New York Times’s 10 Best Books of 2021: Yorkshire author's 'daring' book makes prestigious list

A biography of the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath written by Heather Clark, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor of Contemporary Poetry, has won further acclaim after being named as one of the New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2021.

By Ian Hirst
Wednesday, 15th December 2021, 7:00 pm
Heather Clark, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor of Contemporary Poetry,
Heather Clark, the University of Huddersfield’s Professor of Contemporary Poetry,

Red Comet: The Short and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath, first released in October 2020, was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist among its many accolades.

“I'm thrilled that a 1,000-page biography of a woman poet has landed on the New York Times Top 10 Books of the Year list, and I'm very thankful for all the support I've received from the English & Creative Writing Department at the University of Huddersfield,” said Professor Clark.

“I could not have undertaken my research on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath in England without the financial and practical help of the University's Ted Hughes Network, which first invited me to Huddersfield as a Visiting Scholar in 2017.

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“I hope the book's success brings attention to the Network's efforts to promote the work and life of Hughes and other Yorkshire writers. I hope, too, that it shows there is still an audience for ambitious non-fiction narratives even in an age of soundbites and short attention spans.”

Plath was born in Boston, Massachusetts, and married the English poet Ted Hughes in 1956. She suffered from depression and after the marriage had broken down, she took her own life in 1963.

Her relationship with Hughes has been the subject of controversy and speculation since her death, often overshadowing her literary career and accomplishments such as her novel, The Bell Jar.

Red Comet won the Biographers’ Club Slightly Foxed Prize for Best First Biography, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the LA Times Book Prize. It was a ‘Book of the Year’ in several major publications, including the Guardian and the Times.

The New York Times was fulsome in its praise for Red Comet, saying that “It’s daring to undertake a new biography of Plath, whose life, and death by suicide at 30 in 1963, have been thoroughly picked over by scholars. Yet this meticulously researched and, at more than 1,000 pages, unexpectedly riveting portrait is a monumental achievement."

The University of Huddersfield is home to the Ted Hughes Network and therefore a major centre for the study of the ex-Laureate – born in Mytholmroyd – and of his wife.

"I embarked on this book because I thought she had been overly pathologised in biographies, memoirs, TV dramas and so on,” Professor Clark added. “Too much attention has been paid to her suicide rather than her writing and literary career. I think she is one of the most important poets of the 20th century.

“Yes, depression is part of the story but I tried to refocus attention on her ambition and her drive and the boundaries that she broke. She was a really inspiring figure for her use of language and surrealism and the way she introduced fear and anger into the poetic lexicon.

“Obviously they had a tempestuous relationship, but on the other hand the two of them - while they were married - produced some of the most important writings of the post-war period. They really pushed each other to become better poets. The end was not good but the early years of their marriage were incredibly fruitful and happy.”

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