My tube reading this week has been the biography of Sylvia Plath (Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath, Anne Stevenson, Penguin).
Apart from causing a few people to throw me curious glances –yes, I know it’s fairly heavy for 8am in the rain, but please– it has shed some light on a writer that I clearly knew far less about than I thought.
Currently I’m in 1956, and our Sylv is a graduate student at Cambridge. She is spending most of her time flitting off to Paris for trysts, leading on a ridiculous amount of men, and having far more sex than I could ever have expected from a writer who is most famous (and I don’t mean to disregard her work; the facts are unfortunate) for her all-encompassing depression.
In general, she could not be pegged as,
a) a recluse
b) socially awkward
which are three things that I definitely considered her to be, before I started reading Stevenson’s book.
There are clearly a lot of misconceptions flying around about Sylvia. But she certainly isn’t the only one who has been obscured over the years.
According to the book, when Sylvia first met Ted Hughes she yelled at him before biting his face (steady on, love). From this point on she seems determined to turn him into a brooding, dangerous, Heathcliff-type character. It is the impression I always had of him, so maybe Sylvia succeeded. It is at odds with how his Cambridge friends saw him, though – gentle and kind are the words I seem to remember Stevenson using.
It is worth noting, if you weren’t already aware, that Ted Hughes was born in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – a village way up in the hills, just a mere stone’s throw from the Brontes’ home at Howarth. It is, in my entirely unbiased, Yorkshire-bred opinion, a place everyone should visit for its literary associations. Was (and is) this location part of the reason why Ted Hughes has been so depicted, by Sylvia and by history? I’d hazard a guess at, um, yes. In reality, it doesn’t appear that he was this person at all.
I think, maybe, that Sylvia Plath was determined to play the tragic heroine all along. Controversial? Possibly. It is unlikely, of course, that her phenomenally bright, utterly unstable mind will ever be fully understood – although biographers like Stevenson make a decent attempt.
So, I’m learning a lot about Sylvia, and about Ted. Bitter Fame is throwing up a whole heap of surprises. Slap on the wrist, history. You have misrepresented them both.