on 21 March 2013
Having just finished reading Mad Girl's Love Song, I wasn't sure how this biography would compare, but it holds its own. It, too refers to new material, letters between Plath and Hughes, given to the British Library. The first three and a half chapters cover the same period as MGLS, up until Plath met Hughes, but American Isis then goes beyond that, spanning her whole life, and its aftermath.
One thing that makes this book unique is that Rollyson compares and contasts Plath with Susan Sontag and Marylin Monroe, about whom he has also written biographies. Some may find this irritating if they have no interest in Sontag or Monroe, but there are genuine parallels between the lives of these women, and it left me wanting to read more of Rollyson's books.
The book's main conceit is that Plath was aware of her life in terms of a myth. She was already "a legend" at Smith, where she enjoyed reading D H Lawrence's The Man Who Died - enlightening to read alongside this book. Perhaps Rollyson makes too much of one dream of Marylin Monroe, but Sylvia also dreamt of herself as "Isis bereaved, Isis in search." Rollyson uses mythological terms and references to the Isis Osiris myth throughout to highlight this, how her search for the perfect man was a search for the lost father,
"All of those men (Plath had dated), were dead to her - or rather pieces of them, like the pieces of Osiris, had now been reconstructed into the stalwart and scintillating figure of Ted Hughes."
Rollyson closely examines the reasons why Plath's boyfriends weren't enough for her. Dick Norton's attempt at an erotic love letter makes for cringe worthy reading. "If for no other reason than his prose style, Sylvia Plath could never have married anyone like Dick."
Rollyson suggests that, "Unlike other writers of her generation, Plath realised that the worlds of high art and popular culture were converging." She longed for fame. She needed this public approval, and fantasized about it in her journals and letters. Ultimately this caused further problems in her marriage,
"(Hughes') desire for a private world went against the very grain of the persona Plath was in the process of building. He let her down in ways far more disturbing than his infidelity."
I think Rollyson goes further than Wright to elucidate the causes of difficulties between mother and daughter, giving reasons for Sylvia's resentment of her self-sacrificing mother. It is interesting that after Plath and Hughes separated Plath couldn't face her mother, as though she personified everything Sylvia hated about the previous generation of women. She rejected her mother as she rejected the traditional roles she was meant to fill, and she hated being indebted to her. On paper, Aurelia seems like a strong, caring mother, but Rollyson notes Frieda Hughes' contempt for her grandmother, an it seems she told Sylvia to get rid of Ted, driving a permanent wedge between them.
Rollyson's explanation of what occurred with Edwin Akutowicz makes more sense that Wright's. After Sylvia said she had been raped by Akutowicz, oddly, shecontinued to see him. Rollyson also recalls that Sylvia had been attacked by a would-be rapist while at Smith, and actually comforted him in his dejection after she defended herself. This reveals much about the conditioning a young woman would have had at that time, and the pressures Plath faced in her sexual encounters. That Plath liked to think she could handle this kind of a man, as well as a sometimes rough Ted Hughes, reveals a lot about what kind of relationship she was looking for.
The final chapter explores the difficulty that biographers have had over the years, because Hughes and his sister Olwen (an absolute nightmare to deal with, from all accounts) used access to certain documents as a way to control what was written. Andrew Wilson (Mad Girl's Love Song) was right in proposing that our perception of Plath's work - what is mature and what is juvenillia - has very much been influenced by Ted Hughes, and her earlier work warrants further attention. In fact, the writing we have has been ruthlessly cut back, not only by Hughes (who claimed to be protecting his children by destroying Plath's last journal) but also Plath's mother Aurelia. No-one wanted to carry the blame of being responsible for Sylvia's death. And who would, after feminists adopted her as their hero, wanting to attach blame somewhere?
In discussing how hard Plath found History classes at Smith, Rollyson says, "what made Sylvia Plath great - not just as a poet, but as an imaginative mind - was her profound humility, her submission to history as a subject that has to be mastered."
Plath fans will find that they already know a lot of what is in the book, already know she is the Monroe of the literary world, but Rollyson succeeds in making this book a useful, interesting and unique addition to the canon.