"Slightly filthy with erotic mystery, I saw the dreamer in her"

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Gorgeous, sophisticated, talented.
Despised, broken, desperate.

When I was a student, I occasionally stumbled across earnest late-night discussions about that nutter's nutter, Sylvia Plath. I say occasionally, not because the subject wasn't popular, but because usually I was embroiled in far more shallow pursuits - drinking, essay crises, unrequited crushes, laughing till I cried and more drinking, high jinking and larks. I never really got the whole Bell Jar phenomena. That was the preserve of some rather pale types who chewed the ends of their sleeves, pushed salad forlornly about in the dining room and were forever putting on pained expressions so we all knew that they were Fragile or Damaged or some other attention-seeking bollocks.

I am assuming my fabulous readers are all familiar with the story of Sylvia's stormy marriage to the man who then became Poet Laureate, and her suicide in Belsize Park, North London one winter night in 1963. The idea of killing yourself as your two small children slept next door, poignant little glasses of milk carefully left for when they woke, motherless, stirs all kinds of emotion in a parent's heart.

I am afraid I have a grudging sympathy for Ted Hughes. I know he was cruel and unfaithful. I also know that he was a player well before he married Plath, and she was of a suicidal bent long before she met him. I therefore have little patience with those strident man-haters who have defaced Sylvia's grave, attempting to remove Hughes' name and frankly appointing her as a mascot without a single thought for her children or their father attempting to live in the shadow of a ghastly act.

There are several great books on this subject, and one fantastic film, Sylvia, in which Gwyneth Paltrow was superbly cast, if you want to really wallow in her mind.

The character I have long been interested by is Assia Wevill, the woman Ted was having an affair with when Sylvia killed herself, and last Christmas I took to my bed for a whole day devouring a fascinating biography of her: A Lover of Unreason. I couldn't imagine how she must have felt when Sylvia committed the ultimate 'fuck you,' catapulting Assia from glamorous mistress to stepmother of two and keeper of Hughes' sanity. Oh, and the most hated woman in the world for many people. The book describes a free spirit, a cosmopolitan woman who married more as a career move than for love. Her first husband took her away from a stifling life in Tel Aviv; her second, a Canadian economist, gave her an entree into an intellectual world she loved. She met her third husband, David Wevill, on the boat from Canada to England; a 21-year old English poet.

She is reputed to have boasted to colleagues at her advertising agency in London that she intended to have Hughes; she and David were renting the Hughes' London flat while Ted and Sylvia moved to the country. There are several accounts of the weekend they stayed at the Hughes' country house - did she seduce Ted by sharing her dreams? Did she claim love of the myths, lore and landscape he adored? What is certain is that she was utterly stunning, confident and passionate and cared not a fig for convention. Sylvia, introspective, high maintenance, and turned into a shadow after having two children, didn't stand a chance.

However, Sylvia, as it turned out, had played a blinder. Assia moved in with Hughes and looked after the two little ones. Ted was of course wracked with guilt and the spirit of his dead wife consumed them both - he editing her poems, destroying her diaries; she suffocated by the legacy of Sylvia's domestic intimacy. Sylvia used to decorate her houses by painting enamel hearts, twining them around the doors of the children's bedrooms and about her kitchen. Imagine cooking in that. Ted wrote her two pages of domestic instruction ensuring Sylvia's spirit lived on (experiment with cooking! teach the children German!). They slept together in the marital bed.

Ted continued to work; he prevaricated about marrying Assia, worrying about upsetting Sylvia's family and fans. Assia, having already aborted one of his babies, gave birth to their daughter in 1965. Ted continued to leave her to the wolves, gaining at least two more mistresses. It must have been a complete nightmare for the woman who initially saw him as a feather in her cultural cap. She killed herself and her four year old daughter, in a macabre reconstruction of Sylvia's suicide in 1969.

Could you make it up? Isn't it a fascinating and tragic tale? I do love the poetry of Ted, his glorious, granite-like tales of unforgiving Yorkshire landscapes, his fantastical works for children, his bone-deep reverence for nature and all her beauty and cruelty.

For a while when I lived in London, I used to walk to the tube past the flat where Sylvia killed herself, imagining her desperation; the treks to the phone box to call her mother in America, wheeling a pram through the February snow. The frantic writing as she attempted to rediscover her soul, her identity through poetry, her love sonnets to her husband, father and children.  I gave scant thought to the woman who dealt with (and yes, caused) the consequences.

It's been a dark old day. No shit. But I still get to kiss my bots goodnight. And tomorrow we will laugh; high jinks and larks.


  1. Wow. It is,as you say, a fascinating and tragic tale. I hope tomorrow does bring you high jinks and larks.

  2. The title made me stop bye, but the post kept me here. Once again kudos on a wonderful post!

  3. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for reading and for your lovely remarks. They keep me going!!

    Yes, lots of jinks and larks today I feel...


  4. I am afraid I have a grudging sympathy for Ted Hughes.

    Shame on you.

  5. Why??? He's an amazing poet and she was an OK one. She killed herself. It's not as though she spent her life in a struggle for feminist principle, so why make him the hated figure and her a bra-burning icon after her death? I felt sympathy for him in a lose-lose sitch with two small ones; the hatred and fall-out is still going today.

    I bet you feel a tiny squidge of sympathy too...

  6. I feel the most sorry for the children. Surviving that sort of fall out is no easy feat.

  7. Oh absolutely. Well, the younger one tragically didn't and killed himself at the age of 47 earlier this year. So, so sad.

  8. Wow! Love your title!
    Plath, Hughes, Weevil- what a recipe for a ragout of gloom and unearned misery.
    Plath was a whack job before her marriage- just read the Bell Jar for confirmation. Hughes worked the nerdy poet personna so he could score more nookie. Weevil seems like the only one in the bunch that was even likeable.
    I will read her biography- on your recommendation.

  9. Rasputin - thanks! They're Ted's words about Assia. Agree about Plath, I don't know that I'd have described Ted as nerdy, but he was certainly a ladies' man. Let me know what you think of the biog, I'd love to know.

  10. Wonderful Post. I have tried to keep my distance from whole plath story but now I must read the Assia biography. How provocative that she should take her own life in the same manner as plath. That to me seems to be the most interesting part of the entire story. The most disturbing part however, is why would she murder her daughter as well?That is just heartbreaking, I look forward to reading the bio.

  11. Thank you so much for the comment - I agree, it's just too odd for words. Perhaps she simply couldn't think of anyone to look after her - it does beg the question of why you wouldn't just get over yourself and be a mother..
    Do let me know what you think of it anyway.

  12. Depression is a thief that can rob you of your reason.


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth