Lover of Unreason

Lover of Unreason
by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, 2006
Reviewed by Tanya B. Avakian

In 1962, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were looking for a tenant. Their second child had arrived and made their London flat too cramped for them to stay the full three years of their lease. They ended up subletting the flat to a very handsome, very self-centered young woman named Assia Wevill. She was a German Jew who had spent much of her life in Israel. She was married to a Canadian poet named David Wevill, only her third husband in fifteen years. She was candid about her history of marriages and affairs, wanderings on four continents, fondness for pleasure and disdain for convention. Even so, she came across as something more than a queen bee. Though her ambitions for herself did not extend far past the expectations on women to find a man and live vicariously through him, she herself was highly intelligent and curious about the cultured life, and made people notice her in her own right. She had a spark, a hint of promise beyond the surface, that made men and women notice her beauty with respect, not just desire or envy, and forgive her as a free spirit.

Assia was a well-liked figure among her social circle of BBC3 aspirants and emigré dilettantes. One could imagine her finding a page somewhere in history as the lovely, literary wife of a famous documentary producer or theater critic, after she had aged enough to sow her last wild oats. Instead, she will be remembered forever as the woman who killed Sylvia Plath. In 1962, Assia Wevill began an affair with Hughes, already famous as the British poet of his generation. Plath, violently jealous and the survivor of one previous suicide attempt, responded by rushing her marriage to termination and fleeing to London with the couple’s two children. There, suffering from respiratory illness and major depression in the grip of one of England’s coldest winters, she gassed herself in February 1963, leaving behind a manuscript that would become Ariel — one of the most famous and controversial poetry volumes of the twentieth century. As a result, the opprobrium attaching to Assia’s name is sufficient that many Plath enthusiasts do not know she lived with Hughes nearly as long as Plath did, bore him a daughter, and finally committed suicide by gas too, only first putting her child’s head in the oven. It was not until nearly ten years after Hughes’ death and forty after Plath’s that a biography of Assia would appear.

Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have worked for many years and interviewed Assia’s sister, her three husbands, and friends of her parents as well as her British friends for this biography, whose title, Lover of Unreason, announces both the haunting quality of Assia’s story and its limitations. For all its technical excellence it is a slight, sad book about a slight, sad life. But it gets the job done. Koren and Negev do not pretend that Assia was the equal of other lost women on the fringes of creative royalty; this is not a biography of the Hughes’ Alice James or even their Dora Maar. Assia Wevill was rather the Hughes’ equivalent to Bianca Bienenfeld, the young Jewish woman who strayed into the orbit of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir and became romantically involved with both of them to her own detriment. In Bitter Fame, at once the best-available and the most compromised biography of Plath — author Anne Stevenson admitted it was all but cowritten by Hughes’ protective sister Olwyn — Plath is quoted as saying “I have conjured up Assia.” Unfortunately for herself, Assia was only too happy to be conjured up. She took her sense of self from others’ perceptions of her and appears to have spent her life searching for stages on which to elicit perceptions. She might easily have become a writer, a graphic artist, a professional translator, or any one of a number of things, but she was too lazy or, to put it more compassionately, too much in search of an identity rather than a discipline. The area in which she stood out was that of romantic conquest.

In drab fifties Britain Assia was quite conspicuous, putting her friends in mind of Sophia Loren or Elizabeth Taylor. Though not a perfect beauty — she was short but substantial, with “heavy legs and thick ankles” — she knew how to make the very most of what she had. Most of the people who met Assia still remember her glamor with awe. Photos of Assia reveal a woman with an actress’s ability to project and a face the camera loves. She was called “feral,” “Babylonian,” and in Ted Hughes’ inimitable language, “Lilith of abortions, slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” The ability to captivate men would not in itself increase Assia’s interest to us, but some of the complications surrounding it in her own mind do. She would likely have been pained by the many characterizations of her to focus on her body. Assia did have intellectual yearnings and some talent to go with them, which might explain why several witnesses made the curious comment that she was beautiful without sex appeal. The evidence is in contradiction of this. Yet the observation captures the way Assia wanted to be seen, as a refined bluestocking who just happened to be a bombshell. She gave the impression of being comfortable in her skin; several different acquaintances compared her to a black panther, an animal that had inspired one of Plath’s earliest love poems to Hughes. But Assia would rather have been taken for an English lady.

The common thread between English perceptions of her dark sensuality and her own longing for an intellectual identity may be found in her Jewishness. And it’s likely that the stigma of race (as Jewishness was understood to be at the time) provided the streak of desperation that helped her to sexualize most intellectual attachments in the way that proved injurious to so many bright young women in the sixties. The syndrome has been chronicled by feminists — Marge Piercy in Small Changes, Kate Millett in Sexual Politics, and, most terribly, Andrea Dworkin in Mercy — and Assia Wevill’s story provides a test case to equal Plath’s. But it also suggests that the most helpless victims were those whose youthful narcissism had no hope of giving way to the more focused egotism of the disciplined artist. Plath was a genius, and Assia merely gifted. Which is to say that Assia might well have succeeded as a writer, all things being equal. Even as Ted Hughes’ disgraced paramour, she had some hope of building a career in Hebrew literature. She translated poetry by Yehuda Amichai and may have found her niche in this field. But far more than a career, Assia needed an identity and she had already had an identity, albeit a poisonous one, handed to her on a silver platter by the Hugheses.

Hughes met Assia at a time when he was bored with Plath’s depressions and finicky domesticity and believed his imagination needed the thrill of sexual chase to liberate it again. He was a devotee of the occult, amateur but convinced, and his seven-year-itch was linked in his mind to the myths of death and rebirth that also concerned Plath. He was the first to publish a work about Assia. While Plath was still alive, he wrote a radio play called Difficulties of a Bridegroom. Assia appears as a form of the demon Lilith, under whose sway a man runs over a hare and sells its skin to buy her roses. (Both women hated the play; Plath for her part saw herself in the hare.) But that was as nothing to what was to come. Koren and Negev say almost nothing about Plath’s writing, perhaps to avoid having to deal with Olwyn Hughes’ control of the Plath estate. It is a pity, because Assia is the soul of its most famous phase. Plath’s transmogrification of herself as a Jew in “Lady Lazarus” and “Daddy,” two poems which guaranteed a great deal of attention to Plath from Jewish intellectuals such as George Steiner and Irving Howe, struck a death blow to any hopes Assia may have had of establishing her own identity as a writer. Interestingly, the “jeeringly tough” tone that Howe noticed in Plath’s writing on the Holocaust is borne out by Plath’s unpleasant remarks about Jews behind the scenes: she invented her own adjective, “Jewy,” for negative traits that reminded her of Jews, and called Hughes’ family “Jewy” for their concern with money. Though Plath always responded in a turned-on way to her Jewish friends, describing them in letters to her German mother rather as conquests, she was as apt to turn hostile if her competitive juices flowed; in her diary, she wrote of Jews persecuting German-Americans such as herself in the same way, she felt, as Jews were persecuted by Germans in Europe. As Assia entered her life Plath’s obsession with Jews seems to have increased apace, swirling around poles of bile and morbid identification.

Assia, who did not particularly want to be Jewish, would have understood it all. She was captivated by the Ariel manuscript and may have encouraged Hughes to publish it. On the other hand Assia was probably behind Hughes’ burning of Plath’s final diary, the cause of great ill feeling toward Hughes among Plath scholars and enthusiasts, because she could not live with the hatred Plath expressed toward her there. She may also have found evidence that Plath’s original plan was to take her children with her in death, as in the Ariel poem “Edge.” (Koren and Negev quote a friend of Mrs. Plath’s to this effect.) As it is, the most chilling aspect of this book lies in its disclosures regarding the machinations between the Hughes and Plath families over the fate of Sylvia’s children. It would not have been not too much to expect that the principals in this tragedy might let go of all their impressive self-absorption to show some mercy toward the tragedy’s innocents. And as is most often the case, this did not happen. Aurelia Plath made several attempts to take the children away from Hughes and raise them herself in America. Her efforts may have been encouraged by Assia, who is said to have written letters to Aurelia (now lost) in which she echoed intimations Plath supposedly made to her mother about Hughes’ violent nature, including the possibility of rape. (Olwyn Hughes and Anne Stevenson were guilty of at least one serious distortion in Bitter Fame: they presented Ted Hughes and Mrs. Plath as close friends, in agreement about Sylvia’s impossible ways, without mentioning anything about Mrs. Plath’s distrust of Hughes and suspicions of his violence toward Plath.) The latter might be borne out by Assia’s descriptions to friends of her first bedroom encounter with Hughes, in which his passion bordered on rape: “After lovemaking, he smells like a butcher.”

These tidbits have naturally been printed at length in Britain and will provide some comfort, of sorts, to those readers who might have felt that Bitter Fame went overboard in its defense of Ted Hughes. All the same, the allegations need to be taken rather carefully. Assia was a compulsive manipulator and cut her stories to fit a person’s prejudices. It was very much in her interest at the beginning of the affair to claim she had been raped by Hughes, as it was in her interest later on to convince Aurelia Plath that she was abused by him. If Sylvia Plath had made such claims — themselves ambiguous given that Plath was not above saying anything about Hughes after the separation, and played Hughes’ Heathcliffe nature for maximum dramatic effect at all times, especially to her mother — it would have been easy for Assia to hear of them and to repeat them to Mrs. Plath, knowing it was the best way she had of gaining the sympathy of this powerful figure. And if she made references of the same kind to anyone else, Koren and Negev have not uncovered them after a huge amount of research (the acknowledgments cover eight densely printed pages and name over seventy individuals with firsthand knowledge of Assia). This certainly doesn’t mean that Assia and Plath were not abused, but it does not provide any sort of proof that they were.

There can be no doubt, however, of Hughes’ bad behavior in other regards. Toward the end, when he had wearied of their relationship, he wrote Assia a “contract” that she was expected to keep if she wanted to stay with him:

Assia was expected to play with [the children] at least one hour per day; mend their clothes meticulously; and supervise their washing, teeth cleaning, and going to bed. She was to teach the children German two or three hours a week… She’d have to vary her cooking and introduce a new recipe every week. The village bakery would be off-limits to her, and she would have to bake everything herself… As for himself, he was to be totally exempt from doing any cooking and the daily help was to be reduced to one half-day. Every expense and every bill was to be methodically entered in a logbook. Assia was ordered to be out of bed by 8 A.M., was forbidden to take a nap during the day, and had to be dressed up properly and not go around the house in a dressing gown… She was required to stop pretending to be English, and stick to everything German and Israeli. (pp. 174-175)

There is no evidence that the “contract” was put into practice. It would be risible if one could not guess how it must have struck Assia at this point. Again, it appears that Hughes did the greatest damage to women through his weakness, inspired by his dread of adult females. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that the contract was meant to drive Assia toward the hills by its outrageousness. (It’s also true that the compulsive Plath seems to have thrived on this sort of regimentation, and encouraged Hughes to impose it on her as a bulwark against her depressions.) Hughes lacked the bottle to make any clean break. A “one-man gynocidal movement,” as Robin Morgan described him? Probably not; but at the least, with his penchant for very jealous, possessive women given to suicidal fears of abandonment, Hughes appears to have gravitated toward exactly the kind of person least able to bear his need to keep a door open at all times. In both cases, Hughes fatally misunderstood the self-destructive streak he was counting on to relieve him of his commitment. He comes across almost as a male version of Marilyn Monroe, his passive aggression proving lethal to the opposite sex as they projected their own most self-destructive gender fantasies onto him.

The bloom was still on the rose when Hughes began to write Crow. Though it would be many more years before Hughes would respond to Ariel by publishing his poems about Plath in Birthday Letters, Crow is the real answer to the mythic side of Plath’s imagination. Like Plath’s Lady Lazarus, Hughes’ Crow is a strongly gendered form of the amoral life force and an heir to a ruined world. One of the surprises in Lover of Unreason is finding that Crow, bleaker in some ways than Ariel, was begun during a period of harmony and some contentment. Hughes and Assia were spending much of their time in Ireland, where few people knew Sylvia, and exchanging learned materials as if equals. (It’s touching to find the two behaving like a real couple during this period. They were comfortable enough with each other to present gifts that they would have liked to get more than the partner: Assia gave Ted biographies of Marlowe and Blake, Ted gave Assia an 1811 edition of Bewick’s General History of Quadrupeds.) Their happiness ended when Hughes returned to England to look after his elderly parents at his and Plath’s home in Devon. His work on Crow became a different story now too, taking every spare moment which Assia could otherwise have shared. With domesticity forced on him once again, Hughes looked to the now unattainable Plath for his hunter’s inspiration as he had turned to Assia before. And if Sylvia Plath’s experience with Hughes’ family was mixed, Assia was anathema to them. This is interesting enough given the gospel according to Olwyn Hughes: Koren and Negev indicate strongly that Hughes’ family had seen Plath as flawed, but still the best wife for him. Assia was not. Hughes’ father would never forgive Assia, then engaged in translating poems of Amichai, for her German accent — a detail that Plath would have relished.

With nobody to talk to and little to do, Assia became increasingly obsessed with Plath. If Koren and Negev are right, she did this job on herself. Though she was sensitive enough to be unnerved by Hughes’ occultism, especially his “superstitions about marriage” and Plath in particular, there is no evidence in this book of Hughes drawing Assia into the same flirtation with actual magic as Plath. Assia didn’t have the imagination, and by now, Hughes didn’t have the time. His devotion to his parents and especially his mother was very great, a detail usually left out of biographies of Plath. The extra energy that he had went on solitary creation and not on the folie á deux Assia was reading about in Plath’s journals. Once again she found that Plath had licked the plate clean: “She had a million times the talent, 1,000 times the will, 100 times the greed and passion that I have.” (For all the unflattering angles at which Hughes appears in this book, it accumulates ever more evidence that Plath was the love of Hughes’ life. A poignant example: the woman with whom Hughes replaced Assia, Brenda Hedden, was presented with a poem that Assia had received earlier as being meant for her: “In their entwined sleep they exchanged arms and legs/In their dreams their brains took each other hostage/In the morning they wore each other’s face.” It was, of course, written for Sylvia Plath.)

“What a pity they could not have married each other,” went the old joke about Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots. The idea of Sylvia and Assia finding salvation by befriending each other, like Mary and Rhoda, in a more woman-friendly age is very tempting. It’s also tempting to speculate that had Assia parted from Ted, she might have not only survived but flourished. Of all the principals in the Plath drama, Assia had the most ostensible freedom to get out — apart from Hughes, nothing was in it for her. Perhaps, though, these “Why didn’t she just leave?” judgments are illusory. Assia Wevill was not the sixties swinger whom some of her contemporaries saw in her. Quite the reverse: she made a point of shopping at Harrod’s and speaking with as British an accent as possible, and for all her adventuring, her dreams never went far beyond finding a man and settling down. And for a woman as obsessed with her looks as Assia, the changing standards of beauty at the time must have provided exquisite torture. Tall, thin women like Plath were fashionable now; Assia was stocky. In another few years “ethnic” would be hot, especially in older women, and Assia might have found herself a new heyday. But in the era of the leggy blonde, she looked middle-aged. “She was very critical of her looks, edgy when people looked at her,” a friend remembers. As she approached forty, she no longer had the initiative to imagine life outside the only place where she had belonged to a grand narrative, however excruciating. Assia and Hughes were in fact much alike. Both were sexy, narcissistic, passive-destructive, decent on a good day, and permanent outsiders to the British class system; given a pass to elite membership, both approached it with childlike materialism and longing for acceptance rather than the rebellion to which they pretended, or may just have embodied. It seems logical that without the ghost of Plath, they could have made it a go.

The ghost of Plath, though, is likely to be what made Assia stay until it was too late. She was at least half in love with the woman who had scooped her identity as lovelorn Jew and whom she would never successfully impersonate. Koren and Negev deny that Assia was fixated on Plath in the manner of a groupie, pointing out that it was practical for her to use Plath’s household objects when living in the same house; but it is clear that at the least, the brilliance of Plath’s ghost made it all-important for Assia to hang on to Ted. In one of her last diary entries Assia wrote: “‘It’s Sylvia — it’s because of her’ — I can’t answer that. No more than if it were a court sentence.” This left her without hope. “It says die — die, soon… I can’t believe it — any more than I could believe hearing of my own death.” Whether Hughes meant it or whether he knew this was the thing which would make Assia give up, we won’t know. But in one sense, Assia did not give up. Plath’s friend A. Alvarez believes that Assia’s gassing of her daughter as well as herself was one last-ditch attempt to compete: her “only way of outdoing her dead rival was in the manner of her death.”

Still, Assia Wevill is not the key to Plath, though she inspired much of Ariel and she may well be the key to Ted Hughes. (The companion biography which provides the true key to Plath might be one of Aurelia.) Assia’s father summed up his feelings in a way that ironically parallels those of Irving Howe and other Jewish critics of Plath’s: “I can’t understand it… People were killed in Bergen-Belsen, and here’s a woman who kills herself because of her love for a man.” The novelist Fay Weldon was close to Assia and acquainted with Plath, and dates her feminism from Assia’s death and her own conviction that Hughes was so not worth it. Plath, however, could live without Hughes. She proved it in her final year, when she wrote one of the defining books of a century all on her own and wrote her mother that she was poised to “take London by storm.” During her marriage, many observers found that she gave as good as she got. Plath was a survivor, and a consummate professional; it seems entirely possible that with better luck she might have lasted out that particular bout of depression to work for many more years, perhaps even finding succor in today’s understanding of chemical imbalances. It’s unlikely that Plath died of love, to reference Koren and Negev’s summing-up of the two rivals’ shared fate. But it is quite possible that Assia did, in the way that she understood love. The “myth of Sylvia Plath,” with its trappings of phantom Jewishness, real feminist grievance, and Anna Karenina-like romantic doom — as well as folly — belongs properly to the other woman.