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Thoughtful Portrayal of a Difficult but Brilliant Woman,
This review is from: Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Penguin non-fiction) (Paperback)
Anne Stevenson's come in for a lot of very unfair treatment for this book, including a decidedly spiteful remark from A. Alvarez that she set out to attack Sylvia because (as a poet herself) she was jealous of Sylvia's superior talent. In fact, Stevenson has managed to produce a very well-balanced and fairly objective biography of a highly intelligent woman with an immense zest for life and capacity for affection who was also over-competitive and overly self-focussed (Plath herself was aware this was a problem with her writing), had depressive episodes and a strong tendency to paranoia.From many accounts, it is clear that Sylvia, despite her many positive attributes, was extremely hard to live with on a long-term basis, and it is only honest of Stevenson to note this, and to quote the accounts of people who actually knew Plath well. Stevenson had, for example, to get material from Hughes's sister Olwyn, who met Sylvia on many occasions and saw her behaving at her worst (in fact, Olwyn became a rather dominant figure in Stevenson's life while she was writing this book; as Olwyn's relationship with Plath was not happy it is all credit to Stevenson that the biography comes out as objective as it does). And she had also to be honest in her quoting of other of Sylvia and Ted Hughes's friends, such as Lucas Myers and the poet Richard Murphy, who had misgivings about the Hughes/Plath relationship and Sylvia's sometimes wild behaviour. Painful incidents (such as the one where Plath, imagining that Hughes was having an affair - at that stage he in fact wasn't - tore up his work in progress and his volume of Shakespeare) have to be mentioned. But Stevenson shows us the other side too: Plath's great kindness to her women friends, her love for her children and brother, and the brilliant powers of observation that make her at her best such a good writer. I think, bearing in mind the sort of person Plath was, this is as balanced a biography as you can get (and certainly better than your average hagiographical volume on 'Plath the brilliant victim'). Perhaps it was a mistake to quote the witty and malicious Dido Merwin at such length, and to print her entire memoir at the end - but for all the malice Merwin does give a wonderful, and funny, portrayal of what living around someone suffering from anxiety which becomes paranoia can be - having once some years ago had a guest staying with me who, like Sylvia 'used silence like nerve gas' and seemed oblivious to the effect they were having on others I can sympathize with Merwin up to a point. It is also a pity that Hughes and Sylvia's mother refused to be interviewed or quoted; Stevenson has had a task almost as tricky as that of an unauthorized biographer, building up an image of these two without having any input from them. She does remarkably well, though the Hughes/Assia Wevill affair that ultimately brought the Plath/Hughes marriage to its knees could have been described in more detail; I had to read the Feinstein biography of Hughes, published posthumously, to find out what really happened in detail.
Stevenson is very good on Plath's writing, speaking intelligently of both fiction and poetry, and putting her finger on what both made Plath a marvellously memorable artist and was her downfall - her obsessive drawing on her own life, and inability to distance herself from it in her work. This book certainly makes you curious about what Plath would have gone on to do.
All in all a wonderful, vivid and very readable biography that deserves more praise than it has had.