Auto Ads by Adsense

Monday, October 04, 2021

Review: Red Comet - The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

 I've actually never read anything by Sylvia Plath, but her name kept coming up over and over again in various contexts, mostly non-fictional, as someone who was brilliant and depressed, or who was an example of how when you took away an easy means of suicide, people stopped actually committing suicide. So when I saw that Red Comet was easily checked out of the library as an ebook I gave it a shot.

The book turned out to be huge, taking more than 1000 pages and taking me more than 3 weeks to finish. For me, it was compelling reading because I knew the ending --- which had been documented in so many places that it wasn't a spoiler. Secondly, it was a fascinating look at a woman who defied convention, set the course of her life, got everything she wanted, yet discovered that she could not hold on to it, which eventually wrecked her.

The thing is, Plath isn't a likable person (at least, not to me). Sure, she was brilliant from childhood, winning poetry prizes and writing prizes, and becoming a nationally published author by the time she got to college. And far from the stereotype of the unsocial, introverted writer, she got around, getting tons of dates despite getting matched by her mother (her father passed away while he was young, from untreated diabetes). Her depression, however, plagued her even from when she was young:

Sylvia was compassionate toward others but bore herself little mercy. She often mistook her depression for weak-willed complaint. How could she feel so terrible when thousands of girls would give anything to switch places with her? Didn’t she realize how lucky she was? What did she possibly have to complain about? Her self-contempt fed her depression in an unrelenting circle of anguish that continued to baffle her. “I have much to live for,” she wrote in her journal that winter, “yet unaccountably I am sick and sad.” (pg. 160)

Despite this, she was a high functioning person until she got what she wanted, a prized position at a major magazine in New York City as a summer intern. She discovered, much like many software engineers who joined major tech companies only to discover that the reality is that both major tech companies and literary women's magazines are essentially giant vehicles to deliver ads:

 Nearly all of the bulky, 380-page August 1953 issue of Mademoiselle, which Plath edited that June, comprised fashion ads or fashion photo shoots featuring thin white women (pg. 240)

The result clash between her expectations and the reality of New York City led her to her first major episode of depression and attempted suicide, followed by an even more mentally and emotionally recovery in a mental hospital, where the  ECT therapy of that time was not very well managed and led to her horror of psychiatric hospitals for the rest of her life, which you could blame for her eventual suicide.

Fast forward to her post-graduate Fullbright scholarship to Cambridge, she had already articulated her goals: (1) to make money as a writer/poet, determining her fate, (2) to marry someone and have children, but that person had to be supportive of her career, and help out enough that she could achieve (1). She eschewed the doctor her mother had matched her up with, since a square, socially conservative doctor in a upper middle class lifestyle would dictate that she would spend all her time dealing with family instead of writing, and searched for wilder, more bohemian types who would presumably be less concerned with the social strictures of that time. She found Ted Hughes.

Her wedding was meant to be a surprise “gift” to Aurelia, but in fact it was Sylvia’s checkmate. Ted knew he was the antithesis of the all-American Wellesley boys Aurelia had quietly encouraged her daughter to marry. He described himself that day as “the Swineherd / Stealing this daughter’s pedigree dreams / From under her watchtowered searchlit future.”163 He was not wrong. Ted’s joblessness worried Aurelia and would remain a source of grievance for years to come. She did not trust him to care properly for her daughter, who was more vulnerable than he knew. (pg. 448)

Hughes was her equal in literary achievements, and the book is very sympathetic to him during the early phase of their marriage. The author (Heather Clark) never failed to point out that he was very active in child rearing, dealing with their first daughter in the morning so she could write, and then swapping places with her so he could write. They even shared writing studies, "hot-desking". In return, she applied her considerable promotion talents to helping him get noticed, published, and win awards. 

Ted had “commissioned” her his “official agent,” she joked, but it was true; he would owe his career to her. She typed Hughes’s poems in Whitstead’s sunny backyard as he sat beside her, revising his now famous poem “The Jaguar.” She felt his work was, like him, “fierce, disciplined with a straight honest saying,” and predicted that “the world will be a different place” once he began publishing.134 (pg. 444)

Here's the thing, once Hughes became successful (and the social strictures of the day meant that he had an easier time being recognized than she did), she started facing the flip side of that success.

Sylvia “wasn’t at ease” with Ted’s BBC work, she said, because “there were a lot of women at the BBC, and those were the kind of women who went to bed.” They had a “loose” reputation at the time, she said, though such a claim sounds sexist now. Plath was married to the most famous young poet in England. “She was not crazy,” Suzette said, to think that a successful BBC producer might find Ted attractive—or he her—while Sylvia folded diapers.  (pg. 633)

When the inevitable happened (remember, she'd deliberately picked a husband who would not be bound by social strictures!),  the fall was quick. Even here she wouldn't blame Hughes, but instead blame the other women he'd had affairs with.

fame gave Hughes sexual and professional opportunities to expand at exactly the time Plath wanted him, as he saw it, to contract—to settle into a predictable, domestic life. Plath had suggested as much when she told Dr. Beuscher that movie stars had nothing on handsome male poets. (pg. 753)

OK, I mentioned that I didn't like Plath as a person. Here's why: all through her life, she'd received enormous financial support from her mother, who was making money doing as many as two jobs at once, allowing Plath to live a life on her own terms --- she'd had a teaching position at Smith at one point but gave it up because it interfered with her writing --- and this was before she had kids! But she would be harsh and mean to her. Near the end of her life, she finally realized:

Plath told friends she did not want to raise two children on her own as her widowed mother had. She was appalled that, for all her efforts to live a different kind of life, she had ended up in the very same situation as Aurelia, but worse—rejected, unemployed, far away from friends and family. (pg. 858)

This was in the 1950s and 60s, when it was possible for a single woman in America to make good enough money to support her adult daughter, and when magazines paid so much that a top notch poet could almost make a living wage. Plath lived in England, where healthcare costs were covered by the state. Hughes and her were at the top of the field. Hughes had frequent BBC productions that paid well, as did Plath. But if you contrasted her approach with Stephen King's where he and his wife taught school while writing novels on the side, you realized that she was taking giant risks, and her social safety net (her mother and Olive Higgins Prouty) was what allowed her to frequently live beyond her means. (And yes, she did resent Hughes turning down money-paying positions because he, like her, never wanted to feel that he was working for a living)

If you treated this biography as a novel, the lesson would probably be: "Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it." I thought the book was overlong, and it felt like Heather Clark quoted way more from Hughes than she did from Plath, but it was definitely compelling reading.

“Fame will come. Fame especially for you. Fame cannot be avoided. And when it comes You will have paid for it with your happiness, Your husband and your life.” (pg. 475)

No comments: