By Mary Sollosi
October 27, 2020 at 02:22 PM EDT
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Credit: Carolyn Simpson; Knopf

With Red Comet, Heather Clark had a clear mission in mind: to “rewrite the script on Sylvia Plath.” A Harvard- and Oxford-educated scholar, Clark felt that existing biographies “pathologized her too much,” and she wanted to correct the popular image of Plath as a dark figure synonymous with madness and tragedy.

“In reality, she was a bright, ambitious, enormously energetic and brave woman who broke barriers in a male-dominated literary world,” says Clark, who previously published 2011’s poetry-based text The Grief of Influence: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. “She wrote some of the most important poems of the 20th century. That’s the Sylvia Plath that we need to get to know.”

Doing justice to Plath’s legacy meant claiming space for her — literally. Clark had no intention of crossing the thousand-page mark when she began writing, but “she deserves this big, chunky book,” the author says of the final, finely detailed 1,152-page volume, which will be released on the poet’s birthday, Oct. 27. “I want her to take up space on that bookstore shelf. I want a woman writer to have that three-inch spine. Not many of them get it, and if anyone deserves it, it’s Sylvia Plath.”

The era in which Plath built her career — and of which she was both a product and a victim — resembles the present day more than we’d perhaps like to think, and her story resonates now as much as ever. “We have moved on, but I think there are still a lot of barriers to overcome, and there’s still a lot of sexism in the literary world,” says Clark. “She took herself and her literary vocation seriously in a world that often did not do so when it came to women.” And though the author admits to being “constantly intimidated by [Plath’s] brilliance” while researching and writing the biography, she was even more inspired by it: “Her energy actually kind of kept me going, and almost made me rethink what I could achieve.”

Readers won’t find bombshell revelations in Red Comet so much as a thorough retelling of her life in a highly empathetic light. Clark was shocked by what she learned about the “primitive nature” of the psychiatric treatment Plath received in the 1950s, an experience she famously fictionalized in The Bell Jar. She “dug deep into that period” of the poet’s life, interviewing a psychiatrist who had shared an office with Plath’s at the time and scouring the McLean Hospital archives and newsletters from those years. “I believe she suffered lingering trauma from some of these botched shock therapy sessions, and I have questions about the care that she received from her psychiatrist,” Clark says. “I think psychiatry played a bigger role in her ultimate breakdown at the end of her life than we realize.”

Clark also wanted to avoid putting great emphasis, as other scholars and biographers have done, on Plath’s “mythical relationship” with her father Otto (who died when she was eight), identifying her mother Aurelia as “the more pressing influence.” Among the poet’s other relationships explored in the book are those with her benefactor and the “unsung hero” of her life, Olive Higgins Prouty, and the essayist Al Alvarez: “He was giving her a lot of the support that she needed in those last few weeks,” says Clark.

Of course, Red Comet also explores Plath’s complex dynamic with her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, with whom she shared an intense, creatively fruitful partnership before its disastrous dissolution. “Ted Hughes has a very controversial legacy, but just the fact that she found a husband who took her seriously as a poet — I think that was enormously influential,” Clark says. “And then things just started to crumble, and I spent, god, I don’t know, a few hundred pages trying to detail the way things fell apart in quite a tragic way for both of them.”

The author researched and wrote Red Comet over nine years, using letters and diaries, new interviews with about 50 of Plath’s contemporaries, official records, and of course her published writings. Additionally, in early 2020, Clark was among the first to access a “treasure trove of a material” in a newly opened archive at Emory University, all of which had been collected in the 1970s by Harriet Rosenstein for a Plath biography that was never finished. The archive contains dozens of interviews (including with Plath’s psychiatrist) conducted soon after the poet’s death, so “all these memories were really fresh,” Clark says. She had to push her publication date a bit in order to incorporate the new material, but “there’s just so much in there that I think is incredible,” she says. “Every single file that I opened, I was like, ‘Oh my god!’”

Ultimately, it all makes the brilliant artist truly burst off the page in Red Comet, from her youthful creative awakening to her doomed but compelling romance with Hughes and throughout the rest of her short, vibrant life — which is somehow best remembered for how it ended.  “That’s the irony, isn’t it?” Clark says. “She’s so incredibly alive.”

Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath is available now.

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