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Elspeth Barker

Growing Pains

Plath with her mother and brother, 1949

In this addition to the mass of Plath-related writings, Andrew Wilson's avowed purpose is to trace the origins of her instability, using primary sources - unpublished letters, journals and the testimony of friends, many of whom are looking back over sixty, even seventy years. His findings are bolstered by cross-references to her work, and he makes a good case for the power of unpublished early poems and short stories and their intensely autobiographical content. He identifies three 'real, disquieting muses', whose malign influence was apparent from Sylvia's childhood, the first and most important being the personal - her relationships with her parents, friends and, overwhelmingly, with herself.

By the time she was eight she was writing vigorously, had suffered the death of her father and become retrospectively aware of the tension and anger in her parents' marriage. At nine she said she was 'rather disillusioned'; at ten she attempted to cut her throat, according to one friend. 'She was such a happy child,' said another. Time and again people speak of her warmth and exuberance, her big bright smile, her claim to an idyllic childhood, filled with love and laughter. But sadness and doubts came creeping in, with the loss of her belief in 'little beneficent powers', like fairies and Santa Claus, and her growing need to fulfil her mother's aspirations. A relative remarked that Aurelia Plath 'wrote' her daughter, who saw her variously as an extension of herself, an incubus, a mirror opposite and a 'walking vampire'.

At the age of 14 Sylvia compiled a Sylvia scrapbook which would present the self she wanted people to see. 'There was something about herself that fascinated her,' explains Wilson helpfully. Meanwhile her journals revealed a different, angry self, terrified of failure of any kind. She must be best, she must be most admired. At school and college, she made friends whom she recognised as reflections or complements of herself. She demanded total loyalty and devotion from her countless boyfriends but was a positive model of skilled inconstancy. Her need for male admiration led to more anxieties. Might she be taken for a slut? Or would she seem priggish and strait-laced? Her inner self urged sluttishness and dreamed up rape fantasies; she raged at the double standards of contemporary sexual behaviour. 'Being born a woman is my awful tragedy,' she said. Tant pis. Inner despair found external expression in bouts of sinusitis, treated with cocaine nose packs.

Another vast cause of misery was her sense of social inferiority. She lived on the wrong side of Wellesley, in a house so small that she was obliged always to share a bedroom with her mother. That says it all. Despite her parents' perfectly admirable academic backgrounds, she envied and was dazzled by the rich young women at Smith, and the effortless assumptions of her well-connected boyfriends, even the food they ate. Indeed, apart from the crazy brave smile, the only endearing aspect of Sylvia as presented here is her enormous pleasure in food, so memorably expressed in The Bell Jar. Her stint as a guest editor at Mademoiselle reinforced her insecurity, which ran in tandem with the third source of anxiety, her financial desperation. Despite Aurelia's enormous efforts, generous patronage, scholarships, prizes and considerable literary earnings, there was never anything like enough money. Sylvia very seldom kept any of the modest part-time jobs she obtained, being unable to deploy her competitive instincts in such situations. Her alienation consequent to her experiences in Mademoiselle and her failure to be accepted in Frank O'Connor's short-story class at Harvard plunged her into a profound depression that was treated by terrifying applications of ECT. She was left unable to write and suicidal. She survived the ingestion of most of a bottle of sleeping pills, but survival does not mean recovery. Eventually, with magnificent single-mindedness, she completed her studies at Smith and won a Fulbright to Cambridge, where she continued to collect admirers, including the man she married.

Andrew Wilson has researched with great diligence, but he labours his points and is regularly repetitive. The book could be cut by at least a quarter. The writing is awful. He has a bizarre aversion to pronouns which leads him to absurd rephrasing, as though he doesn't trust the reader to remember what they've just been told. We don't need 'the older woman' or 'the best-selling novelist and the novice' or 'the foursome'. What's wrong with 'she' or 'they'? There are frequent dreadful sentences combining two pieces of unrelated information: 'On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes - who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the film company J Arthur Rank - and Plath was instant.' Then there is the recurring, hideous usage of 'like': 'she felt like she wasn't recognised.' People may claim that Sylvia Plath was great fun, but there is no actual evidence of this. Rather, by the end, her craziness and all-consuming, monumental self-obsession seep toxically into the reader's brain. She chose perfection of the work at the terrible cost of the life.

After such stridency, the memoir by Ted Hughes's older brother, Gerald, comes as a blessing. Ted and I is a loving and lucid account of family life, fishing, travels and quiet pleasures, offset by Gerald's wartime experiences in the RAF. Generosity and goodness inform every page. He never met Sylvia. After such stridency Gerald Hughes's memoir of his brother Ted comes as a blessing. This is a loving and lucid account of rural childhood, fishing and birdwatching, travel, eccentricity (the skinning of roadkill badgers, etc) and the ramifications of a large and exceptionally devoted family.

Ted was 10 years younger than Gerald, who introduced him to the aforementioned pleasures from the age of 4, when they began to camp out in the Yorkshire wilds in their Bukta Wanderlust two-man tent, which was still going strong decades later. Their mother made hats, wrote poems and stories and was the prettiest girl at work when wearing her pink blouse. She was also 'always calm, amazingly selfless, marvellously even tempered'. Ted inherited these qualities.

Gerald left school at 14, in 1934, to work in the family clothing business. By the time war broke out he had trained as an engineer and became a flight mechanic in the RAF. He describes his experiences in the Western Desert with a sharp eye for detail - barrage balloons seen from a plane in dense fog like fields of poppies; an airman playing the Warsaw Concerto on a piano found in an abandoned hangar; a Roman facade staring through a landslide. Letters from Ted describing the familiar hills and streams of home sustained him through explosions, deaths, near misses and the monotony of fear. Hawks were the only desert birds.

After the war Gerald emigrated to Australia, but remained in close contact with his family. He was able to make trips back, visiting Ted in Cambridge, London, Devon and Yorkshire over the years. As Ted developed his poetry, so Gerald became an accomplished painter, exulting always in the natural world. Although he never met Sylvia, she wrote to him often and in these pages appears as warm, exuberant and happy. As for Ted, 'Marriage is my medium,' he said. Despite ensuing tragedies, Ted and Gerald continued to spend happy swathes of time together, recreating the exploits of childhood on an ever grander scale. One of many touching photographs shows them on a grassy riverbank; Ted is writing, Gerald sketching. This gentle book celebrates lives lived thoroughly and expressed beautifully.


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Elspeth Barker is a novelist and writer of short stories. Dog Days, a selection of essays and journalism, has recently been published by Black Dog Books.


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