Saturday, May 10, 2014

Staff Pick - Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson

Pulitzer Prize winning poet and novelist Sylvia Plath will long remain on our bookshelves. remembered for her contemplative and confessional poetry and for the tragic circumstances of her death. On the sad 50th anniversary of her death Andrew Wilson added a new work to the large body devoted to Plath's life with Mad Girl's Love Song: Sylvia Plath and life before Ted. The subtitle is significant as reflections on her life have tended to be focused on Plath's and Hughes' relationship and attempts made to assign culpability in her suicide. Wilson writes about her childhood and university years, leading up to a brief description of her meeting with Ted and her death as an afterword.

Sylvia Plath is portrayed as a troubled and driven young woman. She was deeply affected by her father's slow, and in hindsight, perhaps unnecessary death. Her relationship with her mother was close but difficult. Her mother was intensely involved in her life and shared in her successes. Plath was a gifted student and absolutely driven to succeed. Her publishing career began early and this academically inclined student had her stories and poems published while still a teenager. Plath was an intense person in all aspects of her life and the sexual hypocrisy of 1950s America and its restrictive dating rules weighed heavily on her. As the title indicates, much of the book was devoted to her romantic relationships with particular emphasis on her especially close affair with Richard Sassoon.

Considerable time is spent as well exploring Plath's mental and emotional health. She put tremendous pressure on herself academically and forged intense friendships and love affairs which friends and lovers sometimes found to be very demanding, and they could be quite distressed by her sudden anger over small incidents. She may have made several suicide attempts - one an effort to drown herself as did Virginia Woolf, and a second, much more serious attempt in 1953 which was to lead to hospitalization and a brutal course of electroconvulsive therapy.

Plath's poetic legacy has inspired generations of readers and writers alike and, unfortunately perhaps, her tragic personal life sometimes overwhelms her contribution of her writing. Wilson has attempted, in this biography, to draw a portrait of Plath which is separate from her marriage to Ted Hughes. A most moody and reflective biography.

Wilson's biography is unusual in that Ted Hughes plays a very small role indeed. For more information on Hughes and his marriage to Plath try Her Husband: Hughes and Plath: portrait of a marriage by Diane Middlebrook.

There is a Plath anecdote that says she once spent days hanging around the Chelsea hotel hoping for a meeting with Dylan Thomas, a poet she greatly admired. For more about his equally short and tragic life consider Dylan Thomas: a new life by Andrew Lycett.

My last suggestion for a similar read is Savage Beauty: the life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford which relates the life of an early twentieth century poet. " Millay began writing as a girl, and her brilliant, original, and fearless early poems won her prizes and wealthy patrons who sent her to Vassar, where she conducted a great swirl of love affairs with young women and older men. Once established in Greenwich Village, the indefatigably lascivious Millay wrote daring yet lyric collections that sold in the tens of thousands at the height of the Depression. Milford is both meticulous and dynamic in her assessment of Millay's trailblazing work and complicated, controversial life right up to its sad and dramatic end." Booklist

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