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 Woman. Most 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.