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Her True Face

Gerald Dawe

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, by Heather Clark, Jonathan Cape, 1,152 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-1787332539

This new and, very probably, definitive biography of Sylvia Plath weighs in at one and a half kilos. I make the point for the very simple reason that Red Comet is dense, detailed and amazing. Substantial, hypnotic and unbiased, at long last Sylvia Plath has been given the humane, scholarly and literary study that her writing deserves and her life, tragically, was denied.

As Heather Clark makes abundantly clear, Plath led a troubled existence, caught between the inherited and difficult expectations of her emigrant forebears – German and Austrian ‑ and the wretched class distinctions buried within the white upper middle class East Coast ambitions and lifestyle of the American 1950s. She managed to present one image to the world – a prize-winning and brilliant student, star of her various academic classes, stellar emerging poet, outdoor girl – fishing, sailing, hiking, camping, self-financing through weekend and summer work – and within, deeply troubled, fractured and prone to the swings of a disabling depression which would ultimately win out, just at the breakthrough point of artistic success with the publication of the truly “blazing art” of her poetry collection Ariel and her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. It is heart-breaking.

In the vice of this contradiction it is nonetheless a testament to her will-power and emotional drive that she would produce the poems which would have such a profound and lasting impact on the poetry world and well beyond.

The early loss of her father Otto when she was a young girl and the overbearing management of her mother Aurelia, seem to have defined her inner life in a way that Plath’s younger brother, Warren, avoided. As Clark’s fastidious tracking of Plath’s disturbances, suicide attempts and clinical treatments show, via her daily journal entries and extensive correspondence, along with compendious interviews with contemporaries, she was simultaneously vulnerable and driven.

Fighting to find a place for herself in the self-satisfied, introverted world of predominantly male ’50s America, it was a mixed blessing that on her fellowship to study at Cambridge (England) she should meet, fall for and marry the force of nature called Ted Hughes, in many ways her alter ego.

While promoting his writing by bringing a managerial control to his writing life, Plath with, as Clark clearly shows, Hughes’s help, developed in her own poems, from formal competence and schooled sophistication, a self-belief to produce poems of shocking energy and violence, all delivered in a dramatic voice not heard before in such cadences and metaphors. If Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell sound through these poems it is as an echo chamber, for as Heather Clark reveals in such luminous detail, Plath’s intelligence and punishing self-consciousness would never let her down (or alone) as she discovered the physical values of a spoken language merged with the electricity of personal analysis, both matched by an astute and committed reading of contemporary events.

She became a regular contributor of poems and fiction to many of the leading literary outlets of the time in the US and UK, including Partisan Review, The New Yorker, the Times Literary Supplement and broadcast on the BBC. Here is a journal entry for October 1959:

Very depressed today. Unable to write a thing. Menacing gods. I feel outcast on a cold star, unable to feel anything but an awful helpless numbness. I look down into the warm, earthy world. Into a nest of lovers’ beds, baby cribs, meal tables, all the solid commerce of life in this earth, and feel apart, enclosed in a wall of glass. Caught between the hope and promise of my work – the one or two stories seem to catch something, the one or two poems that build little colored islands of words – and the hopeless gap between that promise, and the real world of other peoples [sic] poems and stories and novels. My shaping spirit of imagination is far from me.

Anyone who has experienced the drag of depression knows the truthfulness of this reflection: the danger was that Plath was beginning to run into difficulties at every turn of the road and there were the pressing realities which Heather Clark nimbly picks out as backdrop during the months when she was drafting The Bell Jar while the first signs of strains within her marriage to Hughes were beginning to show. “[S]he believed in her work [writes Clark] and the new voice she had found. That discovery had been made possible, in part, by distance: she was writing about events that had taken place in America in 1953 from London in 1961. During the intervening years the Cold War had intensified. The Bay of Pigs invasion took place in April 1961 and the Berlin Wall was erected in August – the very months during which Plath was writing The Bell Jar. Russia and America continued to test nuclear bombs. In May, The Observer ran a series on “America and the Cold War”. Sylvia had attended the CND Ban the Bomb march in April 1960 and become anxious about the effects of nuclear fallout on the environment. The Bell Jar would reflect these political anxieties. While she was alarmed by contemporary developments, time had dulled the personal pain surrounding her breakdown. She had achieved the very ambitions that had, in 1953, seemed the source of her malaise. Secure in her position as a writer, mother, and wife, she could look back without turning to salt.

Plath would not see the impact of her novel in her own lifetime and the emergence of her “new voice”, which Clark’s powerful biography reveals with such careful critical sensitivity, would bring little lasting solace in the new decade of the1960s. Clark handles the death of Sylvia Plath (who committed suicide on February 11th, 1963 aged thirty) with the composure of a careful doctor; nothing is assumed or presumed. The flux and convergence of a marriage break-up, the exhilaration of imaginative freedom with the production of the poems which made Ariel such an era-defining volume and the chill and grubbiness of one of England’s worst winters, all gravitated towards the pitiless cry for help that no one heard until it was too late. Heather Clark’s singular achievement in Red Comet is that she has brought Sylvia Plath’s amazing life back together again for good: “A clean slate, with your own face on.”

1/3/2021

Gerald Dawe’s most recent collection, The Last Peacock, was published in 2019. A City Imagined, the third and final instalment of his memoir Northern Chronicles, will be published later this year.

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