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Check It Out

Courier Article by Pam Locker
Sunday, January 18, 2004

Books Examine Sylvia Plath's Promising, Tragic Life

Sylvia, the fall 2003 movie starring Gwenyth Paltrow as doomed American poet Sylvia Plath, hasn't found its way to Evansville yet. Until it arrives, most likely on the Stadium 16 Art venue, we'll have to content ourselves with a novel, two memoirs, and the reissue of a classic Plath biography that have surfaced in the wake of the film.

Rough Magic by Paul Alexander (Da Capo Press, 2nd reprint edition, 2003), is filled with minutia gleaned from Sylvia's letters and journals as well as interviews with friends and acquaintances.

Sylvia was born in 1932 to a middle-aged German immigrant biology professor father named Otto and his young accomplished wife Aurelia. She and her brother Warren had an idyllic childhood in a cottage on the Massachusetts shore, nurtured from birth by the ever-watchful Aurelia, who claimed that Sylvia began attempting to vocalize before she was a year old.

Life changed dramatically when Sylvia's doctor-phobic father suffered a terrible personality change and then sickened and died of untreated diabetes when she was only eight, leaving the family almost penniless.

Eventually they resettled in the growing Boston suburb of Wellesley. There Sylvia excelled at everything – school, athletics, beauty, and social life – as well as poetry. By the time she graduated at the top of her high school class she regularly published in periodicals such as "Seventeen" and "Harper's."

Attending the exclusive Smith College on scholarship, Sylvia continued to strive for, and seemingly achieve, perfection. However, three high-pressure weeks in Manhattan as a guest editor at "Mademoiselle" challenged her views of herself, leading to a deep depression, badly-administered shock treatments, and a suicide attempt – all of which she later chronicled in her still-popular novel "The Bell Jar."

After treatment and recovery, Sylvia returned to Smith, graduated cum laude, and won a Fulbright scholarship to study abroad at Cambridge. Teachers called her one of the most promising students they had ever taught.

Her Husband: Hughes and Plath – A Marriage by Diane Middlebrook (Viking, 2003) begins with a sexually liberated Sylvia colliding with dashing young British working class poet Ted Hughes at a poetry review party. A whirlwind courtship resulted in marriage, a romantic honeymoon in France and Spain, six years of tempestuous marriage, two young children, and Sylvia's death.

Of course, whether or not Hughes is to blame for Sylvia's suicide at age 30 is a matter of ongoing contention on both sides of the Atlantic. She did, after all, have a background of mental instability. Ted's career was in the ascendancy, while hers seemed stalled. She was the one – not Ted -- who wanted both children and a career at a time when few women accomplished both. She was very demanding and inordinately suspicious of Ted's every move.

But then again, Ted was an incurable womanizer who believed it part of man's basic nature to stray. He was obsessed with astrology and magic, and his poetry was filled with images of animal savagery and triumph. His luck with wives didn't improve with his second – Assia gassed both herself and their two-year old daughter six years later, some say when her beauty started to fade.

In 1984, Queen Elizabeth II appointed Ted Hughes as Britain's poet laureate, and until his death in 1998 he was quite close to the royal family. In fact, he became a spiritual advisor to Prince Charles. One wonders what kind of advice he gave the newly married prince.

Wintering by Kate Moses (St. Martin's Press, 2003) is a heartrending novelization of Sylvia's last year, written in the nakedly emotional style of Sylvia's last outpouring of poems. It depicts both the happiness and fulfillment of her and Ted settling into their newly purchased country estate, and the failure in her return to a lonely London flat with her two babies a year later, during one of the coldest winters in British history.

Giving Up: the Last Days of Sylvia Plath by Jillian Becker (St. Martin's Press, 1st U.S. edition, 2003) is a brief account by a friend to whom Sylvia fled for comfort in the last few days of her life. She lays blame on Ted, but posits that perhaps nothing could have ultimately calmed Sylvia's demons in the days before affective medication for severe depression became available.

Her work has outlived her. The posthumously published "Collected Poems" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982.

Pam Locker is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.