A Secret History

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

Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20.00, ISBN 9780857205889

reviewed by Sara D'Arcy

Fifty years after her suicide and posthumous fame, Sylvia Plath continues to be caricatured, to put it bluntly, as a morbid poetess with an Electra Complex who was finally driven to suicide by her husband’s adultery. Andrew Wilson’s opportune biography, Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life before Ted, offers a startlingly fresh perspective on the life of Sylvia Plath as he attempts to debunk the myths that have enshrouded her life and suicide while remaining true to Plath’s essence: her writing.

On 25 February 1956, Sylvia Plath burst into a literary party at Cambridge and spotted that ‘big, dark, hunky boy’ who would cast a shadow on both her life and work. Although Wilson vividly narrates that intense first meeting – in which Plath and Hughes ravished each other to the extent that ‘when the couple emerged from the room blood was pouring down Hughes’ face’ – with poignancy and fervour, he also evokes a carefree gaiety in Plath which up until this time has been concealed. For Plath – fuelled by a potent mix of Scotch and ginger wine – glided into the jam-packed party, brimming with the conversational ‘game of literary dominance and seduction’ and the ‘seductive siren call’ of jazz, on a high. Referencing her journal, Wilson recounts how Plath felt ‘like she could almost walk through the air. In fact the alcohol had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she found herself so inebriated that she kept banging into trees.’ This humorous anecdote sets the tone for the rest of the biography, that is, the demystification of the macabre stereotype of Plath by revealing and revelling in her intense lust for life.

Mad Girl’s Love Song attempts to recover Plath’s life and work from the domineering hand that Hughes exercised over her as an eminent poet, husband, and literary editor and executor. Wilson charges Hughes with editorial egoism as he questions Hughes’ motive for classifying her ‘juvenilia’ or pre-1956 work as ‘a product of Plath’s “lesser and artificial selves” [which] also happens to be the year in which the couple met.’ Hughes even went on to draw an analogy between Plath’s ‘long-imprisoned creative talent and its sudden liberation during the writing of the Ariel collection’ with Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in which ‘the airy spirit was trapped in the pine until she was set free by Prospero’. Wilson’s initial reference to Hughes, however, is his last until the closing pages of the biography as he attempts to exorcise Hughes from his story of an ingenious poet and remarkable young woman living in a hostile era. Mad Girl’s Love Song, therefore, intends to excavate Plath’s hidden history – the ‘myriad of boyfriends obscured by the presence of Ted Hughes’; the benefactress, English teachers and fans-turned-friends that shaped Plath’s work; her equivocal relationship with her selfless and prudent mother – to produce a thoughtful and nuanced narrative of Plath’s destructive search for an authentic self during an epoch of conservatism.

Wilson refrains from dwelling on Plath’s destructive relationship with Hughes and her evident long-standing mental illness; instead he unmasks the personal, economic and societal factors that conspired against Plath and her strong sense of individualism – a conflict that not only inspired her to write but was also the source of her mental instability. Wilson’s incisive thesis is remarkably absorbing and accessible. He documents Plath’s ongoing struggle with her strait-laced and officious mother, who she both admired and felt suffocated by for Aurelia Plath minutely documented Sylvia’s childhood and even shared a bedroom with her daughter due to economic constraints. He recounts Plath’s uncertain financial situation as she vacillated from spending sprees after winning prizes and scholarships to worrying over the minutiae of her spending and churning out insincere morality tales for girls’ magazines in attempt to cover her college fees. He also explores Plath’s sense of being at once exalted for her intellectual ability and censured for being an aberration in a society which values women only in terms of being good housewives and mothers. Through this damning trifecta, Wilson deftly paints an image of the contradictions in Plath’s life and the seething tensions in post-war America.

Wilson’s writing is vivacious and eloquent when discussing his subject; however, his writing suffers when Plath is not centre stage. In the opening chapter, Wilson provides a comprehensive history of Plath’s parents, Otto Emil Plath and Aurelia Frances Schober, which is both insipid in content and lacklustre in mode. Wilson’s prose resumes its energy when he returns to Plath – particularly her writing and numerous love affairs – to produce an animated prose dappled with imagistic descriptions which breathes life into his subject. He skilfully encapsulates the idiosyncratic character of Plath in his effervescent writing that is filled with scintillating observations, acerbic remarks, and at times a dark humour. He describes Plath’s unwavering Americanisms – her garish matching white and gold luggage that looked absurd on the sooty British railway system and her unreserved gregariousness – that appeared ridiculous, even comic, to the reticent British eye. Indeed, Wilson refuses to idealise his subject despite clearly admiring Plath’s writing. He recognises Plath’s petulance and lack of gratitude, remarking: ‘Plath was an angry young woman born in a country and at a time that only exacerbated and intensified her fury. Not only did she feel maddened that she could not express herself sexually, but she also was furious that she had not been born into a family of greater means.’

Although Wilson evidently possesses a riveting authorial voice, at times his writing suffers from being overwhelmed by the voice of others. In particular, Wilson refers – perhaps too often – to Plath’s erstwhile lover Gordon Lameyer’s overwrought, unpublished memoir, Dear Sylvia, to voice suspect prognoses about her psychological state and relationship with other men. In one instance, Wilson quotes a lengthy passage in which Lameyer diagnoses Plath as suffering from pathological narcissism and an Electra Complex, which given its length and Wilson’s subsequent analysis of the effect of Otto’s death on Plath’s writing suggests that Wilson also shares Lameyer’s perspective. Mostly, Wilson deftly fuses quotes from a scrapheap of sources – Plath’s early work and journals, letters from friends and family, and interviews Wilson conducted with friends and lovers – with his own compelling prose. However, Wilson’s lack of access to Plath’s literary estate makes his in depth discussion of her published works tenuous in comparison to his substantiated assertions and vivid references to her earlier writing.

Mad Girl’s Love Song has been condemned by critics for salaciously dwelling on Plath’s former lovers and making far-fetched claims based on her adolescent relationships. Although Wilson takes an especial interest in Plath’s relationship with men, I believe that his unveiling of the lovers that preceded Ted Hughes is significant and compatible with the importance Plath endows them with in her writing. Wilson demonstrates the range of emotions that these relationships produced, which in turn directly inspired her to write some of her most profound – though critically neglected – poetry and prose. Plath’s contradictory relationship with men also allows Wilson to make some interesting discoveries about decisive events in Plath’s life. Following the biographical interpretations of her late poetry and The Bell Jar, Wilson circumvents the suspicious silences in her journal by referring to her poetry and prose to speculate on what led to Plath’s deteriorating mental health and first suicide attempt. Wilson queries the events that took place prior to Plath plunging into a deep depression, noting that on 20 June 1953 Plath attended a country-club dance where she met an older man who she described in a brief remark in her journal as ‘cruel’. According to Wilson:

She did not expand on this, nor did she detail how his cruelty manifested itself. All we know, from the brief entries she made on a 1953 calendar is that Sylvia returned to his apartment on the East Side. What happened there we will probably never know, but if we take The Bell Jar as our guide it seem as though Sylvia could have been the victim of a rape or a near-rape.

Wilson, however, does not diminish Plath to merely a victim of another sexual predator, but rather claims that this event provoked in Plath an acute sense of shame that further underscored her inkling that she was living in an era of extreme sexual inequality.

Mad Girl’s Love Song is a fascinating investigation into the life of Sylvia Plath that mixes the frivolous with the philosophical in a compelling and intelligent prose. Despite being denied access to the notoriously protective Plath estate, Wilson authoritatively introduces new material – including newly accessed archives and interviews with friends and lovers who have never publicly spoken about Plath before – and speculates on aberrations and omissions in her letters and journals by referencing her poetry and prose. Wilson masterfully argues his over-arching thesis – drawing his narrative of Plath’s life back to her personal and economic difficulties and the sexual hypocrisy of her day – to neatly tie together the true sources of conflict in Plath’s life without deviating from an astute analysis of her writing. Not only is Sylvia Plath a notoriously mesmerising subject, but Wilson’s biography is also an enthralling read. At times it is sensational, at others intensely literary, but it cannot be denied that Mad Girl’s Love Song is a refreshing portrait that breathes new life back into one of the most captivating literary figures of the 20th century.
Sara D'Arcy is a freelance journalist based in London. She likes books, cats, and red wine, more or less in that order.