried to hurt herself at 10; her first serious suicide attempt was at 20 when she dug a cave for herself into her family’s basement crawlspace and went missing for 3 days, only discovered when her brother heard a faint moan. She was hospitalized in a mental ward at that time for 6 months and given electroshock treatment for her depression. She bounced back seemingly to a state of mental equilibrium, but depression was never completely locked away.
Interviews with Sylvia can be found online and it is a shock to hear her cultured, well-bred, plummy accent and exquisite diction as she reads her poems. We forget she was from Massachusetts and she was a Smith girl. Striking also is that her college professor and mentor, asked to describe her in one word, came up with “radiant.” She was many things: a child prodigy, a genius, a beautiful and engaging party girl, a pre-feminist woman intent on a serious literary career, and a seriously disturbed individual. And while not answering all of our questions, Wilson has given readers and fans a much needed corrective to her history in this eminently readable volume.
Today we might say that suicide ran in her family: her father’s inaction regarding his illness; her son Nicholas’s suicide at 46. (Strangely enough though, Ted Hughes’s mistress, Assia Wevill, also commited suicide by gassing herself and their 4 year old daughter!) We might speculate on whether this or that antidepressant or treatment for bipolar disease would have kept Sylvia with us a little longer. As with any writer though, the proof is in the pudding. Sylvia Plath’s poems in Ariel and her posthumous novel, The Bell Jar, remain her lasting legacy and everything else, I fear, is just fodder for Page Six.
(Incidentally, having her collection of poems nearby as a companion piece while reading this biography would be an excellent idea as Wilson quotes lines from her poems and it would deepen our understanding to see the lines in their proper context.)