Sylvia Plath’s (1932–1963) relationship with Ted Hughes “has taken on the resonance of a modern myth,” writes biographer/journalist Wilson (Shadow of the Titanic, 2012, etc.), who argues that excessive focus on it “obscures many aspects of [her] life and work.”
The poems written before Ariel, Plath’s posthumous masterpiece, have been marginalized; the many other men she was involved with, some quite seriously, have hardly been mentioned, let alone interviewed, and the same holds true for her intense female friendships. Wilson fills in these gaps and retells the more familiar stories of Plath’s fraught relationship with her mother and her dead father, her college years at Smith, a summer guest editorship at Mademoiselle and her 1953 suicide attempt, the subject of The Bell Jar. Comments from friends caricatured in its pages suggest that Plath could be vindictive as well as almost pathologically competitive and seething with rage; Wilson depicts a ferociously driven young woman with a highly unstable sense of self that merited the clinical diagnosis of borderline personality disorder. Plath despised the sexual double standard and feared marriage and motherhood as threats to her writing career, yet she desperately needed to be approved as a conventionally good girl; the extraordinary praise and prizes she accrued from an early age were never enough. By the time she met Hughes in 1956, it’s likely that the self-destructive pattern of her life was already set. Wilson ends his book there, with a brief afterword stating the facts of Plath’s suicide. He doesn’t seem to empathize with his troubled, complicated subject, but neither does he try to tidy up her contradictions under a neat label, be it feminist rebel or coldhearted bitch.
Wilson is more insightful about Plath’s personality than her writings, but this warts-and-all portrait has much valuable new material about her early years.