Saturday, April 07, 2007

After Sylvia

In 1963 when the famous American poet Sylvia Plath committed suicide, her husband Ted Hughes, (British Poet Laureate from 1984 until his death in 1998) was with another woman, Assia Wevill who was pregnant with Hughes' child. Their love triangle was no secret, however the details about what happened to his mistress, Assia Wevill, who six years later in 1969 gassed herself and her four year old daughter Shura (allegedly Hughes was the girl's father) in her kitchen in the same fashion as Plath, were almost erased from history.

For some mysterious reason, the press refrained from reporting the tragedy. Only one local paper, the South London Press, violated what amounted to a hush-up. Even there, the story was at the bottom of page 13, and omitted any hint of an intimate connection between the poet and the deceased.

A new biography called: A Lover of Unreason: The Biography of Assia Wevill was published in Dec. 2006, and for the first time ever it tells the story of the woman that the poet, Ted Hughes tried to hide, with details about their eight-year relationship, which contributed to the ending of his marriage to Sylvia Plath. The book's title is from Assia Wevill's self-composed epitaph: "Here lies a lover of unreason, and an exile." Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, the two authors that wrote this book claim that it took them 20 years to write it by painstakingly doing all the research needed by interviewing those closest to Plath, Hughes and Wevill, including a rare interview that was granted by Hughes himself.

I can't wait to get the book in my hands and tear through it. I've always loved Sylvia Plath's poems and I found her suicide to be a tragedy in the nth degree. I thought the story ended there, but now I find out there's more - an entire chapter that goes on and eerily repeats itself in the end with an almost carbon copy suicide by "the other woman" and murder of her four year old daughter.

Here are some tidbits I've read so far from reviewers and those who've read the book:

  • Assia Wevill was born in Berlin, the daughter of a Russian-Jewish father and a German Lutheran mother, and grew up in Tel Aviv, Israel.

  • Five week after meeting, Hughes hurried to a London advertising agency where Wevill was working, scribbled a note and left it with the receptionist. It said: 'I have come to see you, despite all marriages.' Wevill couldn't resist the thrill of responding, but she wanted to do it in striking, memorable fashion. From her office window, she noticed that a gardener was mowing the lawn below and found her inspiration. She went down, picked up a single blade of the freshly cut grass, dipped it in Dior perfume and sent it to Hughes.

  • Wevill's husband took an overdose of sleeping pills after he found out about the affair, but survived.

  • Assia Wevill was sleeping in Sylvia Plath's bed recovering from an abortion, just 2 days after Plath's suicide. Apparently Wevill had an abortion partly it seems to avoid scandal.

  • At the time of Sylvia Plath's death, Ted Hughes was granted custody of their two children, (although Plath's mother petitioned for custody). Their daughter Frieda was three, and their son Nicholas was barely one year old. (Frieda followed in her parents footsteps and is an acclaimed writer. Nicholas remains out of the public eye and is a Marine Biologist in Alaska.)

  • In a diary entry, Welvill blamed the ghost of Plath for making her suicidal.

  • Ted Hughes tried to keep the suicide of Assia Wevill from his mother because he thought the news might affect her recovery (from a knee operation). However, his mother eventually did find out. She suffered a thrombosis, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. Hughes was certain that Wevill's suicide was the final blow.

  • Throughout his life, Hughes warded off biographers and journalists and asked his friends to refrain from mentioning him in interviews or in their memoirs. When his archive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was made available to the public in 2000, it was devoid of Wevill's presence in his life: none of the numerous letters they exchanged, the notes, drawings or photos, were there.

  • In the rare instances where Ted Hughes agreed to provide biographical details, Welvill and Shura were never mentioned. He claimed that after Plath's suicide and until his marriage to Carol Orchard in 1970, he raised his children assisted only by members of his family or a local woman who helped with the daily chores - that for all those years, he was looking for a permanent feminine figure but "the right woman failed to materialise". In fact, Wevill lived with him in what she called Plath's "ghost house", 23 Fitzroy Road, London, and then in Ireland and Devon, and mothered his two children.

  • In a letter to his close friend Lucas Myers, Ted Hughes reflected on his part in the deaths of his wife and lover, confessing that with Plath it was his "insane decisions", while in Wevill's case it was his "insane indecisions".

  • When Hughes granted the authors a rare interview in London in October 1996, they wrote, "Hughes said Plath's death 'was complicated and inevitable, she had been on that track most of her life. But Wevill's was avoidable.' Perhaps this was why he tried to erase her from his life. "

  • It dawned on Wevill that being at Hughes' side at the time of Plath's suicide had contaminated her forever, and that he would never marry her. "I have lived on the dream of living with Ted - and this has gone kaput," she wrote in her suicide note to her father. "There could never be another man. Never."

  • In Wevill's suicide note to her father she also wrote that her daughter Shura had become the core of her existence, and she was quite certain that if left motherless, the four-year-old, pampered child would be a second-class citizen in the Hughes household. Also that she was afraid that Shura was too old to be adopted, and did not wish her to grow up alone as a foster child, an orphan. Her murderous act was thus the outcome of a distorted over-responsibility: "Execute yourself and your little self efficiently," Wevill had written in her diary three days before.

  • Hughes' infidelity was notorious, and even while in a relationship with Weville, Hughes was also having affairs with at least 2 other women; one of whom he later married - Carol Orchard, a nurse. They remained together (despite his continued affairs over the years), until his death.

  • On March 23, 1969, Assia Wevill took her own life and that of her daughter in a manner that closely reenacted Plath's suicide. Dragging a mattress into the kitchen, Assia sealed the door and window. She then lay her sleeping child down on the mattress (some say quilts and blankets) and dissolved some sleeping pills for herself in a glass of water. Taking the pills, she turned on the gas stove, and lay down next to her daughter.

  • In a letter Hughes wrote, "Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had."

  • Hughes died of a heart attack on October 28, 1998, while undergoing treatment for colon cancer.

  • Weville's friends say at least the new biography means Welvill at last has a voice after years of being a footnote in literary history.


Anonymous said...

Gotta read that book. I have had a minor interest in Hughes, Plath and Wevill for almost 30 years.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, Nicholas Hughes,has just committed suicide in march 2009,in Alaska.

How terrible is the destiny of this family !

Fran Kastler,from France