Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted by Andrew Wilson. Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. 2013. Personal copy. One of my “vacation reads” — books for the grown ups, reviewed around holidays, when you may want to take time off from reading young adult books.
It’s About: Sylvia Plath before she met Ted Hughes in 1956. Which means, a close examination of Plath’s childhood, college years, and first months in England.
The Good: I’m working my way through the 2013 books on Sylvia Plath; this past August I reviewed Pain, Parties, Work, about Plath’s New York City summer in 1953, before her suicide attempt. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a slightly broader look at Plath — the years before 1956 — and next I’ll be reading American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson. While I’m approaching these three books in a particular way — start small and focused and moving to books covering larger time periods — for those new to Plath’s biography and works, I’d recommend the opposite reading order.
So, Mad Girl’s Love Song! By focusing on the pre 1956 years, Wilson gets the chance to really dive into the details of Plath’s adolescence and college years — into what made Plath. It also creates a focus on certain aspects of Plath’s life that, I think, get lost in books that cover her entire life.
On the one hand, Plath had a privileged upbringing. She went to a terrific high school, and then a top college. She had opportunities and encouragement. From the start, she looked to publish her work and did publish.
On the other hand, the Plath family financial background was such that those things did not come easily. After Plath’s father died, her mother selected a town to move to based on both the school system and possible college opportunities. The family valued education, yes, but did not have money or any real connections. Part of her mother’s sacrifice in selecting the right, the perfect, town for her children was sharing a home with her own parents. The house they lived in was so small, that Plath and her mother shared a bedroom.
People can read things different ways — but being that family, the family where you share a room with a parent, with the working mother and grandfather — of course, Plath felt the pressure of expectation to make all these sacrifices worthwhile. As Mad Girl’s Love Song explores, Plath was aware of what was being done for herself, as well as her brother. She worried about money and finances. Yes, she had scholarships, but there was no margin of error in her college studies — scholarships could be lost. And, of course, being on scholarship at a prestigious school meant she was surrounded by those who were much more well off than she was. Plath was grateful and thankful and resentful.
Mad Girl’s Love Song also provides a look at the 1953 suicide attempt, and what lead up to it, and what happened after. The problem with looking at this time in Plath’s life is that, well, who knows what Plath’s current diagnosis would be? What does what we know now influence how we look at Plath’s life and actions? What are things she did or didn’t do because of her mental state, as opposed to the result of being a driven woman in a time that didn’t allow many avenues for female ambition?
As I said in my review of Pain, Parties, Work, I watch and read things set in the 1950s and think of Plath. Did you know that the fictional Betty Draper was born the same year as Plath? And like Plath, attended a Seven Sisters college?
I think of Betty (and think of Plath when I watch Mad Men) when I see and read about Plath’s romances. Her number of boyfriends and relationships, often overlapping, and what it meant within the context of the 1950s — it shows another side of her character that can be lost when the biography centers more on her life with her husband. How did Plath define herself and her world around her? And what does that have to do with the suicide attempt and her treatment? What about the push-pull of her world and her own desires, a world where the Betty Drapers were the success stories? And it’s all the more tricky because Plath documented so much, so well — but also presented different “selves” to different people, and no “one” presentation was the “real” one.
Which brings us to something else about Mad Girl’s Love Song. Sometimes, the biographies written just after a person dies are the most honest and raw because the memory is fresh. But, sometimes, there are still people who are being protected; there are people who are too close to the event and the person to even talk, let alone talk honestly. Time passes; Plath has now been dead for 50 years. Wilson includes much more detailed insight into Plath, from the people in her life, which I hadn’t read before.
Other reviews: The New York Times; The Telegraph; P. H. Davies.