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Rough MagicReview - Rough Magic
A Biography of Sylvia Plath
by Paul Alexander
DaCapo Press, 1991
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D.
Mar 25th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 13)

The figure of Sylvia Plath manages retain an almost cultish power over forty years after her suicide. A Hollywood movie, Sylvia, about her life and relationship with poet Ted Hughes was released in 2003, although without much critical or box-office success. Her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar is still one of the essential works of the modern age chronicling the depression and acute social observation of a highly intelligent young woman. Few if any other twentieth century poets have had so many biographies written of them, and the disagreements over her personality and her place in the history of twentieth century poetry are some of the most notorious disputes within modern literature. For many feminists, she shines as an example of the oppression of female creativity by patriarchal forces, and also of the power of women's artistry despite that oppression. Yet for all that, her fame is mostly among those immersed in high culture, and her name is not mentioned much in the mass media. Most of my students don't know who she is.

Rough Magic, Paul Alexander's biography of Plath is an appealing work because it is sympathetic toward the poet and doesn't assume expertise about her poetry. It chronicles her life methodically, without a great deal of comment on people's actions or speculations about hidden motives. Her family background childhood is covered in a relatively short 68 pages, leaving the remaining 300 or so pages to record the time from her arrival at college to her suicide at the age of 30 and its immediate aftermath. That still leaves an average of only about 25 pages to document each year of those twelve eventful years. Those familiar with The Bell Jar, which depicts just a year or so of her life, may well feel that the biography provides no more than a sketch of highlights in comparison to the detail of the first-person account. Indeed, the task of biography is a challenge: deciding which episodes to list, and which to omit, and choosing what commentary or framework to give those episodes. Alexander tends towards a minimal approach at least in his editorializing, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions or speculations.

Alexander's restraint is apparent, for example, in his depiction of Plath's mental health and her understanding of her depression. In the summer of 1953, at the age of twenty, she was becoming increasingly depressed, and she would eventually commit an almost-successful act of suicide. She entertained ideas of killing herself for a considerable period, and was treated with electro-shock, but this did not seem to help. She was unable to sleep, and this was surely a factor in her worsening mental state. She was uncommunicative about her feelings and took great efforts to hide herself so she would not be discovered when she took her overdose. Alexander explains all this and more, but nevertheless her action remains mysterious. We get very little sense what this episode in her life meant to her from his account, despite the fact that she refers to her first suicide attempt several times in her poems. Alexander is similarly reticent is his portrayal of Path's marriage to Ted Hughes and her previous relationships, and indeed, her relationship with her poetry. He provides plenty of information, but it is largely left to the reader to interpret.

This feature of the biography is not necessarily a deficit, and might even be seen as an asset by some readers, especially in light of the more obviously partisan accounts by other biographers. Given the refusal of those in control of the Plath estate to allow him to quote from her poetry and other writing, his ability to integrate her life with her work is severely curtailed, and the overall effect is to leave the reader with a narrative of the bare facts without much to hold them together. Rough Magic is an excellent biography, but it may well leave one wanting to get other perspectives.

 

Links:

        Review of The Bell Jar

        Review of Sylvia Plath: Voice of the Poet

        Review of Sylvia Plath Reads

 

2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.


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