In “Red Comet,” biographer Heather Clark describes Sylvia Plath facing her husband Ted Hughes’s abandonment with a poem by British writer Stevie Smith taped above the desk. She is writing the groundbreaking poems of “Ariel.” It is just months before her suicide. The Smith poem ends, “Great is Truth and will prevail in a bit.”
Plath’s readers have now waited almost 60 years (more than “a bit”) for more of that Truth, plowing through previous biographies colored by the misogyny of the times, sensationalism around her death, or the early women’s movement’s fanatical search for a face. In “Red Comet,” her massive, insightful new Plath biography, Heather Clark seeks an objective balance those earlier books were missing.
The book follows Plath from childhood in Massachusetts to her now infamous death at 30 by her own hand while a young single mother in England. Charting a trajectory characterized by promise and excellence blunted at every turn — this atmosphere would be what Plath would spend her lifetime trying to rise above — Clark writes of Plath’s journey to become one of the most brilliant writers of her generation. In its thousand-page arc, the book chronicles Plath’s early suicide attempt, high school publications in Seventeen, an internship at Mademoiselle, and a Fulbright to England; her courtship and marriage to poet Ted Hughes and the complications wrought by Hughes’s rise to fame and frequent affairs; Plath’s canny literary ambition, creation, and re-creation of the life and art she would fight for until her death.
Plath’s story begins in the outskirts of Boston, first in Winthrop, then to her mother Aurelia Plath’s rearing of two children alone in Wellesley. It was in Wellesley that Plath’s dreams grew until adulthood, in an era when women’s aspirations were routinely squashed, evidenced in her Smith commencement speech (delivered by Adlai Stevenson) that recommended graduates “aspire to be superlative mothers and housewives.”
Plath’s earliest memories of childhood in Winthrop would be the beginning of “an infatuation with the sea that would become a touchstone.” Clark later speculates on Hughes’s choice of Heptonstall for Plath’s burial: “he remembered, too, Sylvia’s deep love of the moors — the only landscape that rivaled, for her, the sea.”
Bookended with family history, beginning with a portrayal of Plath’s father, Otto, and the commitment of his mother to an insane asylum in 1919, and ending with the suicide of Plath’s son, Nicholas Hughes, in 2009, “Red Comet” suggests the biology of her mental illness. Clark also captures the frenetic pace of Plath’s life, from the speed with which she tackled her Smith courseload to her whirlwind courtship with and marriage to Hughes, to the dizzying dance of her correspondences (particularly with her mother and her benefactress, Olive Prouty). A clear light shines on Plath’s biting wit, even in jottings from her lowest moments (renaming Hughes’s lover Assia Wevill “Weavy [Expletive]” in a letter to her psychiatrist). The electric images and honed line breaks of Plath’s poetry surface more frequently toward the end of “Red Comet,” with Clark’s close commentary and nods to the work’s indebtedness to the literary influences of the day, including Anne Sexton and others whom Plath met when auditing Robert Lowell’s workshop at Boston University.
The interplay at work in the Plath/Hughes literary partnership, which Clark wrote about in her earlier “The Grief of Influence,” is also captured here — particularly how the poems of “Ariel” and Hughes’s “Birthday Letters” attempt to speak to one another. In “Red Comet,” their relationship comes midway through the book, still painfully complex. While not equal, the marriage was unconventional — he clearly championed her work (one manifestation of his regard was to ensure she had some time to write, a freedom that otherwise would have unquestionably been his alone; others observed his involvement with his children during the marriage “at a time when men didn’t change nappies”). Plath’s feminist followers have demonized Hughes, but Clark notes she had found the way to turn the tables: with her death, Hughes “inherited a mother’s responsibilities, and a mother’s lack of freedom, at exactly the moment he had been plotting his escape.”
Plath’s first book of poems, “The Colossus,” and her novel, “The Bell Jar,” were published to little fanfare near the end of her life. She came blazing into literary consciousness posthumously with Hughes’s publication of “Ariel,” whose poems would raise her to iconic status (alongside the growing acclaim for “The Bell Jar”) both as a writer and a proto-feminist. An important article by critic/friend Al Alvarez in The Observer also brought acclaim. Hughes and Alvarez were the men Plath clung to in life, as well, both for love and for “social capital,” and the ones who, in her mind that last winter, “deserted” her.
“Red Comet” is a critical examination of what it means to be a female artist, to suffer from depression, and to be alone, as it is revelatory about this one particular life and the art that came from it. The red comet (an image from her poem “Stings”) is an apt metaphor for Plath, but more interesting is Clark’s focus on Plath’s internalization of James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and a sense of “Icarian lust.” Clark argues this guiding principle in “The Bell Jar” also captures the tragedy of her ending. In the late poems, while Plath’s comet rides across the page: “Now she is flying/More terrible than she ever was. …/Over the engine that killed her —,” her personal life in fact resembles the Icarus myth. Clark writes: “Plath spread her wings over and over, at a time when women were not supposed to fly.”
RED COMET: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath
By Heather Clark
Knopf, 1,152 pp., $40