The first meeting between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, with its unsettling mixture of moony-eyed infatuation and sexual violence, could have been scripted by David Lynch.
Plath described the incident — which occurred on Feb. 25, 1956 — in her diary. Stumbling drunkenly into a Cambridge party, she saw a “big, dark, hunky boy.” Within minutes of introducing himself, he pulled her into an empty room, slammed the door and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth” with such fury her earrings came unclipped. When he lowered to kiss her neck, she bit him on the cheek, drawing blood.
Most studies of Plath have focused on this moment’s aftermath, during which she wrote her novel, “The Bell Jar,” and the dazzling, sinister, tormented, enraptured poems constituting “Ariel.” Reversing this trend, Andrew Wilson examines Plath’s life before Hughes. Wilson draws on newly available archives, interviews with Plath’s friends and lovers, as well as the poet’s own writings to investigate how the “personal, economic, and societal factors” of her earlier years were “sources of her mental instabilities.”
Before meeting Hughes, for instance, Plath, an avid dater, struggled with the double standard concerning sex, wondering why men could enjoy what she was denied. Finances constrained Plath, too. After her father died, her mother had a difficult time supporting the family. Plath worried over how she would pay for college and endured shame when socializing with wealthier peers.
Wilson is insightful on Plath’s tormented attempts to forge an identity in this oppressive environment. She felt torn in two, between convention and rebellion. Without a stable ego, she often performed more than lived, turning her life into accomplished autobiographical fiction (some of which she published at a young age). But the mask hid devouring anguish. She tried suicide in 1953.
Wilson fashions riveting scenes: Plath admires her father, a biologist, for being able to “hold a bee in his hand, close his fist, and not be stung”; from a car, she hears mental patients screaming and calls the experience “terrifying,” “holy”; at a formal luncheon in New York, she greedily consumes, to honor her “deviant spirit,” a bowl of caviar meant for the whole table.
There are tedious patches, however, like when Wilson gives detailed accounts of Plath’s many schoolgirl crushes or her summer camp activities. This information doesn’t deepen understanding of Plath, nor do Wilson’s rather superficial applications of Freud to her profoundly complicated psyche.
Still, on the whole, Wilson’s biography is valuable, even if it becomes most interesting as it nears the cataclysmic verse following her meeting with Hughes. So much feels commonplace beside those harrowing raptures.
Eric G. Wilson is author of “Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away” and “Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy.”