Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted, by Andrew Wilson

Review published on April 2, 2013. Reviewed by Kirsty Hewitt

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[product sku=”9780857205889″]Fifty years after Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Wilson has set out to explore her early life before she met the poet Ted Hughes. He has presented his newest book, Mad Girl’s Love Song, as ‘an intimate portrait of the brilliant and tragic literary enigma based on her early poems, letters and diaries’. He sets out in his introduction that ‘before she met Ted, Plath had lived a complex, creative and disturbing life’, which was eclipsed by her father’s death when she was just eight years old. The introduction also describes the way in which Wilson ‘traces through these early years, the sources of her mental instabilities and examines how a range of personal, economic and societal factors – the real disquieting muses – conspired against her’.

Wilson begins by outlining the history of Plath’s parents, Otto and Sylvia, both of whom emigrated to the United States from Europe before her birth and consequently met one another at University. In this respect, it is interesting to see the autobiographical details which Plath wove into her own writing, and the way in which Aurelia also aspired to be a writer but was hindered in doing so because she ‘didn’t feel that I could expose my children to the uncertainty of a writer’s success or failure’. Wilson illustrates the way in which Aurelia inspired her daughter, and also the sibling rivalry which existed between Sylvia and her younger brother Warren. The content is fascinating, but the writing style and execution of the book lets it down immensely.

Throughout, Wilson has used a variety of different sources, from Plath’s own published work and journals, to interviews with her friends and lovers, and a supposed wealth of previously unavailable archives and papers. As any good biographer does, a third person omniscient perspective has been adopted from the outset. This narrative technique does not lend itself well to the material in the way in which Wilson has chosen to use it, however. Throughout, he makes broad and bald assumptions, which he makes out are merely paraphrased from Plath’s own journals and letters, without ever quoting her work. By using language in the way in which he does, Wilson is adding an awkward middle man to the autobiography, and the entire book feels disjointed and rather inept in consequence. The writing style is filled with inconsistencies. It is at times academic, but then words and phrases creep in which would not look out of place in a substandard teenage essay. The assumptions which he expects the reader to take as gospel are backed up with no circumstantial evidence.

Wilson’s portrayal of Plath, too, is not in the slightest sympathetic. In fact, he is almost cruel in the treatment of his subject. He states his beliefs that she was merely an attention seeker when she was at school, longing to be the best at everything and not caring who she hurt along the way. He says that from an early age she was ‘approaching the pathological’ with her behaviour. Not once does he take into account that she was merely a bright child, even when he quotes from a woman who used Sylvia as a test subject in an IQ test, who found her to be ‘well into the “genius” classification’. He criticises her for having ‘hundreds – thousands! – of ideas, thoughts and feelings’, stating rather unkindly that ‘looking back, perhaps she had too many’. The very idea of a writer and poet having ‘too many’ ideas seems absurd.

Similarly, he makes Plath out to be a cold and calculated liar as she approaches her early teens. She writes a letter to her mother whilst she is at summer camp and simultaneously ‘began to confide things in her journal that contradicted’ this. Wilson does not take into account that duplicity and secrecy are often a part of the lives of the majority of children as they bridge the awkward gap between child and adulthood. He also states that she had ‘toxic feelings’ from an early age, which he backs up with yet more assumptions. Details like this which are peppered throughout the text show that perhaps Wilson does not have the broadest understanding of his subject or her life. He seems happy to assume, judge and find fault.

From the first page, many numbers have been included at the ends of particular sentences to refer the reader to the notes section at the back of the book. One feels that this is perhaps not the best way in which an autobiography of this scope should be set out, and the opportunity for succinct yet informative footnotes has been missed entirely. The notes do not quote from the text in question either – instead, they merely consist of source references and page numbers. Short of purchasing every other book which Wilson goes on to reference, one does not know exactly what was said by Plath, or whether the way in which the author has interpreted it is true to form. This is a real downside as far as a book like Mad Girl’s Love Song is concerned.

The premise of Mad Girl’s Love Song is wonderful, and the information which it contains is fascinating – hence my two star review – but it has not been presented or written in a manner which best fits it. The book is not overly accessible, and the entirety is a sheer disappointment for any Plath fan. A more sympathetic biographer would surely have made a lot more of this information and would have treated it with the respect which Plath so deserves. Wilson seems to have overstretched himself with assumptions, and has created rather a strange hybrid of fact and fabrication in consequence. It is a far better idea to bypass Mad Girl’s Love Song altogether and curl up with a volume of her letters or journals instead.

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