16 December 2020

Amy C. Rea Reviews Heather Clark's Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath

Here’s a thing about me: I’m a voracious reader, but very rarely have a physically based emotional response to something I’m reading. I don’t laugh out loud, I don’t cry, both of which I do when watching movies. It’s not that I don’t find things funny or sad when I read, but apparently I need more of a visual cue.

So it’s telling that when I got to the end of Dr. Heather Clark’s new biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, I cried. It’s not as if I didn’t know how the story ended. But the level of detail and analysis Clark brings to her study of Plath is so detailed, and her examination of those brutal last weeks so deeply explored, that it broke my heart.

Clark has done some tremendously important and much-needed work with this biography. It would be remiss of me not to note the aid she received from Peter K. Steinberg and the work he did compiling Plath’s Letters. Clark clearly spent a great deal of time studying these source materials, as well as others that were not available to other biographers. There’s meticulous research for endless small pieces of information that contribute to the bigger picture. She has countless quotes from people who knew Plath at every stage of life, including a haunting set of discussions of their reactions to her death.

Another aspect of the book that is so valuable is the careful line Clark keeps to in terms of presenting information with as little bias as possible. Presumably someone who has made the commitment of years and toil to write a book like this has interest and respect for the subject, and certainly Clark approaches Plath from a place of respect. But she doesn’t trip into being an apologist, or, as some biographies have done, canonize Plath while demonizing anyone who didn’t acknowledge that sainthood.

In fact, some of the most remarkable work in this book comes around her treatment of Plath’s mother, Aurelia Plath, and Plath’s husband, Ted Hughes. Biographers have long pointed to Plath being obsessed with the death of her father when she was young as a root of her mental illness. But Clark explores the relationship Plath had with her mother, the difficulties it may have caused, and yet also how Plath herself may have unfairly maligned her mother at times. She points to popular books of the time that were quick to blame mothers for everything wrong with children and how mothers became an easy target. At the same time, Clark notes that Aurelia’s favorite book was Little Women—a book famous for its borderline preachiness and constant recommendations of looking for silver linings and reminding people that the birds still go tweet tweet—and that she was furious that Plath died intestate, leaving her work in Ted’s hands.

Which, of course, is another can of worms altogether. But following his conversations and letters around Plath and her work, it seems likely that we’re fortunate Plath did not name her mother as her literary executor—while Hughes certainly censored things, in the end, a lot of things that were vilifying of him were published, because he understood their worth. Clark is very clear about Hughes’ complexities and failings—she’s not suggesting that his behavior in the last year of Plath’s life was beyond reproach. But neither does she suggest that Plath was also beyond reproach. They were living, breathing, extremely complex people, reacting to situations, politics, and the times they lived in in complex, often unpredictable ways.

Clark examines Plath’s literary output with an eye to how early work predicted later success. She treats Plath’s early works, as well as her prose, with respect and thoughtful commentary. In doing so, she makes it clear that Plath may have had breakthroughs once her life with Ted began, but by no means should that early work be ignored or discounted.

Another valuable aspect of the book is her close examination of the time Plath spent at McLean, and the role of Dr. Beuscher. Clark says she was influenced by Hermione Lee’s foundational biography of Virginia Woolf, in which Lee did a deep dive into the various medications and treatments Woolf received and how we view those today. Clark in turn uncovered the fact that while McLean became a topnotch mental health facility, it wasn’t there yet during the time Plath spent there. Dr. Beuscher herself was at the very beginning of her career, and later admitted that she might not have used the best protocols in her treatment of Plath.

As new resources continue to be discovered, it seems likely that scholarly research and writing will continue. But Red Comet moves us far ahead of where we’ve been in terms of learning about Plath and her work. Yes, it’s a long book—and yet after hearing Clark talk on a Zoom event about how much longer the early drafts were, I’d love to see what was left out.

1 comment :

AutumninLondon said...

Thank you so much for sharing this. I am a huge fan of Sylvia Plath and I will treat myself to this book. It's a pleasure to read your blog, btw.

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