Normally when I'm writing a review I start with either the blurb from the book or my own synopsis. In this case that's a bit redundant as the title really says it all; Life Before Ted - the story of Sylvia Plath's childhood, adolescence and college years up to her fateful meeting with Ted Hughes.
Now The Mole suggested that at this point I add a short bio of Plath , saying " the wife of Ted Hughes the poet laureate - and a writer herself" which made me wonder if this is how she's generally seen; firstly as the wife of someone famous with an afterthought about her own work and a sly inference that she only wrote because her husband did. If so, then a lot of people will find this book an eye-opener as it concentrates not only on her early life but on the hundreds of poems that she wrote before meeting Hughes. I must admit that although I 'discovered' Plath as a poet before Hughes, I still only had the most basic outline idea of her life - and a lot of that was based on her largely autobiographical novel The Bell Jar.
This account starts rather slowly with family history and the lives of Sylvia's parents Otto and Aurelia. Although her childhood circumstances undoubtedly influenced Plath, the narration at this point just seems like a stringing together of facts. It isn't till she leaves home for Smith College, that Plath really seems to take shape as a person - and what a contradictory person she was; a fun-loving high achiever, obsessed with her work but constantly out dating a string of boyfriends; mixing with wealthy friends but having to rely on scholarships and her own writing to fund her way through college. All these aspects fuelled and shaped her.
Wilson has encouraged never previously interviewed friends and lovers from these early years to speak out about the Sylvia they knew but I sometimes felt there were questions, possibly less discrete ones, that I'd have loved to have asked. He also draws on unpublished letters and poems (the title comes from one of them) to shed light on Plath's emotional and artistic development and it's rather a shame that at least some of them couldn't have been quoted. Despite these quibbles, Mad Girl's Love Song is a most fascinating book whether you just want to know more about Plath's life or are looking for influences in the development of her work.
I'm generally inclined to think that the writing matters more than the personal details of an author's life but as I read this book it became apparent that for Plath the two were intricately and inextricably mixed.
Maryom's review - 4.5 stars
Publisher - Simon & Schuster
Genre - non-fiction, biography,
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