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4.4 out of 5 stars
Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted
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on 16 March 2014
There are many biographies of Plath, and they frequently take issue with each other. What makes this one different is that Wilson de-centres the more usual arc of her life and focuses on Sylvia’s life before she met Ted Hughes.

Taking her from childhood till she came to study at Cambridge where, of course, she met Hughes and married him within four months, this gives us a slightly different Plath. Wilson has interviewed many people who knew Sylvia in her school and student days, and has tried to work from her journals and letters rather than previous biographies. This gives a freshness to the narrative though, inevitably, biographical readings of Plath’s own fiction lead us into some familiar territory.

What we can know about Plath and her inner life is always partial and compromised, and it’s interesting to ponder what was unique to Plath in this story of adolescence and young womanhood in the repressive 1950s, and what was, in fact, the story of a generation. Precisely because she is Sylvia Plath there is an urge to make her experiences uniquely her own, and there is an inevitable hindsight, given her end, in reading back through her life: it all seems to point inevitably and teleologically to that kitchen in Primrose Hill when in reality, Plath could have had a very different life had she so chosen.

Plath herself comes over as a strange and compelling mix of arrogance and insecurity, an acutely narcissistic personality whose only subject of all her writings was herself. So this is a very good biography of a troubled woman which adds to the mythology – and it’s nice that that mythology can, for once, be Plath’s alone rather than one shared with Hughes.
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on 17 February 2015
A very good read even if, like me, you only have a fairly casual interest in Ms Plath. Seeing her as someone who was just an obstreperous teenager who had a gift with words was informative and helpful in understanding what happened after her meeting with Hughes
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on 17 April 2014
Absolutely loved this book. Lots of original stuff and a focus on areas of her life and points of view not covered in such detail in other biographic writings. Plath was undoubtedly an interesting, complex and multifaceted woman, and I think this book reflects that well. Definitely recommended.
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on 13 January 2016
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on 9 February 2013
In Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, Andrew Wilson has finally given due attention to Plath's first 23 year years, which even if you are bad at mathematics, you know if the overwhelming majority of her life. From the moment I learned of his project I was very excited as Plath's formative years have been embarrassingly under-represented. Wilson's thesis in his biography is that "Sylvia Plath was an angry young woman born into a country and in a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury" (7). His book aims to "trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factor...conspired against her" (10).

Wilson successfully achieves these aims in a narrative that, given he is a good and compelling writer, steers its readers to reach the same conclusions to which he came. His interviews and access to public and private archival materials builds a solid foundation by which future scholars will better understand the world of Sylvia Plath, as well as to have a better understanding in how to conduct research for a biography. A book dense with relevant and important details, Wilson has given life and prominence back to Sylvia Plath before Ted Hughes.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 September 2013
Andrew Wilson's biography differs from the multitude of books and essays on Plath by focussing almost entirely on her life before she met Ted Hughes: her childhood and adolescence in Wellesley near Boston and her university years at Smith (with a brief period in McLean Mental Hospital following her suicide attempt at the end of her second year). The biography ends at the start of Sylvia's third term at Cambridge, when she became seriously involved with Ted Hughes. By concentrating on Sylvia's early life, which few biographers other than Ann Stevenson have covered in detail, Wilson debunks some of the Plath myths: that Sylvia was a very sane and cheerful adult until her relationship with Hughes went sour, that she made a complete recovery from her first suicide attempt and that she was an ultra-cheerful and sane girl until the summer of her first suicide attempt. In fact, Mr Wilson's detailed research shows that Sylvia was quite disturbed from early childhood. She learnt the power of achievement early - as a small girl, being quiet and hardworking was the certain way she could get approval from her often unwell father Otto. After Otto's death she became an increasingly obsessive over-achiever - only through doing well did she feel she could merit love. With over-achievement came an increasingly aggressive competitiveness - she 'had to be best'. This extended to any area she was interested in - when she started showing an interest in boys, for example, she 'had to have' more suitors than any other girl. Sylvia was also wildly keen to be extremely popular, though here she doesn't seem to have been quite as successful: though she always had warm friends there was often friction between her and other women. Along with her ferocious desire to do well and be loved and admired, Sylvia also seems to have suffered from depression from an early age. According to one friend she tried at the age of ten to cut her throat and at the age of 14 to cut her face - she also became increasingly obsessed with making wrong choices in her life. What Wilson also conveys very vividly is Sylvia's perpetual worry about money: her family were so poor after her father's death that she had to share a bedroom with her mother, there was never quite enough money for Sylvia to buy the books and clothes and go on the trips that she wanted, and during vacations Sylvia was often too exhausted to hold down jobs for long periods. The exhaustion and money worries all added to her tendency to depression - relief from either often led to her going to the other extreme and becoming manic.

Andrew Wilson builds up a detailed and very compelling portrait of the young Sylvia Plath. In certain ways she seems extremely likeable - particularly in her passionate love of literature and the arts in general, her enjoyment of domestica and her genuine warmth in some of her friendships. She must have been an exciting student to know in certain ways. However, her inability to relax, competitive nature and self-absorption (like Anais Nin, though more intelligently, she spent hours analysing herself in her journal) meant that she could at times behave appallingly, particularly to the men she was involved with. Stories (told in far more detail than in the Stevenson biography) abound of Sylvia messing her various boyfriends around and playing them off against each other. At one stage she got into a real jam by virtually getting engaged to a neighbour, Dick Norton, and then abruptly dumping him when she realized they weren't suited. At another point, she was playing two boyfriends, both of whom she thought of marrying (Gordon Lameyer and Richard Sassoon) off against each other, while also stringing along several other men. And though she later called Sassoon 'the one man I've ever loved' (this was before she met Ted) she seems to have felt no guilt about temporarily ditching him so that she could have an affair with a young publisher called Peter Davison, and about dithering as to how far she wanted to commit to him - it's no wonder in the end that Sassoon asked her to give him a bit of time to himself (which of course backfired as she then went off with Hughes). Plath's periodic inability to reflect on how her behaviour affected her boyfriends doesn't make her appear particularly sympathetic. Nor does her behaviour to her mother. History hasn't been kind to Aurelia Plath (partly because of her ill-advised attempts first to get her daughter to end her marriage to Hughes after his infidelity, and later to take her grandchildren to live with her in the USA) but she comes across here as a rather admirable woman - very intelligent, genuinely caring and clearly well aware of her daughter's volatile nature and desperately trying to cope with it. Plath, however, seems to have relieved her guilt at Aurelia's hard life by turning on her, and refusing to confide in her. One can't help sympathising with Richard Sassoon, who advised Sylvia to at least try to keep things amiable with her mother, as a bad atmosphere at home is a poisonous thing.

Mr Wilson's research is very impressive; he has got a huge number of people who knew Sylvia to give him interviews, and most of them have very interesting things to say, and he has also worked through a body of existing written material very thoroughly. I found it very interesting to know what those close to Sylvia: her Smith friends, Lameyer, Sassoon, Davison, her 'penfriend' Eddy Cohen, her fellow Fulbright Scholar Jane Baltzell, her Cambridge tutor Dorothea Krook and others thought about her, and to learn more about them (I just wish Wilson had provided a postscript to tell us what happened to these people in their later lives). He's made some interesting new discoveries - for example, that Sylvia recovered so dramatically at McLean partly as one of her fellow students was brought in, and Sylvia's competitiveness kicked in as she determined to be the one to get better first (she later killed a fictional version of the girl off in 'The Bell Jar'. Some of Mr Wilson's theories I found rather strange: I don't think there's definite evidence to suggest Sylvia lost her virginity before the dramatic 'bleeding' episode in Boston, and certainly think it unlikely that Aurelia lied to her beloved daughter about whether or not she was accepted onto Harvard Summer School in the summer of her suicide attempt. In making the point that Sylvia was mentally disturbed long before she met Hughes, Wilson may also focus rather too much on the selfish sides of her character rather than the positive sides such as her massive interest in just about everything and her genuine caring for her friends (at least some of them!) and need for love. On the whole though, this is a fascinating and very well researched book.

But oh dear - the writing! Did Simon and Schuster use a copyeditor at all? There are silly typos all over the place ('Lore Lei' rather than 'Lorelei', 'Stella Dallas with a comma in the middle and my favourite, the poem 'Lazy Lazarus', to name but three of many!). There are strange bits of parenthetical information in dashes not connected at all to the main subject of the sentence, again all over the place. There's some horrible use of gerunds, and some clunky ambiguous phrases: Gordon Lameyer apparently drove to visit Sylvia 'while in hospital recovering from sinusitis'. There's constant slangy use of the word 'like': 'She felt like she wasn't recognized'. After a while, reading the book begins to feel a bit like a copy-editing test for long stretches! It's a real pity that such an interesting book is marred by such authorial and editorial carelessness - surely with another couple of drafts the manuscript would have been much more presentable.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the book in many ways, and certainly learnt a lot about Plath and the milieu she grew up in. But Ann Stevenson's book is still my favourite on this writer.
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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.
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on 21 March 2013
Three things differentiate this book from previous Plath biographies;

1. The writer's premise is that Ted Hughes decided that much of Plath's early writing didn't deserve to be included in her Collected Poems. Wilson boldly suggests that Hughes may have considered her mature work to be whatever was written after she met him.

2. Wilson refers to and describes many unpublished poems and letters - most of which, frustratingly, can't be printed in the book.

3. Wilson has succeeded in digging up fresh information about Plath, tracking down lost boyfriends and interviewing friends and neighbours that other biographers haven't bothered with.

The result is a fresh take with plenty of new information - a real treat for Plath fans.

What comes across is what a perfectionist Plath was. Published from a young age, and at times dependent on publication money for college fees, she put so much pressure on herself to be better than everone else, that she was fighting and failing to live up to her own unrealistic standards. Her achievements and her dedication to her studies are astounding. But despite having an IQ of 160, at times she felt like a failure, particularly after her glamourous time as an intern in New York. Her return to reality - of financial struggle, to a mother she couldn't admit to hating, and being turned down for a writing course - felt like dying.

Her perfectionsim appears to have come from her parents, particularly her meticulous father who died when she was eight. Wilson offers the suggestion that she projected an idealised male image onto her boyfriends that may have originated with early childhood memories of an encouraging but increasingly distant father that she sought the approval of. His moods changed as his illness intensified, and the children were not allowed to attend his funeral.

What is also made clear is that Plath had a healthy sex drive, which was difficult to express in the repressive 1950's American culture. It was only after therapy that she overcame her fear of pregnancy enough to allow herselft to be passionate with men - but the response she had from various boyfriends was not always positive, at a time when men were supposed to have more experience than women, and 'forward women' were assumed to have no limitations.

Noticable anecdotes include that after her suicide attempt in 1953, there were maggots in the gash on her face, which illuminates lines in Lady Lazarus,

"They had to call and call

And pick the worms off me like sticky pearls."

One boyfriend claims that she tried to cut her throat, aged 10. On the application for Smith college, her mother has written 'enquire' next to a paragraph about the importance of good mental health for applicants to this demanding curriculum - suggesting that Plath was known to be unbalanced long before she went to college. It's also interesting to read how the people who became 'characters' in The Bell Jar were mostly unhappy with what is reavealed to be a semi-fictionalised portrail of themselves in the novel.

As someone with Bipolar Disorder, I found it interesting that the writer specifically mentions, using the correct terminology, Sylvia's manic or hypomanic episodes as well as her depression. He entertains and explores the possibility of Plath having either Bipolar Disorder (Manic Depression), or Borderline Personality Disorder.

I am about to start reading another Plath biography, "American Isis" by Carl Rollyson. We'll see how it compares. It will be hard to top Wilson's.
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on 1 April 2014
Utterly compelling, insightful and moving. Shines a light on Plath's young life, offering a frank and intimate portrait of this brilliant and complex woman.
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on 14 May 2013
I have just finished reading Mad Girl's Love Song. I found the book to be a wonderful insight into the life of Sylvia Plath. I thought the author covered her story with care and respect. He created a picture of her life and her mind that was beguiling. I also thought the manner in which he segued from her first meeting Ted Hughes to her suicide effective and moving. Please forgive me, I'm no literary critic, it's just that I found myself entranced by this wonderful book.
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