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lip lit: mad girl’s love song

One of the most well-known literary couples is Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Hughes, who died in 1998, was a poet and children’s writer, named Britain’s Poet Laureate in 1984. Plath met him in Cambridge during her tenure as a Fulbright scholar, she herself building a successful literary career as a poet and author before taking her own life in 1963 – 50 years ago.

In many ways, Ted Hughes controls a lot of what we know of Sylvia Plath. Her life is often related to his in commentary, their influence upon each other is continuously emphasised. Moreover, Hughes controls the gates of much of what we see of Plath’s work. Hughes has denied public access to some of Plath’s poetry. He has edited some of Plath’s posthumous journals and even destroyed one of them. Hughes further views Plath’s pre-Ariel poetry as ‘juvenilia’, dismissing her early creative life.

Yet, there was a time when Sylvia Plath didn’t even know Ted Hughes. Mad Girl’s Love Song explores Plath’s dramatically rich life and relationships before she met her future-husband. The book works to assert that many of the thematic threads woven through Plath’s poetry and prose were formed well before Hughes was on the scene.

Plath drew a great deal from her personal experiences in her creative work, some of which clearly happened before Hughes. In her only novel, The Bell Jar, she describes her own guest editorship at Mademoiselle magazine and her subsequent ‘nervous breakdown’ through the character of ‘Esther’. Often Plath didn’t bother changing the names of those she wrote about. Even when she did, it was usually clear to readers involved in the situation who was who. Wilson interviews a range of people who are barely fictionalised in The Bell Jar and their general impressions of the way she captured events. Mostly, the people interviewed tended to think that Plath described things quite accurately, and widely ranged on whether or not they found Plath likeable.

Author of the biography, Andrew Wilson, had an uncannily considerable amount of material to draw from in shaping his text. Not only is much of her work at least semi-autobiographical, Plath’s mother, Aurelia, had documented Plath’s life: including her weight and height in six month intervals and every single document pertaining to Plath such as news clippings. Aurelia is roughly portrayed as Plath’s archivist. Plath also kept numerous diaries and sent copious letters. Thankfully for us, the recipients of those letters were quite the hoarders indeed, for they are also available material for Wilson to draw on. In short, there are very few lives which are as well-documented as Plath’s and Wilson makes amazing use of the plentiful notes.

As might be natural for a biography of Plath, Wilson focuses on Plath’s mental instability, pointing to her quite dark ruminations which started at the age of nine and which, eventually, precipitated her suicide attempt in 1953 and consequent long-term stay at Maclean hospital, a psychiatric hospital famous for its successful clientele (John Nash, James Taylor, Ray Charles, Susanna Kaysen, and David Foster Wallace are among the list of alumni). According to the biography, Plath was prone to bouts of profound depression throughout her life, usually exacerbated by dreadful sinus infections. At the same time, she displayed herself as the comfortable, ‘all-American’ girl who dated vast numbers of boys and generally seemed convivial.

Wilson seems to argue that the source of Plath’s psychic distress was her fragmented sense of identity. Perhaps the huge remove between her inner and outer nature contributed to this. Also, says Wilson, she constantly strove to be a better person, ‘cleverer, more beautiful, more skilled than she was’ – the image of her ideal self was at odds with her real self. Further, for a person who draws so much of her creative work from real life, ‘she felt frustrated that she only had one life…she was, she said, determined to fashion as many varied lives as possible and live them all to the full.’

Her social circumstances also contributed to her sense of fragmentation – both her gender and her socio-economic situation limited her freedom to be who she wanted to be. In terms of gender, Plath details her sexual longing in her personal writing. While she is filled with sexual desire, as a college woman in the 1950s, she had limited scope for sexual expression. While men her age were expected to explore sexually, if she were to do the same it would lead to a destruction of her reputation. In terms of socio-economics, unlike most her peers at Smith, Plath was a scholarship student with limited means. Both her and her mother had to work very hard in order to meet living costs not covered by the scholarship. Plath felt that her lack of economic means limited her ability to experience all the things her peers did – big houses (Plath had to share a room with her mother), European vacations, and other activities she couldn’t even imagine simply evaded her.

Although this is an interesting theory and Wilson explores it very well in the biography, ultimately it runs the risk that all posthumous psychology runs – that, without the voice of the subject, who knows how accurate it is? Nonetheless, Wilson’s theory provides a rich lens through which to view Plath’s life. Fifty years after her suicide, Wilson highlights Plath’s individual struggles and achievements, not all of which are related to Hughes, affirming that the path of her tragically short life was hers alone.

Mad Girl’s Love Song is published by Simon and Schuster.

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