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Who was Sylvia?
on 8 November 2015
This is not a portrait of the poet as a young women or an intellectual biography of a literary titan, but a straightforward telling of Sylvia Plath's life before her famous meeting with Ted Hughes in Cambridge in 1956. Written in a somewhat portentous style with doom-laden sentences closing each chapter, it is overshadowed by the off-stage storm clouds of her later tempestuous marriage to Hughes and her tragic death aged just thirty.
For Andrew Wilson, Plath's boyfriends, with perhaps the exception of Richard Sassoon (the only one to reject her rather than be discarded himself), are mere understudies compared to the main act of her future husband, while her 1963 suicide is the glass through which her previous psychological history is to be viewed, particularly her failed attempt to kill herself ten years earlier in altogether different circumstances. There is here a sense of inevitability that refracts Plath's life through the monochrome of the frozen London of February 1963, and denies its subject the capacity to exercise choice and free will, cloaking her youth in a miasma of incipient tragedy. All roads must lead to Ted and then to early death.
Wilson generally accepts Plath's assessments of herself and the narrative she wrote of her life in her journal, her letters and her fiction, and while he refers to the sometimes caustic comments of those who fell into her orbit, he often does so in passing and gives Plath, if not the final word, at least the most important one. His heroine may have feet of clay, but they are always finely sculpted, and the idol that has been casted above them since the publication of 'Ariel' in 1965 will not be toppled by this book. Those who seek St Sylvia will not be too perturbed, but those who want a more critical reading of a multi-layered and contradictory personality will not be less satisfied. The author is not a critic, and so he only uses Plath's writings for biographical purposes, thereby running the risk of reducing literature to reportage and denying the writer her art, which is a shame with one whose work is so intensely autobiographical. He is also limited by his inability to quote directly from much of Plath's oeuvre, which provides an obstacle to comprehending how Plath contemporaneously and later understood herself through the reimagination of real events as poetry.
The book tends to take a dated, sub-Freudian analysis of Plath's psychology, accepting as true the Electra Complex she explored in her work, but Wilson is reluctant to pursue this further through Plath's pyscho-sexual history, preferring simple description of events, including possible sexual assaults and vaginal haemorrhaging, which surely affected profoundly her sexual identity and her relationships with men. Here, the mythology of daddy-love is pursued in its inexorable progression to the colossus-made-mortal Hughes rather than the complex reality of a sexually curious woman growing up in conservative, post-war America. This is the conventualisation of a Sylvia Plath, who it seems can only be understood through the projection upon her of established ideas of what it is to be mentally ill, so ensuring that her actions can be assigned to the accepted type or trope.
As for Plath herself, the constants in this book are her drive, intellectual and empirical, for self-knowledge, and her obsessive need to then express how she understands herself in writing. Plath's ambition to be a writer, and her compulsive need to write, had a corollary outside of her intellectual life in her determination to find the perfect man who would provide for all her physical and intellectual needs. Her intellectualism and her analytical approach to evaluating a possible mate, which caused her to reject nearly all her male partners as inferior options, bred an emotional detachment, which while of advantage to the cool poetess, was harmful to her relationships with her many boyfriends and unnecessarily hurtful to their esteem. These young men, impressive in many ways, like the mother she irrationally blamed for her father's death, could never satisfy.
Plath, literally, self-dramatised her life, and it is her own imagining of herself as tragic heroine that Wilson accepts, and yet - excepting the particular circumstances of her 1953 breakdown - growing up for her was little different than for other academically-gifted children of the time, while the crises she encountered were often self-constructed. Plath created multiple identities of herself, whose contradictory images did not necessarily fit in with the reality of her life or its ordinariness, but through this conceptualisation, a byproduct of her deep reading, she developed a profound vision of herself, the reality of which only existed when written down as short stories, poems, and later as a novel, 'The Bell Jar'.
In truth, Plath had a conventional, middle-class, New England upbringing in a warm family with a loving, self-sacrificing mother to whom she was emotionally close but whom she came to resent and psychologically hate. And while she was attracted to the freedoms seemingly enjoyed by the beatnik and the bohemian, she always chose to be seen by others as the conventional all-American girl, hard-working, healthy and chaste. At the same time, she would inwardly rant against the restrictions of society, while still yearning to be recognized as a success within it. She could not live a nonconformist life like her psychologically acute correspondent, Eddie Cohen, because of the social and economic risks that would entail and because it would mean giving up the approbation she demanded for her academic success. Plath wanted to live two contradictory lives - an outer conventional and an inner artistic - and wanted to be outstandingly successful in both. If there was a pathological flaw in the young Plath, it was this excessive need for academic success and its concomitant recognition, which drove her to constantly seek the glittering prizes, and imposed upon her the stresses endured by the perennial overachiever.
For Plath, art was created through the process of dialectic synthesis, and for her to create art she required conflict with others, within herself and within her writing. She defined herself as a writer, and being a writer was her the be all and end all. However, the side-effects of all that conflict were harmful to her everyday, human, non-literary, persona. In literature Plath found the dialectic manifested in the characters of Ariel and Prospero, and these two became recurring motifs in her writing, personalities within her conflicted self, and the poles of her dualist world-view. In this bipolar world she searched for another who could provide a balanced equal to her unstable self, an opposite in male partners and a mirror image in female friends. She held a conventional adherence to Freudianism and the importance of symbols, the erotic and the subconscious that, along with her dialecticalism and adherence to accepted literary forms, empowered her juvenile writing by giving it an intellectual and objective form that separated it from mere (post-)adolescent solipsism. However, her over rigid dialecticalism, by creating conflict in order to produce art, infused her life as much as her work with an irreconcilable sense of perpetual strife that unsettled her psychology. She made conflict into a necessity, which strained her sanity but provided the dynamism in her writing, especially evident in her later 'Ariel' poems, with their beauty emanating from sublimated violence
The two axis around which Plath's life is seen to revolve by Wilson are her 1953 suicide attempt and the meeting with Hughes, and it is the former which provides the centrepiece of the book, as it did his subject's one completed novel, and he like her somewhat mythologises it, making it both cause and effect of Plath's psychiatric problems. However, the truth may be more prosaic, with the breakdown and suicide attempt being the direct consequence of inappropriate and poorly applied electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The real tragedy of Plath's brief life is that the mental health difficulties she encountered would today probably be survivable, and indeed manageable, through better cognitive treatment. If there is an origin of 1963 to be found in 1953, it is that the ECT opened a door to suicide that Plath would never be able to close.
What this book provides is a detailed record of the life of a young woman who would later become one of the most important and popular poets of the twentieth century, and if it lacks historical context at times and over relies upon sub-Freudian analysis at others, this is more than made up for by the ever-present personality of its subject, and as such, it provides a useful, non-academic window into the experiences which infused the writing of Sylvia Plath. So, who was Sylvia? Mad Girl or Angry Young Woman or Mixed-Up Teen? Sylvia Plath was simply one of the greatest English language poets of the modern age, and Andrew Wilson has provided a revealing insight into what made her so.