Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

A great deal of Sylvia Plath’s reputation is centered on her death and the mental illness that led up to it. Her work, and her personality through most of her life, ends up getting lost in the tragedy. And the work of chronicling her life, including those final months before her suicide, has been complicated by how it ties into the life of her husband, Ted Hughes. Janet Malcolm famously wrote about the challenge of balancing the various perspectives in The Silent WomanMost of what I know about the controversies around Plath’s story come from that book. That is to say, I’m not heavily embedded in the controversies, nor do I have a strong opinion about who is to blame and how it all went down.

I am, however, someone who loves Plath’s poetry. So I was excited to read Heather Clark’s biography that looks not just at her life, but at her work.

Clark’s comprehensive biography seem less like an attempt to “set the record straight” than an attempt to lay out the story of who Plath was as an artist and a woman as clearly and completely as possible. She goes into detail about her family, particularly her fraught memories of her father and ongoing relationship with her mother. She examines her juvenalia in detail, showing her developing voice as a young poet and her drive toward publication (mostly of short stories) during her college years. It is, at times, perhaps too detailed. I did not necessarily want to hear quite so much about every single man Plath dated in her teens and twenties (there were a lot). You get the sense the Clark has read every single letter, journal, and published work by and about Plath and interviewed every single living person with memories of Plath. It is comprehensive, which, given the controversies related to Plath’s memory, is probably a good thing.

The comprehensiveness does, however, make for a long book, more than 1000 pages, with more than 900 as the actual text of the book. The good news is that Clark is a good writer, and the book reads about as quickly as you’d expect for a 900 page biography.

Clark seems more interested in getting what is known into public view than in putting herself into a particular camp. She’s also not writing hagiography, although I think she appreciates Plath’s art. There are plenty of times where Plath does not come across as particularly likable. I’m not sure I would have liked her. Her drive to get to the top of the literary scene, while remarkable and admirable, especially for a woman of her time, would be a lot.

In the latter chapters, Clark slows down and spends more time on analysis of particular poems, especially those that make up Ariel. I love this collection, so I found the analysis a delight. I often stopped to look up the complete poems to fully enjoy the discussion.

And, of course, Clark spends a considerable amount of time on Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes and especially her final months, as the marriage fell apart and Plath’s mental health took a dark turn. She points out places where people’s stories (including Plath’s) are contradictory, without (for the most part) setting her stake in one camp or another. (The stories of physical violence within the marriage are a good example of a place where there are considerable contradictions.) For my own part, I think getting at the truth of what their marriage was like and how it fell apart is well-nigh impossible, although it is clear that she a Hughes had a complicated relationship in which they pushed and supported each other in positive ways and ended up at loggerheads in many others. Two strong personalities being strong in sometimes creative and sometimes destructive ways. (And any relationship that takes Wuthering Heights as inspiration is perhaps setting itself up for doom.)

I also think Clark makes a good case (and I think she intends to make this case) that Plath’s death is very much a result of  poor treatment of her depression, which may have included some post-partum depression as well as post-traumatic stress arising from her early experiences with electroshock treatment. (I wonder if the PTSD was triggered by the hospital stay that inspired the poem “Tulips.”) Given the limited expertise in these areas at the time, it’s not necessarily a case of outright incompetence (although there are some crossed boundaries at play). From Clark’s account, it seems that her medications, her fears of future hospitalization, and the instability of her relationship with Hughes all came together in a tragic way in those final days. There’s reason to think that she was very, very close to getting more help, help that she was actively seeking, help that could have saved her.

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8 Responses to Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

  1. curlygeek04 says:

    Sylvia Plath is fascinating and I love her work. I have a collection of her letters but have never read a comprehensive biography. Thanks for explaining the pros and cons of this one. It might be a little more detailed than what I’m looking for.

  2. writerrea says:

    I read somewhere the Clark is a big fan of Hermione Lee’s bio of Virginia Woolf, which includes a chapter looking at the medications Woolf was prescribed for her mental health issues and what we know about those meds now–in other words, they likely did more harm than good. I saw that approach in the Plath book and was glad for it. I’m a huge Plath fan and have read tons of bios, but what often troubles me is the approach to Plath as if she was perfect and everyone around her was a villain. Clark takes a more nuanced approach. And I agree with you–I’m not sure if I would have liked Plath in real life. Beginning to view her as the entirely complex person that she was does more credit to her, I think, than idolatry.

    • Teresa says:

      She definitely comes across as someone who knew how to play an angle to get her desired result, whether it was sympathy or publication. And, for me, that doesn’t mean everything Hughes did was good and honorable. He did wrong by her in numerous ways, but maybe not in every way.
      The medication situation was so sad. It seemed possible that some of the problem was a result of her being in a different country, and her UK doctor not knowing all the history of past side effects she’d suffered from one of her meds. That and the fact that her doctor was trying to get her admitted into a hospital within a few days made me so sad.

  3. Jeanne says:

    Sounds like an interesting biography. I love your observation “any relationship that takes Wuthering Heights as inspiration is perhaps setting itself up for doom.”

  4. DoingDewey says:

    I probably wouldn’t consider reading such a long biography if I hadn’t ended up enjoying the similarly long and comprehensive Barker Bronte bio so much. It turns out I may like getting to know an author that well in order to better appreciate their work. I like that you found this one largely unbiased as well. Sounds interesting!

    • Teresa says:

      This is similar to Barker’s book in the level of detail and approach. I like literary biographies that spend time on the work, not just the life, and I think with both the Brontes and Plath, the life offers so much material that it’s easy to ignore the work. But Barker and Clark seem interested in both.

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