Why even her friends won't talk about Sylvia
The Life and Art
of Sylvia Plath
ST Martin's Press,
The acknowledgements of American Isis are the strangest you may ever come across. Instead of thanking those who helped him, Carl Rollyson complains that his letters to several people went unanswered. An acquaintance of Plath's "would vouchsafe almost nothing", while others observed "a code of silence". But by the end of the book they make sense. Plath's death – and the various accounts of her life – has proved enormously controversial, all but overshadowing her poetry. It's now 50 years since Plath committed suicide. Many of those who knew her well (and who haven't already written their own memoirs about Plath) decline to talk to her biographers.
Plath was just 30 when she died, and already an accomplished poet. She had been writing since she was a child publishing her first poem at the age of eight. American Isis charts the ambition that drove her not only to excel academically (she graduated summa cum laude from Smith) but also in social terms. She relished male attention, writing in her journal that she was, "the American virgin, dressed to seduce".
Rollyson maps out Plath's early life in Massachusetts: the boyfriends; and her first suicide attempt, after which she underwent electric shock therapy. Through quotations from her letters and journals the picture emerges of an intense young woman who was competitive in love and work. She was not afraid to shock, an attitude that would inform her poetry. After baby-sitting the children of one of her professors, she wrote to a friend: "I was holding the deliciously warm twins and feeding them bottled milk (after five glasses of sherry I felt an overwhelming impulse to strip and nurse them myself!)."
Plath received a Fulbright scholarship to study at Cambridge and there, at the launch party of a literary journal, she met the young Ted Hughes, who was "big, dark" and "hunky". She was seeing someone else at the time – Richard Sassoon, a relative of the war poet, whom she knew from the States – but it was the romance with Hughes that would last. They married and for a short while lived in Massachusetts before moving to London, where they swiftly acquired a reputation as an intellectual power couple of the era.
The poverty, damp and cold of England were traumatic after the comfortable lifestyle offered by 1950s America. Plath struggled with the winters and the shabbiness of London flats. But she gamely set up house, and wrote to a friend, "I think I shall be a very happy exile & have absolutely no desire to return to the land of milk & honey & spindryers."
By June 1962, Plath and Hughes had two children, Frieda and Nicholas, a period she said was "the richest and happiest time of my life". However, not long after this, the phone rang in their Devon home, and Sylvia picked up, to hear a woman on the other end asking for Ted. It was Assia Wevill, the enigmatic wife of a poet friend of theirs, who was embroiled in an affair with Hughes. Several months later, after six years together, Hughes left Plath for good. She told a friend, "He says all the kindness and sweetness I loved & married him for was mere sentimentality".
As life grew more desperate for Plath, she strove and worked harder. "The muse has come to live here, now Ted has gone," she wrote in a letter to a friend. Taking sleeping pills to get through the night, she established a routine of getting up at 4am and writing till 8am when the children woke, and produced an astonishing number of poems. They included the infamous Daddy, in which she mused, "Every woman adores a Fascist, /The boot in the face, the brute/ Brute heart of a brute like you."
Biographers of this famous couple fall into one camp or another, and Rollyson is clearly with Plath: as early as page 2, he notes that Hughes' preoccupations about his privacy were "petty". Because she died without making a will, Hughes was granted control of his former wife's literary estate and for decades to come he was besieged by what his sister Olwyn Hughes calls "libbers" – feminists angry at his treatment of her. Hughes did not help his case by admitting, in his forward to The Journals of Sylvia Plath (which he authorised), that he had destroyed one of her last journals, and lost another.
Despite the disappearance of these important items, a rich legacy of letters and diaries remains.
The trouble for a biographer is how to write about someone who wrote about herself so brilliantly. Inevitably, Plath's own words are more vivacious and charming than Rollyson's portrayal of her could ever be and his style can seem jarring in contrast – a comment that Plath failed to find her 'Mr Big' while at college comes across as patronising to both his readers and his subject.
Rollyson also has to compete with earlier biographies of Plath, such as The Silent Woman, by Janet Malcolm, which is an elegant and addictive read.
Rollyson has written nine other biographies, including one of Marilyn Monroe. Throughout this biography he likens Plath to Monroe. The two had some things in common for sure – they came of age during the 1950s in a society that restricted women; they both suffered from depression, and killed themselves within a year of one another. But Monroe and Plath were in many ways very different and Rollyson's comparisons shed little light on Plath's experience.
American Isis is a workmanlike account, but should be a starting point, rather than the final verdict, on the life and work of Sylvia Plath, whose own writings create such an indelible and dramatic picture. Janet Malcolm was right when she said that it was Plath's "not niceness" that is so appealing, noting that, "Women honor her for her courage to be unpleasant."
As Plath's friend Al Alvarez wrote in a review of her work: "She steers clear of feminine charm, deliciousness, gentility, supersensitivity and the act of being a poetess. She simply writes good poetry."