A Dual Biography Looks at the Lingering Impact of Anne and Sylvia

Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz, by Gail Crowther

Both were emerging poets, and both were hugely ambitious women in a cultural moment that did not know how to deal with ambitious women.

Author and biographer specialized in studies of Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath (cool job alert) Gail Crowther weaves together the groundbreaking similarities of the two women’s lives in this joint biography, along with what’s known of their friendship and time together in Robert Lowell’s poetry workshop in Boston.

Now, at the risk of revealing the embarrassing extent of how I inevitably cite these two among my favorite poets while not being very knowledgeable of their lives at all, I didn’t actually know they’d taken a class together. So mind a bit blown from the get-go.

But aside from that one eventful workshop, which took place at a pivotal time in both of their lives and developing careers, Sexton and Plath’s relationship wasn’t a deep and enduring one. They exchanged some letters and kept in touch after Plath’s move to England, and read each other’s work here and there. So although Crowther explores the extent of this friendship, including the titular boozy after-class afternoons, there are many unknowns. She makes some educated guesses based on what was happening in their lives and their general attitudes, and some snippets of writing, but it’s not always concrete.

Normally I hate that, but I thought it was well done and honest here. She never takes wild leaps of speculation, and I still found that the insights and potential were illuminating. It’s important to know what you’re getting with this one though, since the actual interactions between Plath and Sexton were pretty limited.

Instead, Crowther impressively shows how these women defied (or sometimes struggled with) the standards and expectations of their time while making art from pain, art that has been so meaningful to so many people. But it’s more of a compare and contrast exercise than about their personal relationship.

She looks at the “gendered attitudes” applied to their work and its perceived quality, and by extension to its readers — for example, young women “told they’ll “grow out” of reading Plath, that they lack any critical faculties, merely worship at the shrine of a suicide death goddess and so on.”

Plath is an interesting case because despite such a short life, the biographical scholarship around her is voluminous. Last year, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath came out, clocking in at 1,152 pages. So I’m not sure how much would be new here for readers more familiar with her life. I know the basics and of course what I’ve read of her own autobiographical canon, but there was a lot I didn’t know, like that Ted Hughes had full control over her copyright after her death, and he used that to manipulate (“fiddle with”, per Crowther) some of her unpublished manuscripts, and even conveniently “lost” some letters and poems: “Unfortunately, by protecting himself Hughes portrayed Plath in a way that still blights our reading and understanding of her.” This includes Ariel and the order of its poems, which, arranged by Hughes, tell a very different story than how Plath arranged them.

It’s written so well – I’m not a big biography reader but I love ones like this, that highlight the importance of specific events and are filled with lots of fascinating bits of trivia and stories (like that Sylvia was obsessed with “gruesome murders and serial killers” and kept newspaper clippings of grim stories above her desk). I also appreciated that Crowther looked at events from multiple angles, because there’s a lot of nuance in their behavior and choices. I think I expected it to be more gossipy, but it’s just the right balance between analytical, informative and highly readable.

Sexton’s portions haunted me. Both women had exhausting lives due to mental illness, but hers seemed especially so — both living her own life and being in her life seemed exhausting. The elephant in the room in dealing with her is that her daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, detailed Sexton’s horrific abuse in her memoir, Searching for Mercy Street. Crowther handles this troubling history admirably, referring to Gray Sexton’s “survival journey from anger to forgiveness” as being key in understanding their complicated relationship. “Linda does not want this part of her life to be simplified and labeled, and she believes that by holding her mother to account, then forgiving her, she can understand her mother better. At the same time, she does not want her mother’s art shut down.”

I was glad to read Crowther’s analysis of this aspect, because it’s always troubled me about loving Sexton’s poetry as much as I do. How to reconcile the art with the artist? Can we even do that anymore, with the reckoning we’ve had in recent years around sexual abuses? Crowther makes the valid point, stated from other authors as well, that if Sexton was a man we would probably never read her anymore. But her daughter explicitly doesn’t want that, and I think her voice is the most important one in this conversation.

There is just so much to unpack about both of these women, and although this isn’t a deep dive by any means, Crowther pulls out the highlights brilliantly and hits all of the key cultural points around each.

Sexton wrote about her experiences because she felt that one day they may help other people. She firmly believed that “my suffering will reach someone more than my joy.” If from time to time she resented being classed as the crazy poet, she equally knew that this was where her power lay.

One of the most meaningful ideas I took from this was Crowther’s assertion, “If Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton had never known each other, never read each other’s work, literature today would be a very different place.” So not only regarding their place in literary history, and as two women fighting against unimaginable odds both internal and external in the “sexist depths of the literary world” to make art, but that these two forces also shaped each other, and continue to help new generations of readers find words for their own struggles and, still, triumphs anyway.

Writing about how Plath first had a happy and loving marriage like any other, when it broke she “wrote the ultimate, searing breakup poems about life, love, and loss that have helped so many readers get through their own difficult times. Not many people can do or say that.”

The poems they wrote save people. Their lives may have ended suddenly, but there was nothing doomed about these two women. With extraordinary strength, they were able to use their struggles and difficulties to create something that filled their lives with satisfaction and pleasure. Then they gifted this to readers.

Three Martini Afternoons at the Ritz:
The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton
by Gail Crowther
published April 20, 2021 by Gallery Books

I received an advance copy for unbiased review courtesy of the publisher.

Entering this for the Biography category in the 2021 Nonfiction Reader Challenge.

18 thoughts on “A Dual Biography Looks at the Lingering Impact of Anne and Sylvia

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    1. It’s such a must-read if you’re a fan of their poetry already! It gave me an even deeper appreciation of their work and what they did despite their own illnesses, self-sabotage, and everything the world threw at them for being ambitious, talented women at that moment in time. It’s really wonderful!

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  1. I look forward to reading this book. These two women – there’s so much to respect and admire about them. Their frustration with inequality, their brilliance, their refusal to believe life is just a daily subservient repeat until they died, and their rebellious lives. I love rebels. But there’s so much more that’s difficult to understand.

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    1. I agree completely. It gave me such a profound respect for what they accomplished. And you put it so well, exactly something that recurred throughout the events here and that I couldn’t quite put into words! – about how they refused to accept the lives that were laid out for them. It’s a kind of rebellion that was so massively significant at that time, it’s easy to forget today just how much it meant.

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  2. I have really enjoyed reading this fascinating review, another excellent piece of writing by you. So interesting where you allude to the literary establishment patronisingly talking about girls having a “Sylvia Plath” phase, which they then grow out of. So true that a male writer would not be described in the same way. Admittedly, The Bell Jar is one of those books one has to read, and tends to read when young..but because it’s a classic not because it’s a phase, I mean I read Catcher in the Rye and Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Tolstoy for example when I was young, I don’t think people would sneeringly refer to girls having a phase for those authors. I am shocked now to learn she was only 30 when she killed herself, absolutely heartbreaking. And then Ted Hughes’s second wife killed herself too, and also killed their child. Horrific. Sexton though I am completely ignorant about, this is probably shameful but in my day school made us study dull poems by Thomas Hardy which put me off poetry. So Sexton accused of having abused her daughter? Yikes. I had a quick peruse of old Wiki and it said her psychiatrist encouraged her to write poetry but he also sounded pretty incompetent and perhaps correctly diagnosing her as bipolar and medicating her properly might have been better! Sorry, got my practical trousers on, but my point is that maybe the world might have lost some wonderful poetry (or maybe not) but if it stopped her being a nightmare to her family and herself…to be honest I am not sure I buy into “the great art comes from an agonised mad or addicted mind” thing or that any poems are worth the suffering of a child. But what do I know,? Will now get off my temporary and extremely wobbly soapbox. It’s Friday ok, I must be due a mini rant 🤣😉 anyway thank you for a stimulating, interesting review,

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    1. Oh thank you so much! I agree with you, I think it’s admirable and, as in these two cases, extremely helpful for others when an agonized mind can make great art from it, but I think these two women would’ve made incredible art their entire lives even without that suffering. Just a different kind of art.

      Oh, and one of Sexton’s psychiatrists was having sex with her!!! Her life was an especially terrible mess, and she put the people around her through an awful lot of shit but then again people put her through things like that. I didn’t get into all the ugly details of it in the review, but it’s pretty bad, including abuse from her own father which she seemed to replicate in her abuse of her daughter.

      Weirdly enough, also about Sexton, I took several poetry courses in college as part of my English degree and never read a single piece of hers, at least as far as I can remember because I think she was instantly my cup of tea when I did finally read her and assume I would’ve felt the same then. So I do wonder if there is some avoidance of her due to the abuse history, which really complicates how I feel about her.

      In any case, I also agree, we would never dare say Fitzgerald or Tolstoy or other masculine authors are a phase, but of course connecting with The Bell Jar is only for overemotional adolescents. I mean what does it say that so many girls have such a lasting affinity for that book? I can even picture where I was the first time I read it, and how it felt like I was seeing something new of life and the world for the first time. And yet that kind of near-universal experience is so often discounted because she’s a woman, who died by suicide. It’s very frustrating but I suppose not surprising, given the patriarchy at work.

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