‘Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath’ Heather Clark. Review by Emma Lee

Reviewed ByEmma Lee
Another Plath biography, but is this one worth the cover price?

‘Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath’ Heather Clark

Jonathan Cape

ISBN 978-1-787-33253-0

I did wonder if I had the stamina for another Plath biography, so my first question was what does this offer that hasn’t already been covered? Clark offers new material: the newly discovered letters to her psychiatrist, unpublished diaries and creative work and family history plus material from the Harriet Rosenstein archive at Emory. Many previous biographies have also fallen into the rabbit hole of seeing Plath through the lens of her death as if everything she did was governed by the fact she would extinguish her own life, most notably in the biopic ‘Sylvia’ (2003; directed by Christine Jeffs from John Brownlow’s script).

Clark splits her biography into three parts: childhood to Smith college, the move to England and marriage and back to America, and finally motherhood. She starts by looking at Plath’s parents. ‘Her great-grandfather, Johann Plath, was an illiterate farmer, but his grandson, Otto, would eventually become a Harvard-educated professor, and his great-granddaughter a trailblazing poet and novelist. Sylvia’s “perfectionism,” often derided as neurotic or pathological, needs to be understood within the historical and sociological context of the American immigrant experience, which framed her life.’  

Clark observes Aurelia, Plath’s mother, retreated into books, but used children as an excuse for ducking a literary career in favour of stability. Marriage was a disappointment. Aurelia had hoped for dinner parties and a house full of students and staff. Instead she had to allow Otto’s papers to take over the dinner table. Aurelia was a ‘hovering shadow of dreams deferred’. When the family, Aurelia, Sylvia and her brother Warren, moved, after Otto’s death, to live in a house with Aurelia’s parents, Sylvia had to share a bedroom with her mother until she left home. 

The story then becomes familiar to those who have read biographies of Plath: her scholarship to Smith college, a prestigious internship at Mademoiselle magazine which, combined with the exhaustion she’d felt at Smith, left her depressed. Plath was given poorly administered ECT which led her to take an overdose of sleeping pills and hide in the crawlspace beneath the family home. Plath was found, hospitalised but returned to Smith to graduate and win a Fulbright scholarship to study at Newnham College Cambridge, where in 1956, she met and married Ted Hughes, initially kept secret because they feared she would lose her scholarship. The newly-weds returned to America to teach and establish themselves as writers but Plath found teaching left her drained and didn’t enable her to write. Her students thought differently – an example of a gap between how Plath perceived herself and how others saw her. After a trip across the States and a spell at a writers’ retreat at Yaddo, Plath and Hughes returned to England and settled in London where their daughter Frieda was born in 1960, the same year Plath’s first poetry collection ‘The Colossus’ was published. The couple bought Court Green in Devon, and Nicholas was born in January 1962. Hughes began an affair with Assia Wevill, which Plath suspected but had confirmation when Assia phoned Court Green in July 1962. To make matters worse, Aurelia was staying. She returned to America at the end of the summer. Hughes moved out. Left with a baby and toddler, Plath found a nanny and wrote most of the poems that became ‘Ariel’ in October. She also had plans to move back to London. ‘The Bell Jar,’ her novel, was finished and published under a pseudonym. Unfortunately, Plath’s move back to London in January 1963 coincided with one of the worst winters on record with snow, frozen pipes and power cuts plus her bronchial infection presenting challenges. Aware her depression was returning, disappointed that ‘The Bell Jar’ would not be published in America in her lifetime, a complicated relationship with Hughes – unusually for the time, she allowed him to see their children which meant he was still part of her life that made it difficult for her move on – plus medical ignorance about the cocktail of anti-depressants, sleeping pills and medicine she was taking for her chest infection, and fears of being returned to hospital conspired for her to take her life, but ensure her children would survive. Clark’s description of Plath’s final days puts Plath’s fear of hospitalisation front and centre.

Clark describes Plath’s college years as a whirl of dates and pressure to work. Double standards and 1950s’ values plagued her teenage years. Despite Clark’s insistence that ‘The Bell Jar’ is fiction, she spends most of her time drawing parallels between the book and Plath’s life. Clark is at pains to point out that Aurelia had little say in her daughter’s treatment: the paternalistic psychiatry system and 1950s’ sexism were against her. On Plath’s travel to Cambridge, Clark observes, ‘Home was the place she tried to die, where everyone knew of her problems, and where her brilliance would always be shadowed by her attempted suicide. She felt that a new life abroad, away from Aurelia’s hovering, would allow her to shed her old self.’ Cambridge soon becomes a list of men dated, just like her time at Smith, Clark seems to overlook that dating was expected behaviour and it was only through dates that Plath would have a social life. Plath kept in touch with Beuscher, her psychiatrist at McLean, although she was no longer a patient. It was Beuscher who encouraged Plath to see the source of her depression as her mother’s living vicariously through her. Plath wrote, that she ‘would not burden my own children with the “lethal deluge of frustrated love which will lay down its life if it can live through the loved one, on the loved one like a hideous parasite”.’ Clark keeps referring to the ‘momism’ and ‘psychiatric biases of the day’ and doesn’t attempt to delve further into the mother/daughter relationship. 

Clark notes that Plath didn’t take advantage of Hughes’ connections at Faber, but submitted her manuscript to Heinemann after several unsuccessful attempts to get it published in America. During its year of publication, Hughes got to dine with T S Eliot. Poet Ruth Fanlight observed ‘And of course you feel proud, but more importantly and much more onerously, “Where do I fit into this?”’ The photographs from the dinner show an all-male cast, a reminder of the sexist dismissal of women poets. In reviewing ‘The Colossus’, Alvarez made it sound as if Plath’s success was based on her ability to write like a man. 

One of the most shocking incidents in the discovery of the 14 letters Plath wrote to Beuscher happened around the time Plath miscarried on 6 February 1961, her second pregnancy. She wrote to Beuscher that Hughes had ‘beat me up physically’ a couple of days before. It must be noted Plath refers to it as an aberration and Clark accepts this. Hughes stepped up when Plath had her appendix removed, caring for Frieda while his wife recuperated. Unusually for the time, he was a hands-on father and doted on Frieda.

Clark comments Aurelia’s ‘largesse represented another form of obligation’ and defends Aurelia, ‘She had seen her daughter’s limp body crouched in a basement crawlspace.’ In autumn 1962, Aurelia telegrammed Winifred Davis (the midwife present at Nick’s birth) to find Plath a nanny. Plath responded with an angry letter telling her mother to back off. The consequences of Aurelia’s interference could mess up the divorce settlement. Later, Aurelia ‘sent her own checkbook… Sylvia returned the checkbook, refusing the burden of obligation.’ Clark notes that Hughes made two payments to Plath in December and January for their children. Clark is careful to clarify the sources of Plath’s money. Plath had kept open an American bank account for payment of money earnt through American publications and was reliant on Aurelia being administrator, i.e. Sylvia was asking for her own money to be sent. Ever since her early letters home from summer camps where she detailed not just the dollars but also every cent she spent, Plath had been conscious of and careful about money. 

Clark confirms Plath did have a brief affair with Alvarez, literary critic at ‘The Observer’ newspaper. Alvarez refused to confirm their affair to Olwyn Hughes who later asked Elaine Feinstein to remove reference to the Plath/Alvarez affair in her biography of Ted Hughes. 

During Plath’s final days, Clark observes, ‘As long as he [Hughes] remained in her orbit, she felt she would not be able to take control of her life again’. Hughes had talked of a reconciliation with Plath in the summer, i.e. after the outcome of Assia’s pregnancy – Hughes couldn’t be sure it was his, Assia was still with David. Assia terminated her pregnancy in March. It’s not known if Sylvia knew of Assia’s pregnancy. Clark steps back from speculation on Plath’s last days, merely recording who Plath spoke to and what she did. 

Hughes was surprised by the arrival of Plath’s brother Warren and wife Maggie after Sylvia’s death, ‘The Plaths came over to salvage some sort of sustenance for Mrs Plath’s future – feed Nick and Frieda to her.’ The children stayed with their father.

A battle began over Plath’s legacy. Without a will and still married, Hughes became her literary executor. He allowed an American publication of ‘The Bell Jar’, thinking to create a fund for Frieda and Nick. Aurelia was dismayed. Hughes (who held copyright) allowed Aurelia to publish ‘Letters Home’. However, the heavily edited letters omitted mention of her first suicide attempt in 1953, and Hughes felt it was a mistake. He altered the order of the poems Plath left for her final poetry collection, ‘Ariel’ to fit in the final poems she’d not added to her manuscript. Olwyn battled biographers to protect her brother’s reputation. 

During her lifetime, American publishers rejected ‘The Bell Jar’. Clark records, ‘They did not absorb the prescient criticisms of Cold War America, the sympathy for outsiders or the take down of traditional femininity.’ Yet ‘The Bell Jar’ ‘remains one of the most widely read American novels of the twentieth century.’ Clark relishes the ability to generously quote from and comment on Plath’s work, something denied earlier biographers. She refuses to take sides: showing that Plath’s relationship with Hughes was mutually beneficial: she got him published, her freed her to find her own voice until that summer at Court Green where Plath was dealing with the practicalities of raising a young family and Hughes felt constrained, suffering writers’ block. ‘Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath’ draws a portrait of a talented writer with the ambition, that would not have been scorned in a man, to achieve and push herself over the obstacles of sexism, who became overwhelmed by her demon of depression, which Clark suggests was part genetic legacy, part Aurelia’s ‘hovering’. To readers who know Plath’s talent and background, it consolidates their knowledge. To readers unaware of Plath’s background, it’s a thorough, balanced biography that demonstrates literature’s loss. 

Emma Lee