The Unbearable

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…

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