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on 16 August 2017
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on 19 February 2003
Anne Stevenson is a fine and talented poet, but this biography was the result of a very ugly tussle with the Hughes estate, which originally commissioned Stevenson to see off Hughes's many critics (not all of them shrieking feminist-separatists). When she found evidence that contradicted their version of events they became very uncooperative, so that Stevenson had to struggle to appease them.
The biography contains daft passages as a result of this appeasement: my favourite is the long analysis of how very paranoid Plath was to continue to suspect Hughes of having an affair - when he WAS having an affair! On the other hand, the biog. doesn't help us much with understanding Hughes either because it's all so strained: for that you want Elaine Feinstein's far better biog. of Hughes himself. The best parts are the engagements with Plath's development as a writer.
It is honestly tragic that the lives of two of the finest poets of last century have been so ill served, not least by the custodians of their own writings. I suspect we won't get a good biography of Plath until another thirty or forty years have brought perspective to all concerned.
In the meantime, to understand Plath the best way forward is to read her own journals and (with due caution) letters home.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 4 October 2011
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.
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on 9 March 2013
The best parts of this book are Stevenson's analysis of Plath's poetry, but even this has to be seen as fed through a prism of cynicism. Whilst I am certain that Plath was a troubled and therefore not necesarily easy person, I find it hard to believe Stevenson's portrayal of Hughes as a Saint who finally snapped. Everything about Plath is tinged with antipathy on a surprising level. More than anything the lack of insight into mental distress, and bi-polar, the lack of understanding as to how this can cause people to operate, to suffer, to react, to feel is deeply annoying and unjust. Are we really to believe that Plath manipulated Hughes from their marriage to her death, that he had no agency, no self determination? Surely that is as insulting to him as those that hold him ultimately responsible for Plath's suicide.

Overall a deeply disapointing biography because how can you truly take on the job of representing someone's life if you can't put yourself in their shoes in order to illuminate their actions? Not to mention how bizarre it is that Stevenson appears to judge Plath for using her experiences and those around her as 'grist to the mill' of her writing. Isn't that what all writers do? They aren't writing to give a fair account of someone else, they write to express their own ideas and experiences. Stevenson also makes the classic mistake of mistaking the authorial I for the author themselves and demanding Plath holds congruent reality in her work. This from another writer? Or is her tribute to Olwyn Hughes her way of signifying that the opinions in the last chapters are Hughes' big sister's rather than Stevensons own?
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on 24 May 2011
I've just finished reading "Bitter Fame" by Anne Stevenson. It was a struggle, but I persisted because the good side of this book is its comprehensive marshalling of the facts about her life. Stevenson has done her research, and the description of the details of Sylvia Plath's life is well done. But it was a struggle, nonetheless, because Stevenson writes with a clear agenda in mind, which is that all of Sylvia Plath's problems, all of the tragedy of her life, was her fault and hers alone. The language is sodden with damning judgement, no detail is completely described without a negative connotation concerning Plath. In the end, it became wearisome, so much so that the book, in my view, fails its purpose, to isolate the blame for Plath's suffering and suicide to Plath herself, because the endless blame game provokes a reactionary response, a sympathy for Plath.

A secondary, related misson for this book is to exonerate Hughes of any responsibility for his wife's death. In order to achieve this, Stevenson simply leaves him out of much of the latter stages of Plath's life. He becomes like a ghost or a vague shadow, his name popping up in connection with some inconsequenteial detail here and there. There is one section, though, that is puzzling, as far as I'm concerned. When Plath and Hughes are living in Devon, at the start of the summer they split up, the Wevills visit them for a weekend. Stevenson relates an occasion when Assia Wevill is in the kitchen at the back of the house alone with Hughes. Sylvia, entering the front of the house, slips off her shoes and quietly approaches the kitchen to observe them. After that point, her manner towards Assia hardens. Stevenson writes that, in the view of those close to Hughes, if Plath had behaved differently on this occasion, Hughes and Wevill might never have had an affair. A couple of pages and a little time later, quite out of the blue, Stevenson relates that it was at this point in time that Hughes first made contact with Wevill. The whole episode begs some very large questions - for example, if nothing was going on between Wevill and Hughes, and Sylvia was just paranoid, was Hughes starting an affair to spite her? Or was there a real attraction between Hughes and a woman on her third marriage already? Stevenson obviously has to mention the event, because of its importance to the breakdown of Plath's and Hughes marriage, but, desparate as she is to absolve Hughes, has to gloss over the details and leave these questions unanswered.

So, to sum up, read it for the factual and chronological detail, but read it carefully and be aware of the book's ultimate purpose.
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on 13 July 2009
This biography is one of the finest of any modern writer. For those who would make Plath a saint it falls well short of hagiography but is a thoughful account of the dificulty of living with an unstable but brilliant poet. Dido Merwin provides some funny and perceptive comments written I believe shortly before she died. She did not like Sylvia Plath, however she was probably unwise to have Plath visit her in hospital after she (Dido) had had a face lift. The resulting peom is not flattering but that's Plath at her best. Unblinking realist. Dido appears in the Bell Jar as Dodo.
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on 31 October 2011
Anne Stevenson has written a masterful biography of the very difficult and complex Sylvia Plat, but it is more than a biography of Plath, it is a biography of bipolar illness in all its manifestations. As the author myself of a biography of another literary victim of this terrible illness, I credit Ms. Stevenson with her willingness to set before the reader the harsh realities of bipolar illness by letting Plath's own words tell part of the story while allowing others their say. What they say is not necessary what admirers of Plath want to hear but their words describe accurately their reactions to Plath's behaviour and their bewilderment when her actions seemed to have no explanation. Plath's treatment of Hughes -- destroying his manuscripts -- and others was appalling but it was also characteristic of the extremes of an illness that she could not control but that controlled her. Stevenson IS sympathetic to Plath and clearly cares about her as a person and respects her as a poet. This is a compelling biography that will, if read with an open mind, provide newcomers to Plath's world with insights and understanding that make the iconic Plath thoroughly human and tragically damaged. Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott: Song of Pain and Beauty
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on 16 March 2004
Anne Stevenson begins this book with a real dislike for Plath and her bi-polar or as she puts it "psychotic" fits. What she fails to see, (or maybe she just does not want to admit), that Ted Hughes is just as guilty of feeding Sylvias jealousy, her unstable behavior. He never "puts his foot down" to Plaths behavior or insists that Sylvia seek help with her depression, etc. Instead he leaves Plath after starting an affair with a friend of both of theirs without any concern for leaving his children with a woman he knows is unstable. Plath is a brilliant poet, but she suffers from bouts of depression, aggression (she destroys the book Hughes is working on in a fit of jealousy), and is prone to paranoia.
The job of the biographer is to lay out the facts and let the reader see into the life of the subject of the book. Stevenson takes sides, mostly with Hughes sister. The book comes off interesting (as Plath is an interesting subject), but tainted. Overall, it left a very bad taste on my palate for this authors work.
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on 14 October 2011
The problem with Bitter Fame is evident on the first page, when Stevenson writes that she and Olwyn Hughes collaborated closely on the book. Olwyn is Hughes's protective older sister who it is purported, exerted far too much control over the contents of the biography. I would concur wholeheartedly with this hypothesis. As a consequence the book becomes tedious as it strives to exonerate Hughes from any influences on Plath's behaviour or decisions. It is almost laughable to purport that Plath drove Hughes to having an affair. It well known that Hughes's affairs continued throughout his life, Jill Barber and Emma Tennant both wrote about the adulterous relationships they had with him while he was married to Carol Orchard, his widow. What the book does give is a fluent well written but very biased account of Plath -that Stevenson can write well is not disputed - but her agenda which is to create a profile of "the mad woman in the attic" ruins any real pleasure which might be derived from its reading. I actually preferred Paul Alexander's biography, Rough Magic. He goes to great lengths to present Plath's complex personality and her sense of humour and affable social presence which Tracy Brain also wrote about in her book "The Other Sylvia Plath." All characteristics that Stevenson it seems, dare not emphasize.

Instead of choosing personal accounts of Plath by people who knew and liked her, i.e. long standing friends in the USA, Stevenson chooses instead to append three memoirs of Plath by those who palpably disliked her. Dido Merwin is one, while criticizing a pregnant Plath for "eating food from her fridge" and "not accepting second furniture from a flea market" Merwin then goes on to make scathing comments because Plath's dared to criticize Merwin's decision to have a face lift. The only conclusion one can draw is that Merwin is allowed to reject a second hand face, while Plath is not permitted to reject a second hand sofa. All very petty and so much time and energy fuelled into trying to make Plath look "difficult." I don't accept this hypothesis.

The facts are that Plath was deserted when she had two infant children and struggled to survive in a freezing cold flat with little money, little support and whilst experiencing physical illness and mental distress. Hughes went on to repeat this pattern with Assia Wevill, who was also living alone in a flat in London, with a young child, also deserted by Hughes when she killed herself (and the child) by the same method as Plath. Instead of trying to make Plath look bad and Hughes look good, which is the underlying premise of Bitter Fame, Stevenson should have focused upon the fascinating and multi-faceted aspects of Plath's personality and life. Plath was an honest, diligent person, who had integrity, a sense of humour and a political and social conscience. A well rounded representation of Plath would have made Bitter Fame a truly great read but the prejudices are too apparent and leave a "bitter taste" in the mouth.
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on 16 January 2006
I have seldom read a more vindictive and downright mean bio of a major literary figure. There is no attempt to be objective rather it is subjective and reliant upon two or three peoples' views. How does A.S. know just what Sylvia was thinking? She relies much too heavily upon journals which as Sylvia states are writing exercises. Has Ms. Stevenson read any of Virginia Woolf's journals? If she has she should know that a writer
undergoes a lot of inner agony. I smell Olwyn's dislike of Sylvia in this book. I do not recommend this book to anyone who admires S.P.'s poetry, and who disparages the bum rap she was given by a husband who could never be true to any woman.
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