Bitter Fame

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In the preface to Sylvia Plath: A Biography (1987), Linda Wagner-Martin explains the difficulty that she had in dealing with Sylvia Plath’s estate. In particular, she mentions Olwyn Hughes, who demanded revisions that would have fundamentally altered Wagner-Martin’s biography. Several friends of Plath and Hughes would not speak to Wagner-Martin. Now they have not only assisted Anne Stevenson but also included their own vivid reminiscences as appendices to her biography. Indeed, Olwyn Hughes’s contribution is so great that Stevenson calls their collaboration “almost a work of dual authorship.”

Both the dust-jacket blurb of Stevenson’s biography and her preface imply that the truthful story of Sylvia Plath is being told for the first time. While there is no question that Stevenson’s book provides a new view of Plath, it does not supersede Wagner-Martin’s book, nor should it be regarded as the definitive biography. In the case of a protean figure such as Plath, a poet who had many sides and moods and a highly subjective imagination which turned nearly everything into the story of herself, there can be no such thing as “the truth” as told to a biographer. For all her parade of Plath insiders, Stevenson cannot produce the thoughts of the one source, Ted Hughes, who might have made her biography definitive. Hughes checked her text for errors of fact, but he did not consent to an interview, and Stevenson has no privileged view of his feelings. Like Wagner-Martin, she must speculate, and rely on the testimony of others. If Wagner-Martin labored under a disadvantage by not being able to penetrate the inner circle of Plath and Hughes, Stevenson is equally suspect for having done so, since she adopts wholeheartedly their points of view.

With these reservations firmly in mind, however, it must be said that Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath is a penetrating psychological study, well documented and closely reasoned. By the end of the biography, Stevenson has amply demonstrated both the power of Plath’s poetry and her inexorable drive to kill herself. In the biographer’s narrative, the work and the life are inextricable. At a very young age, Plath exhibits remarkable literary ability, using her gift of seemingly total recall to create startling images and metaphors. She is a romantic idealist, finding a significance for herself in everything that happens to her and sealing up memories in the tomb of her imagination. This makes for extraordinarily vivid writing but also for a sensibility that dwells on the past and that cannot let go of anything. One of her adolescent male correspondents once accused her of writing to him merely for the sake of her own ego—an ego that was always literary, Stevenson implies, turning everything into an investigation of itself

When Otto Plath died, Sylvia was not allowed to mourn him. Her mother thought to shield her from the trauma of a funeral, but the result was that Sylvia never got over her father’s death. In fact, she irrationally thought of him as abandoning her and breaking the bond that had made her feel secure and special. Aurelia Plath seems to have done everything possible to attend to her precocious, high-strung child, and Sylvia remained close to her mother. Yet the family harmony was destroyed by Otto Plath’s death, with Sylvia nursing a grudge against her mother that she never quite understood. Stevenson suggests that Plath associated her mother’s high expectations for her with “all editors, all readers, all persons in a position to accept or reject her.” It came as a momentary revelation and a relief to Plath when her psychiatrist gave her permission to hate her mother. The closeness between Aurelia and Sylvia had become so stifling that Sylvia had difficulty making any decision that she could not immediately justify to Aurelia—often in long, falsely optimistic and loving letters.

At an early age, Sylvia was determined to be both a commercial success as a writer of magazine fiction and a great poet. She was brash and ambitious, and she tended to exploit her relationships for what they could do for her. Stevenson, an Englishwoman, attributes Plath’s rather vulgar behavior at the University of Cambridge (after her graduation from Smith) as indicative of her “archetypal American gusto.” Plath was a little loud for the English. Similarly, Stevenson does not like the way Plath apparently condescended to Hughes’s parents, calling them “dear, simple Yorkshire folk,” while herself expressing a simple hope in the future that Stevenson terms “childlike, American to the core.”

It never occurs to Stevenson to think how uncomfortable Plath must have been in the English climate; instead she dwells on how Plath’s aggressive pursuit of Ted Hughes (a rising young poet) unnerved his friends. It was rather frightening, Stevenson reports, to see how viciously Plath...

(The entire section is 2007 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

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London Review of Books. XI, October 26, 1989, p.28.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 20, 1989, p.3.

The New Republic. CCI, November 6, 1989, p.98.

The New York Review of Books. XXXVI, September 28, 1989, p.34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, August 27, 1989, p.11.

Newsweek. CXIV, August 28, 1989, p.60.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, June 23, 1989, p.44.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1989, p.1179.

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