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Mad Girl's Love Song by Andrew Wilson – review

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A generous biography that focuses on Sylvia Plath's writing and relationships before she met Ted Hughes

In his introduction to Sylvia Plath's Collected Poems, Ted Hughes identifies 1956 as the year his late wife left behind her juvenilia and embarked on her defining work. As Andrew Wilson quietly points out, this was also the year the couple had their first notorious cheek-biting encounter in Oxford. Plath's life has been overshadowed by the looming mythology of her marriage but Wilson switches the focus to her writing and relationships in the pre-Hughes era. In the frequently partisan Sylvia v Ted world of Plath studies, this book feels generous, allowing the poet her own space and agency as well as going some way to indicate the limits of her future husband's culpability. Wilson is particularly fascinated by Plath's engagement with the restrictive 1950s dating culture, analysing the documentation of her numerous entanglements – the louche beatnik penpal; the uptight medical student; her penultimate great love Richard Sassoon – to show how contemporary sexual hypocrisy sparked much of her anger and confusion. "I think I made you up inside my head," she wrote in her villanelle "Mad Girl's Love Song": here, Wilson shows the young poet piecing herself together with similar imaginative force.


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