- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007


By Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Carroll & Graf, $27.95, 280 pages, illus.


There was a peculiarly obnoxious concept — and a kind of game that went with it — popular in the 1950s and 1960s in Britain. It was called one-upmanship.

One of the more revolting examples of this involved Assia Wevill, who broke up the already turbulent marriage between the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. When her time came in turn, not only did she react to Hughes’ rejection by committing suicide, as Plath had done, but where her predecessor had protected her two young children from the lethal fumes, Wevill gassed her five-year old daughter by Hughes along with herself.

The fact that this latter-day Medea was a refugee from Nazi Germany, where had she not left she wouldhave been exterminated with gas, added yet another touch to a situation already as macabre and rebarbative as only the sickest of minds could produce.

So there is definitely a story here, but why would anyone want to tell it? Early in the profoundly disturbing “Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath’s Rival and Ted Hughes’s Doomed Love,” Israeli journalists Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev set out their reasons:

Like Sylvia Plath, Assia shared her life with Hughes for six years, and she, too, bore him a daughter. Still, she has been effectively written out of his story. Any influence she may have exerted on him or his work has been diminished or dismissed. The story of the ultimately tragic failure of his marriage to Sylvia Plath has been related in numerous books and articles from one of two conflicting points of view: his or hers. Either way, Assia was reduced to the role of a she-devil, enchantress, Lilith, Jezebel, the woman alleged to have severed the union of 20th-century poetry’s most celebrated couple.

Assia Wevill was a complex person, born to dichotomies. Her remarkable life evinces both the limitations and the possibilities of a gifted, independent, spirited, ambitious woman in the mid-20th century.

If the real purpose of this book was actually to demonstrate that Wevill was a significant influence on England’s future Poet Laureate, it is a failure. Assia Wevill was the kind of person who swims through literary circles, prodding, pushing, goading, networking.

Her third husband, David Wevill, was a Canadian poet trying to make it in the London literary world of the 1960s when, unfortunately for everyone involved, the Wevills and Hugheses crossed paths.

In fact, for some time, Wevill was more concerned with her husband’s poetry than with her lover’s. (It was her modus operandi not to leave any of her three husbands, only to do whatever she wanted until they finally got sick of it — and her — and divorced her.) She was ambitious all right, a slick, sharp opportunist with the verbal facility to have some success in advertising, but to see her as Pound to Hughes’ Eliot is farfetched indeed.

Wevill was undoubtedly a kind of muse to her poet lover, both before and — tragically — after her dastardly suicide and murder of his daughter. Hughes was still understandably obsessed with her in the posthumously-published “Birthday Letters,” such a success at the end of the last century.

Sometimes the reason someone is universally thought of as a she-devil, an evil enchantress, a Lilith or a Jezebel, is because she is one: Sometimes the shoe really does fit. To my mind, she is also literally a monster of narcissism and, quite simply, a sociopath. Nobody would write a book about Assia Wevill, studying her influence on Ted Hughes, had she not committed the acts that are, in the end, her only claim to a terrible kind of notoriety.

Was Wevill an interesting person then? Apart from her psychologist’s-dream (or nightmare) pathological character, only moderately I’d say. Cunning, ruthlessness and self-pity can only be somewhat interesting. She certainly had cheek, nerve, chutzpah that bordered on the unbelievable. She moved into Plath’s apartment, the very place the latter had killed herself, and proceeded from all accounts to make herself comfortable there — with Plath’s children!

She tried to ingratiate herself with the Hughes family, with Ted and Sylvia’s friends, and even with the dead poet’s mother in America — with some success on all fronts it would seem, amazingly. The mind boggles at all this; reading this book is an exercise in being appalled at the phenomenon that was Assia Wevill.

What Wevill undoubtedly did was lead an interesting life in many different countries — Germany, then Mandatory Palestine, Canada, Burma, England and Ireland, and the authors of this book have certainly done their homework, spreading the interview net very wide. They even succeeded in getting one with the by-then reclusive, and understandably defensive, Ted Hughes a couple years before his death.

Hughes claimed he was constrained from publishing some love poems he’d written to Plath out of consideration for his current wife, Carol; not wanting her to feel like the heroine of “Rebecca,” since she was living in the same house he had lived in with his dead wife. When it came to Assia, “Hughes confirmed that he also wrote many poems about Assia but said that he was not sure that he ‘wrote the ones [he] should have written.’ When tragedy strikes, he said, people struggle with it and incorporate it into their lives.”

Which brings us to the sinister figure of Hughes himself. Two women so wounded they kill themselves, one orphaning two children and the other murdering her offspring, seems far more than coincidence. His selfishness, ruthlessness, hardness and brutality come through in this account, as they have in so many others. Hughes and Plath began their stormy relationship by literally drawing blood by biting each other, and this was unfortunately a ghastly metaphor betokening what was to come.

What Plath and Wevill had in common was thinking they could ride the tiger. Yes, that tiger was poetry and passion and all the rest, but it was also a savage beast of a man called Ted Hughes and he survived when they did not.

What does it say of Wevill’s arrogance that she had before her the terrible example of Plath and did not take it as the cautionary tale it was? No, she had to go one better than her dead rival: The child that had been intended to bind her to Hughes was, in the end, good only as a corpse to torment him. You finish this book more than ever convinced that Assia Wevill was indeed the monster she’s generally portrayed as.

The old French saying, tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner — to understand is to forgive — does not apply here. The authors have made you understand Wevill all too well, and to understand yet again that what she did was indeed unforgivable.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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