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

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times