Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4, 11-15 February 2013
This Book of the Week adaptation of Andrew Wilson's new biography of Syvia Plath's early life began and ended with her encounter at Cambridge with the poet Ted Hughes. The couple enjoyed a whirlwind romance and married soon afterwards, forcing Sylvia to give up her previous boyfriends and commit herself to a man whom she found quite simply irresistible.
In terms of what we found out about Plath's early life, however, perhaps Hughes represented something more - a father-figure, a protector, or someone who could invest her life with a sense of stability. Born to an immigrant family in 1932, Sylvia Plath was profoundly affected by her father's early death, when she was only eight years old. Although her mother Aurelia laboured tirelessly to bring up the family, Sylvia was plagued with depression, as well as sense of her own inadequacy - in spite of a glittering academic career festooned with awards.
This was the major issue behind Wilson's biography: how could such a brilliant woman, whose poems were endorsed by major journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, be affected by depressions so great that she frequently contemplated suicide? Plath's university career at Smith College was interrupted by a long spell at a mental institution; after six month she was pronounced 'cured,' but Wilson suggested that this was only superficial. Throughout her short life Plath endured similar bouts of depression; no one, it seemed, could help her deal with them.
The other major theme running through the biography was Plath's struggles with the constraints imposed on women in America in the early 1950s. Whereas men were allowed a limited amount of freedom of self-expresion, it seemed that women had no opportunity to contemplate their sexualities; they were expected to conform to certain pre-determined roles as the submissive girlfriend (and subsequently the dutiful wife). Plath had her fair share of relationships, but never experienced any satisfaction until she met Yale graduate Richard Sassoon, whose bohemian lifestyle and uninhibited view of sex appealed to her.
Wilson argued that Plath's instability could be traced back to her early life - which might perhaps exonerate Ted Hughes somewhat as one of the major causes of her suicide. On the other hand his text showed how difficult it was for any woman - especially someone trying to develop her personality through writing - to survive in the patriarchal world of 1950s America. Read by Hayley Atwell, the producer of this entertaining abridgment was Emma Harding.