Meltdown

Anthony Thwaite

  • Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath by Anne Stevenson
    Viking, 413 pp, £15.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 670 81854 2

Writing a BBC Third Programme review of Donald Hall’s Penguin Contemporary American Poetry exactly a month before she killed herself early in 1963, Sylvia Plath praised ‘the inwardness of these images ... the uncanny faculty of melting through the leaves of the wallpaper, through the dark looking-glass, into a world which one can only call surrealist and irrational’. It was a process she could see happening in herself, to her own poems, and she welcomed it:

The blood jet is poetry,
There is no stopping it.

Yet at the moment when she killed herself, ‘the uncanny faculty of melting’ had become a meltdown. Plath’s doctor during her final months, Dr John Horder, wrote afterwards:

My judgment has always been that this was a very determined attempt to end her life ... I believe ... she was liable to large swings of mood, but so excessive that a doctor inevitably thinks in terms of brain chemistry. This does not reduce the concurrent importance of marriage break-up or of exhaustion after a period of unusual artistic activity or from recent infectious illness or from the difficulties of being a responsible, practical mother. The full explanation has to take all these factors into account and more. But the irrational compulsion to end it makes me think that the body was governing the mind.

The rehearsal of all this is painful. Anne Stevenson, against the odds, has written a decent and intelligent book. It is certainly the best book on Sylvia Plath so far – and it isn’t graceless to point out that most of the earlier books have been conspicuously unsatisfactory. But Bitter Fame carries its marks of constraint and difficulty as well. A prefatory Author’s Note acknowledges ‘a great deal of help from Olwyn Hughes, literary agent to the Estate of Sylvia Plath. Ms Hughes’s contributions to the text have made it almost a work of dual authorship.’ The proof copy I was originally sent phrases it rather differently: ‘This biography of Sylvia Plath is the result of a three-year dialogue between the author and Olwyn Hughes, agent to the Plath Estate. Ms Hughes has contributed so liberally to the text that this is in effect a work of joint authorship. I have in particular to acknowledge her contribution to the biographical material in the last four chapters.’ Linda Wagner-Martin’s 1988 biography[*] reveals typographically, to anyone who examines it closely, that many passages were rewritten at a late proof stage, presumably under duress. Earlier attempts to write about Plath were either soured by authorial complaints against Olwyn Hughes, Ted Hughes and the Estate (e.g. David Holbrook, Edward Butscher) or have come to nothing (e.g. Lois Ames, Harriet Rosenstein). Most of the book-length literary criticism is unimpressive. There isn’t much to choose, for example, between Margaret Dickie Uroff (‘As they developed, Plath came to locate herself at the fulcrum, while Hughes stood back to explore the nature of the universe’) and Mary Lynn Broe (‘To discuss only Plath’s self-sufficient system of poetic devices – even her imaginatively textured combinations that move organically toward energy – is to indulge narcissistically a kind of contextualism with some blatant indifferences’). The militant feminists have raged against Ted Hughes as the holy monster of Plath’s life and death. More recently, feelings have been stirred up about a gravestone (or lack of one) in Heptonstall cemetery, and about the desirability of a memorial plaque or plaques to her in various places. Ted Hughes, usually totally reticent in these matters, was goaded into writing long public letters of exasperated explanation.

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[*] Chatto, 282 pp., £12.95, 0 7011 3126 8.