Published by Scribner on Feb. 2013
Genres: Biography, Non-Fiction
Sylvia Plath is a literary icon known for her confessional poetry, her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, her tumultuous relationship with her husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, and her tragic suicide at the age of 30. In this new biography of the poet, released to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her death, Andrew Wilson tells the story of Sylvia Plath’s early life.
Before she met Ted at the age of 23, Plath led a complex, creative life full of the highest highs and lowest lows. Her father died when she was eight, and she had a complicated relationship with her mother. Intensely bright (she had an IQ of 160) and fiercely ambitious, she faced mental illness and instability from an early age. She knew the pain of rejection and the thrill of acceptance from frequently submitting her stories and poems to national magazines.
This biography centers upon what Wilson considers to be the main obstacles that shaped Plath’s life, mind, and writing:
- Her father’s death: Lacking a father figure, Sylvia sought to fill his void with a constant stream of men. However, she had a habit of projecting her fantasies onto the men she dated, creating high hopes and visions of her beaus that had little bearing on the reality of their personalities.
- Her mother’s lack of money: Aurelia Plath raised Sylvia and her brother Warren on a single salary, and money was often tight. Sylvia was frustrated by the way her financial situation limited her; instead of focusing on her classes and her writing during college, she was under constant financial strain and had to work to aid her mother.
- The hypocrisy of society regarding gender roles: Coming of age in the 1940s and ’50s, Plath was subject to a sexual double standard. Although it was socially acceptable for men to have sexual relations, women were expected to be chaste until marriage. Women of Plath’s generation were also expected to marry right out of college, crank out babies, and become homemakers. Sylvia, on the other hand, wanted more than a life of caring for children; she wanted to work and create and travel the world. She felt angered by the double standard and stifled by the expectations.
Mad Girl’s Love Song seems to be well researched. Wilson draws his information from Plath’s diaries, exclusive interviews with friends and lovers, letters to and from people who knew her well, and previously unavailable archives. He also colors the facts with quotes from her poetry and episodes from her stories, essays, and novel.
This is a fascinating look at Sylvia Plath’s early life, but it doesn’t paint a flattering portrait of her. She is portrayed as manic, manipulative, narcissistic, and blind to the needs of others. She is described as having had a fractured, unstable personality and an identity that was “about as sturdy as a soap bubble.” It definitely plays up the mental illness she constantly battled, from her manic highs to her depressive lows.
Although this book made it hard for me to really like the character of Sylvia Plath, it was a very interesting read about a complex woman, and I certainly learned a lot about the her life, her struggles, and the factors that shaped her writing. I would highly recommend this book to readers who are interested in Plath’s life and want to learn more about the iconic writer.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.