Saturday, 7 March 2009

Revenge of 'the Other Woman': Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Assia and Shura Wevill

Review of A Lover of Unreason: the Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Assia Wevill (rhymes, we are told, with devil) was the thrice married ‘other woman’ whom Ted Hughes ‘cheated’ with whilst he was still married to Sylvia Plath. Six years after Plath’s suicide, Assia took both her own life and the life of her daughter, Shura, who was the offspring of her extended relationship with the future poet laureate. This meticulously researched and well-written biography of that life is suffused with moral purpose: its avowed intention is to put Assia and Shura back where they belong, ‘beside him [Hughes].

The pre Hughes story tells the story of a bright but ‘selfish’ woman, who fled from Hitler’s Germany with her mother and father and ended up in Israel, flirting with English servicemen (including the man who would become her unfortunate first husband). Some of the most evocative passages in the book describe life in Tel Aviv during the war, before ascendant Zionism made it a puritanical hell for social (and sexual) butterflies, like Assia. Her father, a somewhat feckless doctor who specialised in physiotherapy, passed on a passion for the arts and the desire to be part of a European literary salon. Three marriages later and the beautiful Assia eventually found the man who would provide the context she had always desired in the rugged manly form of Ted Hughes. She shuttled between him and her ‘inert’ third husband, the poet David Wevill (whose own ‘feminine’ style is contrasted to that of Hughes) before finally leaving him.

Then the dumped Sylvia Plath committed suicide and by this act performed the same trick that Obi Wan Knobi did in Star Wars: she became bigger and more powerful than before. She haunted the pair of them until Assia was driven to her own death in 1969 The fact that they both lived in Plath’s flat after her suicide couldn’t have helped nor would the subsequent move to Court Green, the family home that Hughes had shared with his dead wife.

Up to this point, Assia is not presented sympathetically, although the authors always note how beautifully she looked and how tastefully she dressed. However, after Assia appeared beside Ted in the International Festival of the Spoken Word, which she helped him to organise (thus achieving her lifetime ambition to host a great literary salon), the treatment of her changes. In the last third of the biography, Assia becomes a much more sympathetic character. The authors quote extensively from her journals as they tell the story of a wronged woman, increasingly isolated by Hughes, who compulsively pursued a number of other women at the same time. Imbuing her tale with pathos, they chart her tragic fall from the heights of International Festival at the side of Ted Hughes to the time, when feeling abandoned by him, she turned on the gas taps in her London flat, placing her sleeping daughter next to her.

Meticulous and thorough, the authors provide a well-argued rationale for an act of child murder which seems incomprehensible today. Explaining the socio-psychological context by reference to academic authorities, they say that in the year of her death, there were 2000 female suicides. A significant number of those women also killed their children. The most common motive was ‘altruistic’. They wanted to protect their children from the brutal world which had driven them to despair.

The portrait of Ted Hughes presented in this biography is also striking. He appears to be some sort of philandering monster. Perhaps the ‘message’ of the biography is this: driving the suicide prone Plath beyond the brink was one thing (we all make a mess of relationships at some point after all), but to do the same thing with this bright and life-affirming woman was another completely. Hughes’s behaviour towards her was abusive. As soon as she became emotionally dependent upon him, he became more distant and mercurial, and more difficult to pin down.

Perhaps the starkest example of this self-centred disregard for women occurred to Brenda Hedden, one of the 2 other people Hughes was carrying on with whilst he was supposedly ‘with’ Assia. Whilst living with Ms Hedden after Assia’s suicide, Hughes mysteriously disappeared for a few days and returned to announce (after having vigorous sex with her) that he had married Carol Orchard, a woman half his age (and the other ‘other woman‘).

Was it really like that though? Hughes - although irresponsible, self-centred and moody - may not have been entirely to blame. The biography occasionally gives glimpses of another Assia with a possessive and violent temper. At one point, we are told that she harassed a young woman who was in a relationship with David Wevill sometime after she abandoned him for Hughes. Hughes’s own correspondence quoted in the book refers to her temper.

On balance, however, the author’s critical view of Hughes seems to be the most likely. Brenda Hedden speaks with authority when she is quoted as saying that Hughes:

was a real hunter ... when she [Assia] tried to break away ... he became motivated. But when they were together, he did terrible things ... her terrible suicide saved my life

Who cares though whether poets are moral beings or not? Hughes is dead after all and only his poetry lives on. Well, I think the authors pin this question down when they interrogate the series of poems which Hughes wrote about Assia later in his life (paralleling the poems he wrote about Plath in Birthday Letters). They put it like this:

In 1990 he published the twenty Capriccio poems, revolving around Assia. There is no mention of his own destructive forces and Assia is blamed for consciously burning herself on Sylvia’s funeral pyre ...[He goes on the suggest] she was doomed already when they met. He argued that although Assia fled Nazi Germany, she could not escape the fate of her fellow Jews

So it was her fault, or it was Hitler’s fault, but not his! The poem is revealed as a piece of his moral cowardice and his monstrous inability to accept responsibility.This is a really powerful biography whose authors have a strong sense of moral narrative (to add to this, Hughes’s mother, to whom he was devoted, is shown to have died most probably of the shock of hearing the news of Assia’s suicide and the death of Mrs Hughes’s granddaughter). The authors reconstruct the emotional lives of their subjects through combing every imaginable record, including shopping lists and calendars. In a sense, they are archaeologists bringing a long dead woman back to life, and they present a credible portrait which lingers in the mind.

One ‘ Cor! Fancy that!’ fact which the book supplies is that Assia was part of the advertising team which came up with the slogan, Mr Kipling makes exceeding good cakes. Ironically, this line is still better known than anything Ted Hughes ever wrote. Assia was a very talented creative advertiser and she was also a highly skilled translator of the great Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai (a role, incidentally, that Ted Hughes created for her). She should not be forgotten and this biography is more than good enough to resurrect her memory.


  1. Duh "were told Wevill rhymes with Devil"!

    do you need to be told it rhymes?

    To describe David Wevill as "inert" and his poetry "feminine" is not only wrong but downright insulting whether it's a quote or your own opinion. I'm a Wevill by the way.