Reviewed by Victoria Best
In Andrew Wilson’s fascinating account of Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes, she comes across as the Britney Spears of the poetry world. There’s the same economically-challenged background, of which she is slightly ashamed, with ambiguous relationships to her parents, the same precocious talent, and the same crazy ambition. Where they differ, intriguingly enough, is in their love lives. Sylvia Plath was ‘boy mad’ in her teens, dating literally hundreds of young men. Andrew Wilson is gentle and generous towards his subject, and has taken the decision to present all the facts at his disposal without interpreting them. But we have to wonder whether super-sized ambition in young perfectionist girls isn’t a recipe for mental disaster. There are undoubtedly plenty of signs of mental disturbance in Plath long before Ted Hughes came along.
Sylvia Plath was born in 1932 to Otto Plath, a professor of biology at Boston University and Aurelia, who had been his student. She had been sent to him for a course in Middle-High German literature, which he happened to teach as well because of his background. He was an immigrant from Prussia, and a difficult, critical man, though clearly a brilliant one with a powerful work ethic. Aurelia was the daughter of immigrants; a cultured woman who longed to be a writer but who subsumed her talent into the work of her much older husband, as was common in her era. Otto died when Sylvia was eight, and many of her subsequent troubles she blamed on this early loss. Without his income, Aurelia took her children, Sylvia and younger brother, Warren, to live with her parents in an attempt to make ends meet. And from then on she worked herself to the bone, or at least to a stomach ulcer, trying to scrape together the money for the best education she could give to her clever children.
Andrew Wilson lets Aurelia off very lightly in this biography, holding back from any kind of extended examination of a mother-daughter relationship that was clearly toxic. Plath felt herself to be her mother’s creature, possessed and moulded and rocket fuelled with the desire to better herself. What looked like adoring self-sacrifice on the part of her mother felt to Plath like a martyrdom that she somehow had to recompense with her own achievements. Throughout her life she wrote regularly to her mother, and adopted a false and fiercely cheerful voice. It was all a painful performance, but one she never felt able to give up, and for this she quietly loathed her mother.
Launching herself onto the world, the ‘girl who wanted to be God’, was in touch with her talents and abilities from a very young age. Her intelligence and remarkable creativity was honed by Plath through an unrelenting determination to succeed. One of her earliest boyfriends, Frank Irish, described how ‘everything she did had to be not just good, but perfect.’ Sylvia sailed through school on a tide of A grades and managed to win herself a scholarship to Smith College. For all the surface serenity, it had not been easy, as she had been trying all the time to boost her family’s income, working ordinary jobs as well as attempting to sell her poems and short stories. Plath was worn out and resentful – no one else had to work as hard as she did to get by. When she reached Smith the pressure only intensified, and midway through her course she broke down and attempted suicide, taking an overdose of prescription pills and hiding away in the basement of the family house, so that several days passed before she was found.
Men, it seems, were supposed to be some sort of release of pent-up energy. Sylvia had an eye for the boys from the start, and with her characteristic tenacity threw herself onto the dating scene. In her diary, she notes that in one typical year between August 1948 and August 1949 she dated twenty-one different boys. In her typical meticulous and swotty way, she also allotted a star rating to each one. But this was also a source of deeply felt frustration for her. Sylvia knew that such behaviour in a man would be considered perfectly acceptable, but as a woman, she had to tread a very careful line. She was hungry for sexual experience and cursed the inequality of the genders. Nowhere was she free from restraint, caution and insecurity.
Astounding as it seems, Sylvia still found the time and energy to work hard on her writing. She collected folders full of rejections before she met with any success. By seventeen, her work was being accepted by teenage magazine, Mademoiselle, and by the time she was at Smith, she was boosting her income to the tune of several thousand dollars with money from magazines and competitions.
Sylvia Plath ought to stand as a cautionary tale to us all, the tragedy of what happens to overachievers who burn fast and bright and all too swiftly. Her behaviour would still be encouraged and lauded today, though she showed how direct a route to insanity it can be. This was a fascinating biography that was highly accessible and engrossing to read, although marred in places by too many typos. But it presents a vivid portrait of a young woman ‘who had constructed herself to be the best; anything that encroached on her fixed view of herself as a winner threatened her sense of identity.’ Eventually, the day would come when the threat would look to great to be tolerated.
Victoria is one of the Shiny editors.
Andrew Wilson, Mad Girl’s Love Song (Simon & Schuster, 2014), 448 pages.
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