Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark: A review

 

Biographies and memoirs are not really my favorite reading, but one of my goals for this year is to diversify my reading and free myself of some of my reading prejudices. Such as my prejudice against biographies and memoirs. When I saw a notice of the publication of this biography of Sylvia Plath, it seemed like a worthy addition to meeting my goal. I've long been interested in Plath's life, poetry, and the tragic end to her life, so this was a good opportunity to learn more about all that.

And learn more about it I did! Heather Clark's 1,000-page biography of her is nothing if not exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting to read. She details the most complex and intricate events of her subject's daily life. At some points, it seems as though she is providing a daily, or even hourly, blow-by-blow account of Plath's complicated life.  It took me just about a month to read it, reading a bit on most days. 

Clark's focus is clearly stated in the subtitle of her book: It is the life and art of Plath, whereas it often seems that previous biographies of her (and there have been plenty) have been mainly focused on her marriage to Ted Hughes and her suicide. The writer has attempted a more full-bodied and straightforward telling of her story, perhaps showing how everything evolved.

Clark's treatment of Plath's life is evenhanded and seldom strays into the statement of opinions. A prime example of that is the portrait she paints of the poet's mother, Aurelia. Aurelia had sometimes been vilified by those writing about her daughter. She was blamed as the source of Sylvia's depression and psychological problems but Clark gives her her due for all the support she gave and tried to give to her through the years. This included financial support right up until Plath's death at 30 and the moral support and guidance that she attempted to provide. Sylvia's father, Otto, whom she adored as a child, died when she was eight years old, leaving Aurelia with two children (Sylvia had a younger brother named Warren.) to support and raise on her own. This was in the 1950s and single mothers were stigmatized even more than they sometimes are today. Fortunately, Aurelia had her parents who moved in and provided help and babysitting services while she worked as a teacher. Still, she must have had a difficult time in those years, and Clark does not sugarcoat it. 

We learn that Sylvia was evidently always quite popular with her peers and had many friends as she was growing up. This continued in her years at Smith College where her titanic ambition as a poet and fiction writer had full reign. She had been writing for most of her life and she displayed almost unimaginable persistence in attempting to get published. For example, she had more than fifty rejections before, in 1950, Seventeen magazine accepted a short story for publication. Throughout her life, she continued to have rejection after rejection of her poetry and stories, but she stubbornly persevered, resubmitting her rejected work to different publishers and in many instances, she finally succeeded.

Plath felt tremendous pressure to succeed, but what was the source of that pressure? In Clark's telling, it seems mostly self-imposed. She felt an extraordinary need to excel in all that she did. It was during her years at Smith that she first attempted suicide and she was subsequently sent to a hospital for the mentally ill where she received electroshock therapy which terrified her and would haunt her for the rest of her life.

Sylvia completed her years at Smith and was given a Fulbright Scholarship to Cambridge where she met Yorkshire-born poet Ted Hughes who would become her husband. During all the Smith years and beyond, Sylvia led a busy, some might say frantic, social life. Clark gives a lot of time to relating her dating experiences. There were many days, according to the writer, when she would have three or four dates with different men within the same day. She was evidently in high demand by the opposite sex. Once Sylvia decided to give up her virginity, she purchased a diaphragm which gave her some relief from concern about an unwanted pregnancy and she pursued sexual affairs with many different men. She was promiscuous, which if widely known, could have caused her to be ridiculed in the socially conservative '50s, but, as it was, she continued to be in demand by men for dates and to enjoy the female friendships that were so important to her. 

Once she met Ted Hughes, the frantic dating basically stopped. She was immediately attracted to him and he to her. They shared a single-minded devotion to their art and an unshakeable belief in their respective talents. They soon married and shared six years together during which their two children, Frieda and Nicholas, were born. Then it all fell apart when Hughes had an affair with Assia Wevill. They subsequently separated in 1962. Sylvia struggled with depression and with caring for two small children while continuing to try to write. Indeed she wrote some of her most acclaimed poetry during this period.

The winter of 1962-63 was the coldest in a century in London. It was a miserable time, a time of desperation that may have further contributed to Plath's depression. In February 1963 she had apparently reached her limit. She put her children to bed and sealed herself in the kitchen with the gas stove. She turned on the gas and put an end to her short life. Her blazing art continues to live on.

Since her death, she has passed into legend and has been hailed as a feminist icon and a visionary but also a prisoner of her gender. She has been the source of incessant speculation about the cause of her clinical depression and other mental problems. With the benefit of hindsight and of increased knowledge about such issues, it seems likely that they were caused by some kind of chemical imbalance, something that might have been successfully treated with the medications available today.  

This was in many ways a mesmerizing read. Clark's scholarship in researching and relating Sylvia Plath's life and discussing her art was truly formidable. Her narrative entertainingly urges the reader along to make her way through what could have been a daunting book. At the end of the book, one is left with much curiosity satisfied but also stimulated to learn more about the writings of this tortured personality. Clark may occasionally go overboard in praising Plath's poetry and I could frankly have done with a little less emphasis on her dating life, but on the whole, I found the book intriguing and a worthwhile read which has perhaps helped to rid me of my prejudice against biographies.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Comments

  1. A fine review, Dorothy. One can hardly begin to imagine the demons that must have plagued her.

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    1. It is a mystery. She was beautiful, greatly loved by her family, had many friends, was academically successful, was talented and had that talent acclaimed, and yet it was never enough. Tragedy hardly even begins to describe it.

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  2. I've long been fascinated by Sylvia Plath and her work. I wasn't aware on this hefty tome of a biography. I'm pretty sure I'd be scanning over sections of this one if I read it.

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    1. The narrative pulls you forward and in spite of all the sometimes minute and obscure facts being shared it is actually hard to put down.

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  3. Sylvia Plath is a person who fascinates me, but I'm not much of a biography reader either, and a thousand pages sounds like too much information for me. I will be satisfied to simply read your wonderful review, I think.

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    1. It does require a commitment. I found it doable by reading just a bit, usually a chapter, each day, as I also continued reading the fiction that is my preferred written work.

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    2. i admire your tenacity! she sure seems like she was driven by some demon or other... i feel for people who are obsessed about goals; they never get a chance to actually sense the beauty surrounding them, flowers, trees, and such: the true bounds of our limited lives...

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    3. Indeed. I must admit that I often found myself getting very impatient with Sylvia while reading her biography. She had so much going for her and yet it seemed that all she could do was whinge about how things were imperfect. Obviously, I would not make a very good therapist for someone suffering depression!

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  4. Bravo for tackling a genre you normally do not enjoy reading much of and also kudos reading such a lengthy biography at that! 1000+ pages is admirable!!

    Sounds like a great book. Thanks for another great review.

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    1. It was well-written. Heather Clark actually did an admirable job with what was a somewhat messy life.

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  5. Quite something to tackle this 1,000 pager bio. Congrats. I liked Plath's Bell Jar & poetry too but this one would be too much for me.

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    1. I read The Bell Jar a few years ago. I think I might read it again now that I've read this biography. It certainly gives a different slant to the book.

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