Book review: Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson

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OUT of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air” go the famous last lines of ‘Lady Lazarus’, a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote in October, 1962.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted

by Andrew Wilson

Simon and Schuster, 448pp, £20

By that time, her husband Ted Hughes had left her for another woman, Assia Wevill, and Plath was “writing, writing, writing”, furiously, the volume of poems that would be posthumously called Ariel. On 11 February, 1963, she gassed herself to death in her flat on Fitzroy Road.

Andrew Wilson’s account of one of the most famous, possibly even notorious, female literary figures, looks at Plath’s life before she met Hughes and portrays, indeed, a young woman who liked to “eat men like air.” Plath needed other people just to be able to breathe, and once her she had outgrown her mother, and subsequent female friends, her search for a soul-mate focused on suitable male partners. At first, she didn’t know exactly what she was looking for – as Wilson points out, her aims were often contradictory, wanting one moment a literary partner, preferring a marriageable man the next. Having known financial hardship, she could be dazzled by wealth, and she grew up in a 1950s America that impressed on a young girl the importance of a “good catch”’

One biographer, Janet Malcolm, has written about her own identification with this part of Plath’s life, this 1950s America when “we lied to our parents and we lied to ourselves”, and invokes another biographer, Anne Stevenson, who also came of age in the “fearful, double-faced Fifties.” Wilson doesn’t so much offer a critique of this period as trace instead Plath’s reactions to it. Fiercely competitive, she developed a habit of promiscuity about her poetry as she did about boyfriends – no sooner had one rejection come in for a poem she’d sent to a magazine than another would be sent back in again, a revolving door of rejection and acceptance. The same went for boyfriends – as Wilson points out, between the autumn of 1948 and August of 1948, she had dated 21 boys and given each of them a star rating, one star for memorable, two stars for forgettable. By November 1949, she had sent 31 poems to the same magazine, Seventeen. All were rejected.

Plath’s competitive nature has been highlighted by biographers before, but Wilson’s focus on these early years throws up some surprises – the delight felt by a 17-old Plath when her mother gave her Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra as a Christmas present, for instance. As Wilson points out, “one could easily mistake the names of Nietzsche’s chapter headings for the titles of some of Plath’s later poetry, “The Three Metamorphoses”, “The Famous Wise Ones”, “The Dance-Song” etc. By restoring to Plath her intellectual history, Wilson emphasizes her intelligence, her work ethic, her astonishing capabilities that got a young girl from a single mother household all the way to Cambridge.

Inevitably, given the impact it had on her emotional life, Wilson focuses a great deal on Plath’s father, Otto, who died when she was eight, and whom she built into a great fantasy figure – and possibly, as she recognised herself, became the reason behind her need for a male partner. A series of father substitutes populate Plath’s early life, from Eddie Cohen, the leather-clad, perpetually smoking nihilist who advised her on her sex life and her poems, to the more socially suitable but emotionally dry Dick Norton. When Plath attempts suicide on her return from working on Mademoiselle magazine in New York in 1953, Wilson postulates that it could have been “a delayed reaction to her father’s death”, instead of the more popular theory that it was because she was rejected by the Frank O’Connor Summer School (Wilson hints that her mother, Aurelia, might have lied about this, as he can find no paper trace of her rejection by letter). Certainly, she chose a moment to kill herself just after she had experienced serious rejection, and Plath was never good with rejection. Her virtual returns-by-post of new poems to magazines that rejected her testify more to desperation than resilience.

In her posthumous Collected Poems, edited and gathered by Hughes, Plath’s early work was selectively included at the end, almost dismissed as a footnote, and the title of this biography comes from an unpublished poem. Wilson knows, as all biographers and critics do, that a writer’s juvenilia is crucial to understanding his or her development as an artist, and in this respect, he has done Plath a great service.

If I occasionally longed for a more poetic reading of Plath herself, or a touch of Claire Tomalin’s imaginative and intuitive sense in his personal suppositions, this is not to detract from the immense contribution Wilson has made to studies of the poet’s life and work.