I’ve loved Sylvia Plath’s poetry since high school. And The Bell Jar. OMG, The Bell Jar. In college I even did an informative speech about her relationship with Ted Hughes in which I dressed up like Sylvia. It was also my Halloween costume a couple days later (and not the oven box one. Come on.) I can’t stand Ted Hughes. By all accounts, he was kind of a terrible person and I think his poetry is overblown and pompous. So I was sold when I saw the new biography of Sylvia Plath that sidesteps the literary world’s obsession with her fraught marriage and focuses instead on her early life.
Mad Girl’s Love Song tells the life story of Sylvia Plath from the beginning of her parents’ marriage up to the start of her own relationship with Ted Hughes. Their legendary meeting is described in the forward and her suicide is discussed in the afterward, but the body of the biography details Plath’s childhood and adolescence, striving to depict how Sylvia evolved as an artist, liberating her literary legacy from the grasp of Ted Hughes. Wilson describes his task as trying to separate Plath’s poetic vision and personal psyche from the legend and mystery that has been built up around her:
“In her journal in 1950 she wrote of how she was living on the ‘edge.’ She was not alone, she added, as all of us were standing on the edge of a precipice looking down into darkness, peering into an unnerving pit below. This book will show what compelled Plath to peek over the edge and stare into the abyss of the human psyche. Mad Girl’s Love Song will trace the sources of her mental instabilities and examine how a range of personal, economic, and societal factors–the real disquieting muses–conspired against her.” (10)
My favorite part of Mad Girl’s Love Song is the way the author draws on not only Plath’s extensive diaries, but also on her juvenilia. Although some of her early poems are published in her Collected Works, Wilson regards the poems and short stories she wrote during her teens and early twenties as critical to understanding her development as an artist and as a woman. Especially in the chapters about her years at Smith, Wilson describes an event in Plath’s life through her diaries and memories of other involved parties. Then, he analyzes how Sylvia portrayed the event in a short story, often one published by Seventeen, building an understanding of how she used writing to process her life as well as to rework the narrative. I would love to read more of these stories, so if you know how, please tell me. I did manage to find “Initiation” a story Plath wrote in 1957 about rushing an exclusive sorority. Sylvia was accepted, but decided not to join because, according to Wilson, “there was something sinister about popularity, something that leached a girl of her individuality” (66).
Further, in his description of Plath, Wilson depicts what initially looks like any other emotional teenage girl. With Plath, however, the addition of genius, ambition, and psychological troubles ignite the drama of adolescents into a creative and destructive string of highs and lows. Wilson largely resists trying to diagnose Plath–another obsession of biographers–and instead focuses on how Sylvia analyzed and expressed herself and, through letters and interviews, how her friends and classmates remember her. For example, her longtime pen pal, Eddie Cohen described her as like “ice cream and pickles.” Wilson continues that Sylvia identified with the description, “believing that it summed up the paradox of her character pretty accurately. On the surface she may look sweet and appetizing, but dig a bit deeper and you would encounter her acidic and sour side” (95). These personal notes are also fleshed out with connections between Plath’s intellectual interests, such as a love for Nietzsche (85) and Jung (32), and how these influences become thematic references across her body of work.
While many Plath biographies dwell on her suicide attempts and her tumultuous madness, Mad Girl’s Love Song instead presents Plath as a young woman keenly aware of her class position, the hypocrisy of her times (especially in its sexual mores), and frustrated by the obstacles in the way of her ambitions. Sylvia comes across as less of an enigma and more of a brilliant, tortured young writer. The book is meticulous in its details, but the connections Wilson makes and the obvious affection for the subject are like a breath of fresh air. The biography has some slight fangirl qualities, but ultimately produces a deep yet surprisingly relatable* portrait of Sylvia Plath.
Finally, how gorgeous is that cover?
*Or is this just because I also have a bent toward the dramatic? I don’t know.