Indexing is a quantitative enterprise—at least the way I do it. I don’t use an index program, just a search box, to find mentions of key words and phrases. In the index for volume one of Sylvia Plath Day by Day, I have over 100 entries on shopping—by herself, with her mother, with boyfriends, with a boyfriend’s mother, with girlfriends, with her grandparents, with the children she babysat. Shopping was essential for her well being on trips to Filene’s and Bloomingdale’s, for example.

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Volume two, which tracks her life right up to its final days, contains another 100+ entries for shopping. Shopping lifted her spirits as much as horseback riding, baking, and gardening did. She talked with shop clerks and created a community of interest—in Wellesley, Boston, New York, London, and in the small Devon town she settled in with Ted Hughes, and where their marriage fell apart after she banished the unfaithful husband from the home and family life she thought he treasured as much as she did.

So far as I can determine Ted Hughes never went shopping with Sylvia Plath. He thought her flair for fashion, and her materialistic desires, frivolous. “I need to curb my lust for buying dresses,” she wrote to herself on May 9, 1958 while the married couple were living in Northampton, Massachusetts. Four years later, on her own in London during her last days, she shopped like mad, threw away her country duds, reveled in a new hairdo, and enjoyed wolf whistles on the street. She had repressed a good deal of herself to please the man whose unkempt, often dirty appearance she had schooled herself to tolerate.

Indexing Plath’s life helped me to more deeply appreciate why this troubling man won her over. In a May 7, 1957 letter to her brother, she mentioned writing a novel (never completed) tentatively titled, Hill of Leopards, which explored the “positive acceptance of conflict, uncertainty, & pain as the soil for true knowledge and life.” She saw in the hulking Hughes, a towering figure among his adoring Cambridge chaps, exactly the kind of challenge to “positive acceptance” that would fulfill herself as woman and artist, and that no other man—as far as I was able to quantify in my indexing—had come close to satisfying.

Shortly after Plath’s first meeting with Hughes, Jane Anderson visited. They had spent time together in McLean Hospital during Plath’s recovery from a suicide attempt. To Anderson’s amazement, Plath told her about loving a dangerous man, a sadist, in fact, who she nevertheless thought she could handle. He exemplified the hero/colossus that William Sheldon wrote about in Psychology and the Promethean Will, a book recommended by Plath’s therapist, Ruth Beuscher, who had been mentored by Sheldon. Plath read and re-read the book, annotating and underlining it, as I describe in The Making of Sylvia Plath. The epigraph to my new book is from Sheldon and, in brief, it signals the guiding ethos of Plath’s duet/duel with Hughes: “The Promethean spirit waxes and the human heart is light, but time and again we crash.”

The problem with men before Hughes, is that Plath easily dominated them—sometimes enjoying a sexual compatibility but in the end always feeling she had used them up. Richard Sassoon, the one candidate before Hughes that Plath thought might possibly be her equal, ran away from her when she went looking for him in Paris. He simply could not handle a woman on the march.

When Plath first read Hughes’s poetry in early 1956, she was stunned by its vigor and violence—so much so that when she turned against him she thought of him as a killer. Plath had heard that Hughes was a lady killer, or as one of her Cambridge sexual partners called him: the greatest seducer at the university. Even to her brother she boasted about physical fights with Hughes, but also said that if she ever really tried to best him, he would bash her. One of her favorite films was Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

In 1949, Plath wrote in her diary: “I long for the blind burning irresponsible delight of being crushed against a man’s body. I want to be ravished… to hear a man groan hoarsely, for in that moment I am the victor.” At some point, after therapy with Ruth Beuscher, Plath, outfitted with a diaphragm, began to have sex, first noting on August 7, 1955 “good love with Peter Davison,” a book editor. It was “good,” or perhaps good enough. Those two words, “good love” became a key word search.

After Plath left for England to study at Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, a miffed Davison felt he had been used. On September 18, 1955, aboard ship on the way to her Fulbright year at Cambridge, she had a romance with scholar Carl Shakin, which she also deemed “good love.” Landed in London in September 29, she recorded “making love” with John Whiteside, an old beau of her friend Sue Weller. At Cambridge, she met the strapping Malory Wober and enjoyed, as she put it in her diary on November 20, “music & love.”

The pleasantries of sex continued, and got a little better with Malory: “good strong love” on November 27. On January 8, 1956, she thought she had hit her stride visiting Sassoon in Paris before returning to her studies in Cambridge. She recorded their “good farewell love,” only to be distraught after he went into hiding a few months later. An English friend, Christopher Levenson, showed up on February 9 for afternoon coffee and “warm love.” Gary Haupt, a Yale student come to study in Cambridge, is mentioned on March 17 in a cryptic reference to “night love,” followed up by “love-making” on March 30. None of her coital encounters is deserving of much more than a few words.

A biographical narrative can take you only so far. The biographer forsakes the numerical accounting of a sex life that Plath kept such careful track of like a diligent bookkeeper of fucking.

In between the two times with Haupt, on March 23, at 5:00 a.m. in London, at the grubby Rugby Street flat where Hughes sometimes stayed, Plath reported in her journal: “wounded and shaken from ruthlessness of Ted who called me the wrong name.” He called her Shirley, the girl he was with when he first met Plath at a party in Cambridge, where she bit his face and he yanked off one of her earrings. The word love is nowhere to be found in her account of this fraught encounter, which she referred to on March 26 as the “sleepless holocaust night with Ted.” But by April 14 she was ready for more: “Bloody exhausting night of love-making,” she reported, and “terrible dreams.” Yet she longed for the “magnificence of Ted.” Is “bloody” literal or metaphorical? Plath doesn’t say. But on the next day, with just one word added to what she had written about every sexual partner before Hughes, she signaled she had found her man: “good violent love.”

Plath knew she was at a turning point. She doubted Hughes loved her and admitted on April 16: “you were desperate for this and you know what you must pay: utter vigilance in Cambridge.” She felt “stabbed by him,” and realized how much trouble she was in: “Let him go. Have the guts.” But he was irresistible. Between April 19 and and August 24, the couple had intercourse at least forty times, and Plath usually described it as “good,” “calm,” but also sometimes “exhausting.” They made love in a field, in her Cambridge room, in London, in Paris, and once on a park bench. They married on June 16 and did not slow down their fucking until they visited Ted’s parents in Yorkshire, and Sylvia complained on September 24: “no good love since Paris a growing sense of suffocation & loneliness.”

Plath reveled in the rough give and take of sex and marriage with Hughes. Her diaries recount fights and conflicts, but never any regrets until Hughes withdrew, after she had children, and intercourse virtually stopped. She announced in a letter that she would not endure the plight of an “unfucked wife.” He declared to his lovers: “no nappies”—meaning no one, after Plath, would restrain him, although he did find a second wife who tolerated the peripatetic adulterer.

Plath had gone shopping for a giant whose genius was equal or superior to hers. It was her pride to believe she could keep up with him on the page and in bed. She regarded the conflicts of marriage as inevitable, a proper expression of Promethean spirit, which extended to shopping, to creating a community and family, and a salon she wanted to form in London—all of which he renounced .

That Plath kept a sexual record is not what biographers have emphasized. A biographical narrative can take you only so far. The biographer forsakes the numerical accounting of a sex life that Plath kept such careful track of like a diligent bookkeeper of fucking. In her last week, she kept no diary, left no notes so far as we know, perhaps concluding there was no more good violent love to be had, no partner to win through to that “positive acceptance of conflict, uncertainty, & pain as the soil for true knowledge and life.”

True knowledge and life cannot, of course, be quantifiable, and Plath did not live by simply numbering her days and ways—intellectual, social, and sexual. No biography, without a narrative, can succeed.  Neither Plath nor her biographers have considered her life as just one damn thing after another.  But when the numbers drop out of narrative, avoiding the tedium of indexing a life, something is also lost. As Tom Stoppard writes in his play, Shipwreck: “Nature doesn’t disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment.”

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