Anne Stevenson's biography of American writer Sylvia Plath was one of the first in-depth examinations of the life of the poetess. Stevenson had the cooperation of the Plath estate and was allowed use of some materials that were off-limits to other biographers, including letters, personal notes, and sketches by Plath.
Sylvia Plath was born in Massachusetts in October, 1932, and was a precocious writer and student from a very early age. Plath's father, a professor of entomology and an expert on bees, died when Sylvia was eight years old. Though her family was by no means wealthy, Sylvia was able to attend Smith College, an exclusive school for women, with the aid of scholarships and prizes. She was furiously ambitious, pushing herself to be a brilliant student and writer while wanting to be a well-rounded, desirable, All-American girl at the same time. After a summer spent as a guest editor at Mademoiselle Magazine in New York City (an experience later described in depth in The Bell Jar) Sylvia returned home, fell into deep depression, and attempted suicide. She was hospitalized for many weeks and underwent electro-convulsive therapy, a terrifying experience which was to influence her work for the rest of her life.
After completing college, Sylvia won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Cambridge in England. While there, she met the young poet Ted Hughes, and their dramatic first encounter became the stuff of literary legend. After a short romance, the two were married, and spent a honeymoon in Spain. The couple moved to New England, where Sylvia taught English literature at Smith for a year, before returning to England and settling in London. Sylvia gave birth to their first child, a daughter, at home in their small flat. Ted's writing career was already beginning to gain steam; his collections were earning prizes and praise from many distinguished critics. With money saved from their publications, Plath and Hughes bought an ancient rectory called Court Green in the countryside in Devon, England. After the birth of their second child, the marriage began to struggle.
Sylvia was jealous of the attention Ted received from other women, and soon became sure that he was unfaithful. Not long after, it came to light that Ted had begun an affair with Assia Wevill, wife of another poet and friend of the Hughes's. Ted left Court Green and moved to London. In the winter, Sylvia moved to London with the two small children, and settled into a flat that had once belonged to W.B. Yeats. The freezing conditions of that winter, the end of her marriage, and her mental instability combined to make perseverence impossible to Sylvia; she gassed herself in the kitchen of the flat and died, at age thirty.
The biography includes three appendices, memoirs written by acquaintances of Plath and reproduced in their entirety: Ted Hughes' friend Lucas Meyers, who recalls the Plath-Hughes romance, Dido Merwin, ex-wife of poet W.S. Merwin, who recounts a weekend in France where she observed Sylvia's jealousy and anger, and poet Richard Murphy, who knew Sylvia during the last months of her life.
The review of this Book prepared by Jacqueline West