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The Unbearable

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Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Yorkshire, England, 1956

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies (including the two reviewed here) are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail.

Yet however unsavory, the ongoing interest in Plath’s story—Otto the bogeyman “Daddy” and smother-mother Aurelia; the precocity and self-destructiveness; the breakdowns and electroshocks; Cambridge and poetry and the tumultuous marriage to Hughes; the mental illness and scarifying death (she gassed herself one bitter London winter morning, her two small children asleep in the next room)—may reflect something rather more than mere readerly voyeurism. Five decades after her death Plath continues to provoke inflaming conflict and scandal—and no more corrosively than among those who care most intensely about her. Nothing about her life or legacy seems wholesome or resolved.

The world of Plath biography is an especially crowded and rancorous one, having been distinguished since the 1970s by fractured friendships, vicious public feuds between members of the Plath and Hughes families, accusations of censorship and arguments over withheld papers, and enough free-spouting venom and spleen to scar anybody so foolish as to offer an opinion on any of it. In 1994 Janet Malcolm published a brief, charmingly deadpan book—The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes—on the various legal and personal battles then raging between rival Plath biographers and their backers.

Yet so much new Plath-related material has appeared since 1994 that Malcolm would have to write another book simply to update the first. There is not just Birthday Letters—the muddled and wandering book of confessional poems by Hughes addressed to Plath before he died in 1998—but also a trove of papers from Hughes’s personal archive. Then there is Karen V. Kukil’s meticulous collection of Plath’s unexpurgated journals (2000) and Elaine Feinstein’s 2001 biography of Hughes. Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson and American Isis by Carl Rollyson demand attention, not least for drawing on much of this previously unpublished and neglected Plath material. (Rollyson, it should be said, offers a nice quick-and-nasty summary of the strife among biographers in the last chapter and appendices of American Isis.)

Perhaps inevitably, given the central and irredeemable moral horror of the poet’s suicide, the core struggle has taken the form of a Manichaean and disturbingly personal propaganda war. On the one side are the myriad supporters of Plath, who characterize her as a mentally frail woman-genius, cruelly deserted by her philandering Bluebeard-husband. (Hughes, it is true, had been unfaithful to Plath multiple times during their marriage, and late in 1962—just a few months before Plath’s suicide—had abandoned her and their two children for the young German-Jewish-Russian writer Assia Wevill. Wevill would also gas herself to death, in 1969.)

Ranged on the other side are the equally partisan supporters of Hughes—who cast him as a caring, much-abused spouse and father, indentured to misery for decades by the vicious and destructive acts of his lunatic, dead wife. Questions of blame—however crudely formed—have obsessed everyone involved for years. Which of them—Plath or Hughes—was more responsible for the tragic disasters they suffered? Who more the victim of their catastrophic coupling?

Major Sylvia advocates over the decades have included the poet’s mother, Aurelia, who outlived her daughter by thirty-four years and never ceased to promote Plath’s genius and literary reputation; a sizable and at one point vocal contingent of Plath’s old Smith College teachers, roommates, and “pre-Ted” boyfriends; Ruth Beuscher, the young psychiatrist who oversaw Plath’s treatment at McLean’s Hospital near Boston after her failed suicide attempt of 1953; the poet-critic A. Alvarez, who met and befriended Plath after she arrived in Britain in 1956 and later wrote about her in his classic study of suicide, The Savage God; the early pro-Plath biographers Linda Wagner-Martin and Ronald Hayman; and a small horde of female-chauvinist would-be avengers who while Hughes was alive hounded him relentlessly with accusations of de facto wife-murder.

Hardly less bellicose, however, have been various Hughes defenders. In this camp Hughes himself may be counted as a long-standing shadow presence: although he had refused to speak publicly about Plath’s suicide or their marriage before Birthday Letters—being at once protective of his two children and loath to comment on his dead wife while Aurelia Plath was still alive—he apparently sought to manage, if not requite, some of the attacks on him over the years from behind the scenes. Other entrenched Hughes supporters have included his second wife, Carol, who survives him; Frieda Hughes, his (and Plath’s) now-middle-aged artist-daughter; longtime literary friends like the poet W.S. Merwin; and the illustrator (and Hughes collaborator) Leonard Baskin.

Hughes’s most ardent defender by far, however, has always been his older sister and self-confessed Plath-abominator, the colorful and irascible Olwyn Hughes. Now in her eighties, she took over the literary executorship of the Plath and Hughes estate in 1998 after her brother’s death. She has been a polarizing figure in Plath studies—not least (according to her enemies) for having browbeaten Anne Stevenson, who wrote the only “authorized” Plath biography, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (1989), into promoting mainly the Hughes family view of Plath. (Stevenson, to be sure, emphasized Sylvia’s mania and shrewishness and, yes, presented Ted Hughes as perhaps more sinned against than sinning.) Suffice it to say that in 2013 it remains Olwyn Hughes’s firm conviction that her late sister-in-law (whom she met in 1956 and claims to have detested from the start) was mentally unstable long before her marriage to Ted, and that she drove her husband away with gorgonish displays of jealousy and abuse.

Given such treacherous circumstances, a would-be Plath biographer must be doughty indeed to enter the fray. Quite apart from the ongoing forensic warfare between the Plath and Hughes contingents, the basic facts of Plath’s life, while deeply bewildering, are hardly a mystery. By my count (and I include the new books here) there are at least fifteen major Plath biographies in English at present—some adversarial in tone, others less so. (Diane Middlebrook’s elegiac Her Husband: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath—A Marriage, published in 2004, is one of the more balanced and sensible.)

Andrew Wilson and Carl Rollyson both have an advantage over earlier biographers in that two of the major figures in Plath’s story, her mother and Ted Hughes, have now both been dead for more than a decade (Aurelia for almost two) and the number of people who knew and remember Plath shrinks dramatically every year. Armed thus with the new archival material included in these latest biographies, and increasingly buffered by passing years against the noisy and possibly distorting molestations of friends and relatives, are we not finally in a position to judge Plath and her work more dispassionately?

Both of the new lives under discussion repay sympathetic reading. They do not overlap hugely; even perusing them in tandem, one seldom has a feeling of redundancy. Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song is by far the more sober and deliberate in scope. But he also takes Plath’s story only up through 1956—the year she went to Cambridge on a Fulbright and met and married Hughes. This “life before Ted” conceit makes for an odd, prequel-like effect. The book’s fairly abrupt ending—Sylvia and Ted are careening into wedlock, despite only knowing each other for four months—feels from one angle distinctly perverse, as if the author wished us only to know what the shit was doing before it hit the fan.

The advantage of the limit, of course, is that one’s attention is turned back, sharply enough, to a somewhat less familiar Sylvia (or set of Sylvias). There’s Sylvia the high-strung child of Otto and Aurelia—a well-educated German-Austrian-American couple settled in the 1930s in suburban middle-class New England; Sylvia the passionate teenager caught—after her father’s sudden death in 1940—in a suffocatingly close folie à deux with her now impoverished, now demanding, all-too-intimate mother; Sylvia the maniacally driven honors student, contest winner, and scholarship girl at Smith; Sylvia the charismatic, arrogant, ever more extraordinary young American poet.

Thanks to fresh researches and, indeed, a certain authorial distance, Wilson enriches the information supplied in previous biographies remarkably well at times. Most unsettling in this regard: the gripping, almost cinematic blow-by-blow he devotes to Plath’s disastrous New York summer at Mademoiselle, nervous breakdown, electroshock treatment, and botched suicide attempt of 1953. This last unfolded as a truly hideous three-day affair. Plath crawled into the basement beneath her mother’s house, gulped down several handfuls of Aurelia’s sleeping pills, and fell, like Poe’s Madeline Usher, into a corpse-like stupor for nearly seventy-two hours. Plath somehow cut her head open before lapsing into unconsciousness; and when her younger brother finally discovered her on the third day, she had maggots (“fly spawn attracted to meat”) crawling over her face and feeding on the red pulp in the wound. She would later invoke such insect horror, of course, in “Lady Lazarus”: the speaker’s resurrection-men “had to call and call/And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls.”

Yet disturbing in a different way is Wilson’s exhaustive and somewhat awestruck reconstruction of Plath’s untrammeled and reckless pre-Ted sex life. As many of her college contemporaries have since reported, the feverish Plath not only sought kudos for her studies, she also sought the role of reigning Smith-girl nympho. (Sorry, fem-crits, but the 1950s pulp-fiction term seems oddly appropriate.) Readers of The Bell Jar will not be surprised to hear of Plath’s intense adolescent sexual curiosity or her close-to-febrile desire, even in high school, to lose her virginity at the first opportunity. Plath seems to have viewed sexual defloration—followed by energetic if not acrobatic promiscuity—as a sort of academic prerequisite to becoming a serious writer. (Dick Norton, a medical student to whom Sylvia was briefly engaged, was the deflowerer, only to be savaged in The Bell Jar as the dumb, dull, and horny Buddy Willard.)

Characteristically giddy is one of Plath’s journal entries quoted by Wilson:

I will…whip myself onward and upward (in this spinning world, who knows which is up?) toward Fulbright’s [sic], prizes, Europe, publication, males.

It’s sometimes hard to keep these seemingly interchangeable varsity paramours straight, especially since their names, starting with the aforementioned Dick, so often have a smutty-joke quality to them: e.g., Melvin Woody, Phil Brawner, Bob Cochran, Dick Wertz, Ilo Pill, Myron Lotz. In Wilson’s minutely rendered account the young Plath comes off as a compulsive, slightly scary priestess-worshiper at what one of her college friends (referring to a popular student bar, the Totem Pole) called “the Scrotum Pole.” Her erotic quest seems at once impressive, chaotic, lascivious, and pathetic.

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