‘On the 25 February 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a ‘big, dark, hunky boy”.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson, Pg.1
And so, Andrew Wilson begins, and ends, his new biography of the legendary Sylvia Plath – with the first fatal meeting between herself and Ted Hughes. Unlike previous biographies – with Anne Stevenson’s ‘authorised’ Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath called into constant scrutiny, apparently only 89 pages of it is dedicated to Plath’s life before she met Hughes – Wilson tries to uncover more of Sylvia’s earlier life. New interviews and pieces of information are brought to light in this ‘refreshingly inquiring book’, according to the Sunday Times, and Wilson litters his work with direct quotations from friends, families and, most importantly, lovers who knew Plath, regardless of how fleeting their acquaintance may have been. He is even able to shed some light on Plath’s ever-elusive penultimate love, Richard Sassoon – an area of Plath’s life that has eluded many biographers to date. This has the effect of authenticity. I don’t feel like I am being manipulated into viewing Plath in a certain way. Each facet of information uncovers different sides to her, highlighting the duality in Plath’s conflicting personalities.
‘Sylvia’s interior world may have been a skewed one, but she became expert at pretending, fashioning a mask of normality that she could wear when it suited’.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson, Pg.48
I first became acquainted with Plath’s work when my sister bought me a copy of The Bell Jar for my sixteenth birthday. The blurb of my copy, a quotation from The New York Times Book Review, stated that ‘This novel is not political or historical in any narrow sense, but in looking at the madness of the world and the world of madness it forces us to consider the great question posed by all truly realistic fiction: What is reality and how can it be confronted?’ At the time I knew little of Plath’s life other than the fact that she had committed suicide at the age of 30; I had no idea just how ‘realistic’ this fiction would be. I then re-read The Bell Jar last year on the 50th anniversary of its publication in 1963. This time I had more knowledge of Plath than I previously did. I knew that just like Esther Greenwood, Sylvia Plath had secured a guest editorship position at Mademoiselle magazine, which is where the novel opens. I also knew that Plath had suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 20 and attempted suicide, like Esther does. However, it wasn’t until I read Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song that I realised just how close to reality The Bell Jar was.
Plath had a tendency to pluck her characters straight from real life, sometimes she didn’t even bother to change the name of her characters, which obviously caused outrage for some people.
‘Later, after her daughter’s death, Aurelia would maintain that the spiteful caricatures that peppered The Bell Jar were symptomatic of a warped mind influenced by depression or a twisted personality brought on by a botched session of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT)’.
Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson, Pg.66
However, through careful analysis of Plath’s early letters and diary entries, Wilson notes that Plath had a tendency to write cruel comments about those close to her from a young age. It is also quite clear that Plath took to heart the advice she read in Nietzsche’s book, Thus Spake Zarathustra, for aspiring writers, which her mother bought her: ‘Of all that is written, I love only what a person hath written with his blood. Write with blood’ (pg.106). Plath certainly sacrificed a lot for her writing, including those relationships with people she was close to.
It is also clear that much of what Sylvia Plath suffered from was not being able to explore her sexuality. As a female growing up in the 1940s-50s, Plath was acutely aware of the differences and inequalities between the sexes. She saw her male counterparts freely acting on their sexual desires without fear of risking their reputation or risking the burden of pregnancy. In one journal entry she writes: ‘Being born a woman is my awful tragedy’ (pg.175). Wilson fully explores the dating-culture of this era and how restrictive and maddening it was for Plath, who was becoming more and more aware of her sexual needs and desires. Even when she suffers her first nervous breakdown in 1953, her psychiatrist, Ruth Beuscher, acknowledges the psychological effects of such a repressed sexual desire and, as Wilson infers, encourages her to go out and ‘take her sexual experimentation to the next stage’ (pg.315). This results in the severe haemorrhaging she experiences after spending the night with a man named Akutowicz, an event that occurs in The Bell Jar. However, what exactly happened on that night is not certain.
Wilson does well to create a chronologically coherent narrative from Sylvia’s birth in 1932 up to her first meeting with Ted Hughes in 1956. I almost forget I am reading a biography as Plath’s early writings, from journal entries, letters and poems – which are all extremely intimate in their scope, are given their rightful and generous attention. It is only towards the latter end of the book that I am jolted out of this reverie and realise the limitations of the biographer. There will always be areas of Plath’s life that will remain elusive (like the night she spent with Akutowicz) and it is this elusiveness and mystery that will entice readers of Plath for centuries to come.