Like any good angsty teenager with literary inclinations, I was a fan of Sylvia Plath. I actually preferred Anne Sexton’s poetry, perhaps because I found her subject matter more tangible, but I spent my fair share of time with Sylvia. When I learned about this new biography by Andrew Wilson, my inner sixteen-year-old demanded that I read it. I was drawn to the idea of a biography that focuses on her life before meeting her husband Ted Hughes.
I was quite immersed in Mad Girl’s Love Song during the week I spent reading it. One of my coworkers actually walked away when he heard me starting another Sylvia anecdote. Still, it’s a testament to the book that I felt compelled to share the facts that I learned.
Mad Girl’s Love Song showed me that Sylvia had a powerful but fragile ego. Her sense of self-worth was strongly tied to winning the admiration of others, whether it be through awards, publication, or dating. She put enormous academic pressure on herself in high school and later at Smith College. Having attended a liberal arts college myself, I enjoyed comparing her experience at a 1950s women’s college to my own. She dealt with financial strain on top of academic and social stress. It’s not hard to see why her first mental breakdown occurred at age twenty.
In focusing on Sylvia’s life before Ted, the author seems to be making two points. The first is that Sylvia began to suspect her own mental instability at a young age, long before her tumultuous marriage. The second is that she dated “literally hundreds of men,” often beginning a relationship with gusto before quickly detaching herself. The fact that her father died when she was eight is the most obvious explanation for her preoccupation with men. However, it is apparent that Sylvia formed intense but volatile bonds with many people in her life besides romantic prospects. She repeatedly wrote in her journal about feeling like an incomplete or fragmented person. Did she hope to somehow find herself through other people?
Although Sylvia’s active dating life provides insight into her character, it is also this biography’s greatest challenge. At times the text started to feel like a list of men she dated, rather than a nuanced account of a person’s life. It doesn’t help that Sylvia was often dating several men at once, plus keeping up correspondence with others. Wilson usually alerts the reader to men who will stick around for more than a few pages, but those passages could still feel tedious. I wonder if the information could have been presented in a more compelling way or even condensed.
Of course, I’m not particularly well-versed in biographies, so I may be approaching my critique from a fictional mindset. Wilson had access to unpublished letters, which must be a biographer’s dream, and creating a complete account of a writer’s early years has its own merit. Mad Girl’s Love Song is a worthy read for any Plath enthusiast.