Book Reviews

Red Comet – The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark

Sylvia Plath lived her short life at break-neck, ravenous speed – she was a star student who went from Smith College to a nervous breakdown to Cambridge University as a Fulbright Scholar, where she met her future husband, the poet Ted Hughes, then back to the USA and then to Devon and London where she had two children in quick succession, writing all the time.

She acted as Hughes’ agent and more or less launched his writing career, alongside her own, by pushing him to submit his work. By the time their second child was four months old he had left her. Heartbroken, she rose at four every morning to write the poems in Ariel that would make her name.

A year later, at the end of a bitterly cold winter, she took her own life in their London flat while their children slept upstairs. As she died, the Beatles were arriving in the studio across Regent’s Park to record their first album. The Sixties were about to begin – a time that ambitious women like her finally broke free. She just missed out. It’s a book about her early life, her writing genius and the pain felt by those left behind.

It’s also a book about marriage in the 1950s and post-war England and motherhood and creativity and money. But the one thing that I think makes it so useful to writers is to read about her working habits. She journaled constantly – jotted notes about people, often very cutting, observations, hundreds of letters. She wrote short stories tailored to the style of the ladies’ magazines she was trying to appeal to. She wrote news stories for local papers and she did some editing. She sent poems out constantly – most were rejected. As soon as they came back, she sent them on to the next magazine or publisher on her list. She wrote The Bell Jar, of course, which was based on her own experience of having a breakdown and being given electric shock treatment in the USA, and she was working on yet another novel when she died. 

I didn’t realise that at the time of her death she was relatively unknown, and much of her fame arrived later. All of the poems that appeared in Ariel – some of the finest poems written in the 20th century, according to her biographer, Heather Clark – were rejected by The New Yorker.

At the end of her life, she was left in Devon with two very young children while Hughes was working up in London, having left his family behind to pursue fame and women. He had just sat down to a blazing fire and his writing when he received the call that she had died. From that point onwards he raised their two children, and at the very end of his life he published Birthday Letters, as a tribute to Plath and a setting out of his side of the story for their two children.

I have always loved The Bell Jar and her poetry, as well as his, and so found this book both riveting and moving. An incredible biography and a vivid portrait of an extraordinary poet and writer.