The impact of this interpretation’s proliferation is to devalue women’s engagements with Plath. To read her coming-of-age novel The Bell Jar, for example, is seen by many as a girlish rite of passage towards more serious literature, a perception often reflected in the YA-style cover designs. This isn’t the case for narratives of male comings-of-age, from the works of JD Salinger to David Foster Wallace. But the truth is that Plath was one of the first authors to tap into the raw reality of being a woman. Before feminism’s second wave and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, Plath wrote of her discontent with a woman’s inferior place, her sexual urges, and how these pressures affected her mental health.
At the same time, The Bell Jar and Plath’s poetry are works of fiction. They are grounded in Plath’s lived experience, as all literature must be, but they are not, of course, direct autobiography. Biographies often cite Plath’s works as evidence for real-life events, and, as is the case with Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, use them to claim Plath was always depressed; Stevenson ends a chapter about her youth with the egregious statement: “The idea of suicide formed in her mind like the ultimate and irrevocable fig”, referring to the famous metaphor from The Bell Jar where the heroine Esther Greenwood sees all her potential futures as figs on a fig tree. A similar prejudice has continued to affect creative women, whereby they are dismissed as using art as therapy. The problem we face with Plath is that the mythos of her life and death has made it difficult to disentangle her art from that – but also know who the “real” Sylvia Plath was, in any case.
The Plath cottage industry
The desire to know Plath has nevertheless fuelled an industry. A new biography claiming to shed more light on her life than before appears on bookshelves with increasing regularity, including three notable releases in the past 18 months alone. One of these books, The Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson, published in March 2020, focuses solely on her suicide. Another, Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz by Gail Crowther, published in April, is a dual biography of Plath and fellow Bostonian poet Anne Sexton, who met at a writers’ seminar held by poet Robert Lowell in 1959. The third book is Heather Clark’s massive biography Red Comet: published last October, it is, alongside Crowther’s, one of the first books about Plath to make full use of the recently-published, full and unabridged volumes of her letters, and deliberately subverts the reverse, death-focused chronology of earlier tomes.
Even as these books may hope to understand Plath from a fresh perspective, their mission is arguably rendered ever more challenging by the steady stream of critical and biographical works ready to supplant them, alongside the ever-increasing volume of published material from her archive. There has even been a biography of her biographies: in 1994, the great New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm, who died last month, published The Silent Woman, a study of Plath books (including Stevenson’s controversial Bitter Fame) which sought to consider the forces of influence which determine the nature of biographical writing.
When preparing her book, Malcolm contacted Olwyn Hughes, the sister of Plath’s husband, the poet Ted Hughes, and the literary executor of her estate, seeking an interview with Ted to supplement her research. The response she received was an extended, unprompted critique of the “myth of Sylvia Plath”, something Olwyn believed was fuelled by a combination of Plath herself and Plath’s mother, Aurelia, who was, Olwyn claimed, “ashamed of the mental illness”, and determined that only her daughter’s “best side” was remembered. Olwyn was horrified, she went on, by a lack of “human feeling” shown by writers and the public for Plath’s family and had as a result “totally changed [her] entire attitude to people”. However, what Malcolm achieved with The Silent Woman was to remind us that Plath was not a myth, but a woman who had lived and breathed as we do. By bringing herself into the story in order to reflect on her own role within the posthumous narrativisation of Sylvia Plath – rather than acting under the pretence of objectivity – Malcolm wrote the most human book on the poet to date.