Reviewed: Mad Girl’s Love Song by Andrew Wilson

A gorgeous pathology.

Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted
Andrew Wilson
Simon & Schuster, 448pp, £20

“People can accept you for what you are or they can accept you for mirroring themselves,” wrote Eddie Cohen to the 19-year-old Sylvia Plath, his pen pal. “As for the second kind,” he went on, “if you try to please all of them, you will become a shapeless, amorphous personality.”

Eddie had a point – though, as things turned out, it was by becoming an “amorphous personality” through death that Plath has been able to mirror and thereby please a far greater number of people than Eddie could ever have guessed. Ted Hughes called this phenomenon “the fantasia about Sylvia Plath” and suggested that it is “more needed than the facts”. Fifty years on from her suicide, it would seem he’s still right. Though Plath’s letters, stories, poems and diaries all brandish right at us a fistful of mania, rage, ambivalence, infantile muddle and fear, she remains, through a public effort of will, an object of worship. Why?

In her short book The Silent Woman, published 20 years ago, Janet Malcolm peered through the thickening atmosphere surrounding Plath’s life. Malcolm’s gifts – for journalistic inquiry, for characterisation and analysis – gave a Technicolor variety to a book about the grey area. Describing the event for which Hughes was summarily vilified – his infidelity to Plath with Assia Wevill – Malcolm suggested that Plath’s suicide denied the crisis a natural evolution.

Ordinarily, Malcolm wrote, after an affair, “Life goes on. The pain and bitterness and exciting awfulness of sexual jealousy and sexual guilt recede . . . People grow older . . . and may even come to realise that what they are forgiving themselves and each other for is youth.” Yet, for Plath and Hughes, the process hitched in time at its dramatic climax. Shortly after Plath’s suicide, Hughes saw their friend Elizabeth Sigmund and said, “It doesn’t fall to many men to murder a genius.”

For all her efforts to ensure even-handedness, Malcolm insisted that objectivity is an impossible ideal, because: “The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive.” In Mad Girl’s Love Song, a new book about Plath by the British journalist Andrew Wilson, the motive appears to be in the subtitle: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted. The phrase has a polemical ring; it suggests a repossession of Plath; but should any vehemently feminist expectations be raised by it Wilson’s selfjustifying assurance that “although Hughes was her husband, he was not the only man in her life” will serve to deflate them. Nonetheless, his treatment of Plath goes on faithfully to catalogue her pre-Hughes relationships not only with men but also with women, her parents and 1950s society in general.

Wilson’s narrative is ostensibly concerned with Plath the schoolchild and college girl. To construct it, he draws primarily on her diaries and on her self-infantilising letters to her mother, which Aurelia Plath published as Letters Home (1975) in order to correct the impression that her daughter had made on strangers, what with The Bell Jar, Ariel and the suicide. Wilson attempts not to correct, but to temper, by adding to that gruesome tableau in which Plath and her parents are locked, a portrait of the artist as a nerdy kid.

Aged 14, determined to add popularity to academic awards, Plath “went to great efforts to win the post of school secretary”. She constructed “a makeshift boat (emblazoned with the words ‘Sylvia for secretary’) that she planned to sail across the stage” at school assembly, pledging to “sail straight and true through choppy waters”. However, the boat got stuck in the door and “the hall full of children filled with laughter”. The image (which might have been conceived by the film director Wes Anderson) offers a poignant contrast to the “I eat men like air” voice of Ariel, though whether this is desirable or in any way illuminating for readers of Plath’s work is another matter.

Despite Wilson’s dignified emphasis on source material, he can be fanciful, mixing analysis with a kind of divination. He men mentions the Nathaniel Hawthorne story “Rappaccini’s Daughter”, which, he says, “fascinated” Plath (it concerns a young girl who is “the subject of a scientific experiment overseen by her father”) and suggests that it makes “an apt metaphor for Plath’s view of her relationship with her own father”. Yet its aptness is being judged by Wilson, not Plath, whether or not he knows or believes she was “fascinated” by it.

Elsewhere, further out on a limb, he quotes lines from a song “that echoed through the Plath household” and suggests that it can be “used to interpret Sylvia’s childhood”. By what reasoning? The same, perhaps, as that which leads him to refer to certain chapters of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra (the 17-year-old Plath was given the book for Christmas) and to find them “chilling . . . in respect to Plath’s story”.

Or the same as the reasoning that causes him to remark that “there is something more than a little uncanny” about how Plath thanked the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, who paid her college fees, for financing “the formation of an individual”, when “Sylvia could have stepped straight out of one of Prouty’s books”. As if to prove a point – it is hard to say what it might be –Wilson goes on to enumerate the similarities between Sylvia and Charlotte, a heroine of Prouty’s novel Now, Voyager.

Like a number of her previous biographers, Wilson uses Plath’s diaries and letters in order to generate psychological insights. This is accepted practice and yet, as accounts of personality, particularly of a writer’s personality, diaries and letters are often too polished to be considered faithful – too good to be true. Plath knew only too well that her letters and her talk offered different degrees of intimacy with her. In 1953, when she was a depressed student at Smith, Eddie Cohen wrote to tell her to seek psychiatric treatment. Plath wrote back to ask if she couldn’t just show her letters to a psychiatrist instead of going to appointments and Eddie, whose scepticism about Plath’s thinking is often conveyed on a takes-one-to-know-one basis, replied, “You gotta go in there and talk, talk, talk – even though it tears your guts out to do so sometimes.”

In another letter, Eddie questioned the reality of their relationship precisely because it was being conducted in writing. Searching for a way to define it, he wrote, “The psychiatrists have a term for it – or rather a couple of them – they call it acting-out and projection. And beyond that – who knows what?” To bring the point home, so to speak, he sent her the letter unsigned.

Eddie also made an appearance in Malcolm’s book, in his late middle-age, a salesman of second-hand electrical goods, known more soberly as “Ed”, but still partial to psychiatric diagnoses. He told Malcolm that Plath was, “from her late adolescence on, at her very best what the psychiatrists refer to as a borderline personality”. Not easily blinded by science, Malcolm wondered if Ed’s view could be motivated by revenge – Plath had made it plain she was not sexually attracted to him.

The creation of the Plath fantasia has entailed risky extrapolation not only from her letters and diaries but also from her imaginative writing, and especially from her novel, The Bell Jar. Though it is true that the rudiments of Esther’s story are drawn from Plath’s life, the weird and paradoxical emphases involved in transforming a private self into the multiple details of novels and poems are unguessable to outsiders and often even to the author.

When Émile Zola was asked which of all his characters he most identified with, he said it had been Nana – a courtesan. By this anti-logic, Isabel Archer could have been a portrait of Henry James. Yet, despite the mysteries of artistic composition, biographers conflate the author’s characters with the author’s character at will, because the ensuing critique supplies to the reader the thrill of live psychotherapy.

In a radio interview in 1962, Plath supplied some guidance with regard to biographical readings of her poetry. She explained that although her poems came out of her “emotional and sensuous experiences”, she believed, even in the case of “the most terrific, like madness”, that: “One should be able to manipulate these experiences with an informed and an intelligent mind.” The interviewer – surprised, perhaps – checked that he had understood: “Behind the primitive, emotional reaction there must be an intellectual discipline?” Plath replied, “I feel that very strongly.”

For all the posthumous inventions, some of the Plath fantasia was created by Sylvia Plath. It was not, as she claims in her autobiographical essay “Ocean 1212-W”, her father, Otto, who played with her on the beach, but her middle-aged grandfather; it was not she who crawled directly into the sea, but her brother, Warren; it was not she who found and preserved as a totem some beach driftwood shaped like a baboon, but a neighbour.

But after all, so what? Apparently Ernest Hemingway embellished a few of his wartime adventures, too. The instinct to “manipulate” experiences runs very deep in writers, deeper, perhaps, than the urge to tell the truth – hence all the fiction, hence the dramatis personae; this is the central and gorgeous pathology. If we assume that what writers say about themselves will be verifiable, we’re asking them to stop being writers. And if we read novels and poems for biographical data, we’re asking them to stop being transcendent – and it seems like a shame to do that.

When a person becomes a symbol, it’s worth considering what common need is being expressed in her name. Plath’s first use, after the posthumous publication of Ariel in 1965, was as a symbol of feminist martyrdom; but perhaps the need for this has been succeeded by something more fundamental. We may have reasoned away Zeus and Aphrodite but in 2013 it seems we are no less susceptible than the Greeks were to the idea of immortality; and so we continue to find ways to experience it, often through dead, preferably beautiful, young geniuses such as Plath.

And to those in search of it, she supplies a further, more regressive thrill. Together, the absent poet and the atom bomb of her poems offer the satisfaction of a daydream. On the 50th anniversary of her death, it may be that Plath is the patron saint of passive aggressives – of all those who once imagined they might just vanish or die and leave everyone feeling very sorry.

Talitha Stevenson is a writer and psychotherapist

Sylvia Plath. Photograph: WikiCommons

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

Photo: Getty
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Daniel Day-Lewis is a genius, but I'll shed more tears for actors who don't choose to stop

I've always felt respect rather than love for the three-times Oscar winner.

Imagine learning of the closure of an exquisite but prohibitively expensive restaurant that you only got round to visiting once every four or five years. There would be an abstract feeling of sadness, perhaps, that you will no longer be able to sample new, satisfying flavours twice a decade in that establishment’s uniquely adventurous style. A nostalgic twinge, certainly, relating to the incomparable times you had there in the past. But let’s be realistic about this: your visits were so infrequent that the restaurant’s absence now is hardly going to leave an almighty black hole in your future. If you’re completely honest, you may even have thought upon hearing the news: “That place? I hadn’t thought about it for yonks. I didn’t even know it was still open.”

That sums up how I feel about the announcement this week that Daniel Day-Lewis is retiring. What an actor: three Oscars, a method genius, all of the above. But prolific is the last thing he is. It would be disingenuous to say that any of us had imagined seeing too many more Day-Lewis performances before we finish strutting and fretting our own hour upon the stage. I’m 45; Day-Lewis’s first, brief screen appearance was in Sunday Bloody Sunday, which came out the year I was born. So even allowing for another 30 years on this planet, I still wasn’t reckoning on seeing new screen work from him more than five times in my life. It’s a loss but, given the proper support and counselling, it’s one I can live with.

Looking at Day-Lewis’s recent work-rate helps bring some perspective to the situation. He is currently shooting the 1950s-set fashion drama, Phantom Thread, for Paul Thomas Anderson, who solicited from him a towering, elemental performance in There Will Be Blood, which won him his second Oscar. But before that, the last time we saw him on screen was four-and-a-half years ago in Lincoln (Oscar Number Three). Prior to that, a full three years earlier, was Nine, a woeful musical spin on Fellini’s that is one of the few blots on an otherwise impeccable CV. In 2007, it was There Will Be Blood; in 2005, The Ballad of Jack and Rose, directed by his wife, Rebecca Miller; and in 2002, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the film that enticed Day-Lewis out of his first retirement.

Oh yes, there was an earlier one. The retirement which didn’t take. After making The Boxer in 1997 with Jim Sheridan, who directed him in My Left Foot (where he got Oscar Number One for playing the writer Christy Brown) and In the Name of the Father, the actor went off to become a shoemaker’s apprentice in Florence. A Daniel Day-Lewis spoof biopic surely couldn’t have come up with a more characteristic career swerve than that. This, after all, is the man who lived in the wild for weeks before making The Last of the Mohicans, and who endured physical deprivations to prepare himself for In the Name of the Father, in which he played Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four. He also famously stays in character, or at least refuses to drop his assumed accent, posture and demeanour, between takes on set—an easily-ridiculed trait which actually makes a poetic kind of sense. Here’s how he explained to the Guardian in 2009:

“If you go to inordinate length to explore and discover and bring a world to life, it makes better sense to stay in that world rather than jump in and out of it, which I find exhausting and difficult. That way there isn’t the sense of rupture every time the camera stops; every time you become aware of the cables and the anoraks and hear the sound of the walkie-talkies. Maybe it’s complete self-delusion. But it works for me.”

So the method immersion and the physical consequences (he broke two ribs during My Left Foot and contracted pneumonia while shooting Gangs of New York) make him a target for mockery. There have been accusations, too, that his workings-out as an actor are often clearly visible in the margins. “All that screaming and hyperventilating,” remarked the filmmaker and Warhol acolyte Paul Morrissey. “You may as well have a ‘Men at Work’ sign when he’s on screen.”

But no workman operating a pneumatic drill ever announced his retirement through the world media. (And with such petulant phrasing from his official spokesperson: “This is a private decision and neither he nor his representatives will make any further comment on this subject.”) Making plain this retirement, rather than simply getting on with it quietly and without fanfare, serves a number of functions. It’s going to be very beneficial indeed to Phantom Thread when it opens at the end of this year: the distributors can go right ahead and advertise it as Day-Lewis’s final performance without fear of contradiction. That’s the sort of promotional boon that only usually happens in the case of posthumous releases. And coming right out and saying “It’s over” also helps remind the world that Day-Lewis is still there, even if he won’t be for very much longer. It puts him right back in the headlines. It’s a wise career move—to use the words with which Gore Vidal responded to news of Truman Capote’s death—for a career that is now at its flickering end. 

But I’ll save my tears for the next actor whose life ends prematurely—another Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger—rather than one who has the luxury of being able to call “Cut!” on his career at a time of his choosing. Perhaps I’m taking this news better than some of my colleagues because Day-Lewis, though a master of his craft, has always been an actor who engendered respect rather than love. One component of his mastery in recent years has been a studious coldness. No one has yet put it better than the comedian Adam Riches, who described Day-Lewis as “the greatest actor never to have appeared in anyone’s favourite film.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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