Sylvia Plath Biography

Halfway through Bitter Fame, a Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson, I can say that although she does not paint as sympathetic a portrait of Plath as does Alexander in Rough Magic, she does get to the inner struggles Plath experienced that led to her poetic apotheosis in a more acute way.

Alexander had access to Sylvia’s mother while writing his biography, but he was writing blindly, because Ted Hughes did not allow him to view Sylvia’s letters or journals.

Hughes’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, worked with Stevenson and allowed her to quote extensively from Plath’s journals and letters.

Plath’s letters to her mother, as one might expect, give an optimistic report of Plath’s active social life and hard work at Smith and later at Cambridge, while her journal entries show she had an active, healthy sex life that unfortunately plagued her.

Part of Plath’s problem lay in her inability to reconcile her “swing from violent vampire to virtuous nun,” as Anne Stevenson writes (28).

The controversy around Plath’s life and death centers around her relationship with Ted Hughes. Obviously, she had an artistic temperament and was ambitious to the extreme. At the same time she was conformist and wanted to raise a family like her mother did.

Even though I was born three decades after Plath, I understand her ambivalence about motherhood, art, sexuality, and a career.

But her angst and passion led her to explore or flirt with death. She was too impatient to find out what lay beyond the moon at night.

Of course the shock of losing Hughes would have brought about a despair she couldn’t find a way to exit, but reading her Ariel poems, one realizes she was in the throes of a Dionysian fury that went beyond Hughes.

In the end, casting the blame for her death on Hughes means nothing. There are only the poems, which are as grand and sharp as polished steel.

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3 thoughts on “Sylvia Plath Biography

  1. Carl Rollyson (@crollyson) says:

    I think you mean Paul Alexander’s Rough Magic. The problem with Stevenson’s biography is that it is skewed by having to kowtow to Olwyn Hughes. Even Stevenson admits that. With Ted Hughes’s letters now published and other new archival material and interviews, I’ve been able to give a much fuller picture of Plath’s life, including her last six months, in AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, which St. Martin’s Press will publish just before the 50th anniversary of her death on February 11, 2013.

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    • Christine says:

      You’re right, I should have written Alexander. Thank you for catching my mistake. Bloggers have no editors!

      And it’s true, it is well known that Olwyn Hughes had undue influence on what Stevenson could have hoped to know. I even thought, when reading the testimonies of Ted Hughes’s friends, how anecdotal and inadequate their evidence was. I also thought that if Alexander and Stevenson could unite their efforts into one volume, a more balanced view might be achieved. Maybe your research will be what is needed.

      I look forward to your book–for now, I am still enjoying Stevenson’s work. I like her commentary on the poems and her way of integrating the journal entries and letters with Plath’s literary works.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  2. Lisa Nanette Allender says:

    Hi Christine– as you know, I’m quite the Plath-o-phile….I definitely think she was conflicted over the domestic/artistic (I think it’s very, very hard to be great, at both), and her expression of her sexuality. I always thought she was burning up with repression, and maybe she thought Ted Hughes was her uh, savior…your insights on “Bitter Fame” have me wanting to read that. And your commenter, Carl Rollyson, has me desiring his new book, too!

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