Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes' Doomed Love
By Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2006
Reviewed by Amanda A.
As a teenager and to some degree even now, I pictured the literary life full of books and knowledge and writing in cafés with the Moleskin notebook poised next to the café au lait. I also pictured torrid bohemian affairs, alcoholism, suicide, and loads of despair cushioned in that romantic aura of Poetry. Literature has been linked to scandal in my mind since high school, but I think my college freshman literature textbook “sealed the deal.” Before each poem, play, novel excerpt, or short story was a handy little biography of the author, just a few paragraphs “they were born, were smart, liked language, got famous, and then there lives plunged into madness/poverty/alcoholism/suicide/despair/etc...”
So, given this education I was shocked by how intense the Plath vs. Hughes camps are. The Plath supporters accuse Ted of being a controlling, philandering womanizer. The Hughes supporters accuse Sylvia of being a jealous, possessive psycho. And I am not exaggerating. This anger has even lead to Sylvia’s grave being repeatedly vandalized by chiseling her married last name, Hughes, off the tombstone. So we have a male poet full of ego and infidelity and a female poet suicide? That sounded standard to me, I’m sure that scenario has happened many a time throughout the literary ages. Not that the situation isn’t incredibly tragic, I would just suspect it more likely to happen to Poets than to … say… a pair of lovey-dovey Wal-Mart clerks.
Of course as a rabid fan of Sylvia Plath’s poetry and her novel, The Bell Jar, I soon found myself “on her side.” I could identify with her being a single mother and trying to write and her subsequent frustrations and, ultimately, depression. In short, from what I read, I considered Ted a jerk although perhaps he was unnecessarily hated. Sylvia made the decision to die and I doubt she killed herself just because of Ted. He didn’t help the situation, but the decision to die rests solely with Sylvia. I’ve always assumed that the truth was somewhere between Plath’s version and Hughes’s version of events. In my search for the middle-ground I checked-out Koren and Negev’s biography of the “other woman” -- Assia Wevill. Here I was sure I would find a different view. Perhaps a view to counter my disdain for Hughes; after all, I thought, the authors were the only people EVER to get an interview with Ted Hughes on solely personal matters.
The authors explain in their preface that they want readers to view Assia Wevill as more than Ted Hughes’s seductive mistress. As I read the biography I began to get annoyed. The author’s claims were not being met; Assia was not looking like that great of a person: deceptive, lazy, tempestuous, social-climbing, etc…. After a few husbands, several abortions, and some quickly abandoned money-making enterprises Assia and Ted meet and begin their tryst. It began as exploring a purely sexual attraction as neither party desired to leave their spouse.
Even after Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Assia didn’t feel remorse or guilt, but the relationship began to change. Ted needed a mother for his children and a housewife and he began to slide Assia into that role. The day after Plath’s death Assia moved into Plath’s flat. She read the dead author's last journal (which Hughes later destroyed), the Ariel manuscript, and even recovered from her abortion of Ted’s child in Plath’s bed.
In fact, Assia didn’t seem to change until the birth of her and Ted’s daughter, Shura. Assia transformed into a doting mother, someone who cared about other people, and she also seemed to be fine with taking care of Ted and Sylvia’s children – Frieda and Nicholas. But Ted changed. Although he was on Shura’s birth certificate as father, Ted Hughes never referred to Shura as his daughter and began to distance himself from Assia. The biographers make the distinction that Ted probably treated Shura differently because Shura was the mistress’s child, not the wife’s child. Even after Shura’s death he didn’t publicly claim his daughter (or Assia) and shushed up that the child ever existed.
Ted did not want to marry Assia, but yet expected her to act as a housewife. After a few years of living at Court Green taking care of three children and Hughes’s elderly parents, Assia and Shura left to live in London at Hughes’s urging that it would only be a temporary situation and that they would soon be reunited. They would never live together again. Instead, Hughes would send her letters about certain “rules” she must follow in order to live with him; for example, she was to play with the children one hour a day, mend the clothes, teach German, vary her cooking by introducing one new recipe each week, not use a bakery but bake homemade, prepare breakfast for the children, out of bed by 8 a.m., no naps in the afternoon, and she was to be dressed properly at all times. Controlling, to say the least.
Assia began to get desperate at this point. She was getting older, terribly alone, and struggling to eek out a living for her daughter. Ted was busy stringing her around and messing with other women. So Assia killed herself and her daughter by using the gas fumes from the kitchen stove. I was mortified that Assia killed her daughter as well. Koren and Negev note that Assia was worried because it seemed no one wanted Shura. Assia’s father was elderly, her sister had three children of her own and little income, and Shura was slighted by Ted. There would be no one to look out for the little girl and so she took Shura with her.
I finished this biography after midnight one weekend and lay in the bed tossing and turning in bed until well after 2 in the morning. This book disturbed me – everyone involved seemed sad and selfish and doomed.