Clark, a professor of poetry at the University of Huddersfield, is freed by writing years after most of the main characters have died, and by her unfettered access to the Plath estate. She declares her intention to resist the portrayals of Plath as “neither fragile ingénue nor femme fatale” and to focus on the work of a “highly disciplined craftswoman”. Still, most of new material Red Comet promises is non-literary: 14 unpublished letters from Plath to her psychiatrist in the run-up to her abandonment by Hughes, evidence revealing a family history of mental illness, and details from police, court and hospital records.
This is the first full biography to draw on all Plath’s surviving letters and to incorporate interview material from Harriet Rosenstein’s unfinished 1970s biography. Clark is strong on the poetry and on the mutuality of the couple’s artistic collaboration. At times she is a little too meticulously granular, too reluctant to give us her own take.
Red Comet is a mighty achievement. Clark is compassionate, clear-eyed, sceptical. Each chapter reads with the ease of a novel. You feel the smart of every rejection letter, share Plath’s elation in each published poem, read the recreation of her first suicide attempt with a tightening chest and reel through the night when she met Ted Hughes with drunken exultance. I couldn’t put it down; I could hardly pick it up. The book is a whopper: 1,152 pages, 971 without notes.
Careful to set down the facts without the rancour of earlier feminists and to preserve as fully as possible the complexity of the situation, Clark quotes Hughes’s cruel words that cut through the assurance of Plath’s public carapace: her looks and ways in bed were inferior, he told his wife, to those of his mistress, Assia Wevill. Plath reports that when he left her and their two children, it occurred to him that she might conveniently kill herself. She alleged earlier domestic violence resulting in a miscarriage. In the latter half of 1962, she lifted her head in loud bursts of crying in their dream home, Court Green, in Devon.
There are other omissions in Clark’s book which taken together suggest a degree of self-censorship. Of course, the great unsaid here is Clark’s desire for copyright approval — the permission needed from Plath’s daughter, Frieda, to quote from Sylvia’s work. You sense a fear that if the author had been too critical of Plath then permission would have been refused. But unfortunately the trade-off results in a biography that, for all its merits — its great readability and astute analysis of the poetry — is in danger of becoming that dreaded thing: a hagiography.