Monday, 27 August 2012

Lover of Unreason: The Story of Assia Wevill

I've had this entry in my "saved" folder for some weeks now. The reason I've held off from hitting publish is mainly because by discussing this topic I'm aware that I could be construed as feeding into the world of gossip and speculation towards Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and their marriage. I don't want to do this, but at the same time, I think that perhaps giving a book review on the subject of Assia Wevill might give readers the chance to find out a little more about "the other woman" and perhaps by the end, we might all consider our personal feelings a little changed. Or realise that personal judgements don't matter when looking at the literature!

Plath wrote, "Now the room is ahiss" in 'Words heard, by accident, over the phone'. Most critics think the "ahiss" is a direct reference to Assia. Hughes memorialised his falling in love with the exotic Wevill in 'Dreamers'. Her life and interactions have been captured in the film "Sylvia" - and anyone interested in Plath knows vague details about the woman who stole Hughes away. But who was Assia Wevill? What was it about her that motivated Hughes and Plath to document her in their writings? It's a difficult question. But I do think it is something worth addressing - even for the sake of filling in a few gaps in general awareness.

Saying that, I now aim to give a review of the 2006 biography, Lover of Unreason: Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath's Rival and Ted Hughes's Doomed Love. I do so primarily because I think Wevill did inform some of Plath's poems, and I think the anger that propelled the creative burst Sylvia Plath had in autumn 1962 was as a result of the many things, but the break-up of her marriage was a hugely important catalyst. For this basic reason, Wevill is a person of note. Reading the book, I found myself becoming interested in Wevill as an individual - intrigued by how she was described by those who knew her. I feel that these reasons warrant a review of this book.

Lover of Unreason is a thorough and well-researched study. My main problem with it is the tendency Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negav have to make sweeping statements, particularly when it came to Wevill's relationship with Hughes and her death. As any Plath researcher understands, the romanticisation and frankly stupid glamorization of suicide that fills Plath studies is a huge concern not just for biographers, but for good criticism. I feel that Lover of Unreason does not quite manage to escape these pitfalls. There are many clich├ęd commentaries and silly turns of phrase throughout the book. Assia Wevill is mainly depicted as a woman who yearns to find a "rightful place" in her life. And Koren and Negev make it very clear that it was with Ted Hughes whom she was most clearly denied this role. I think the main problem with the book is that although it is a biography of Wevill, she is very much a secondary character to the husbands, friends and experiences detailed. At times, it feels as though Assia is being dragged along behind the events of her life. If Wevill had been made the central focus of the biography - and not the men or women she desired to be attached to - we may have been given a better understanding of the inner workings of her character. But unfortunately, this does not happen. These points are my major criticism of the book. On the plus side, it is very well researched and offers an interesting glimpse into a individual experience of post-war Europe.

Assia Wevill (born Gutmann) was born to a Jewish family in Germany. The family fled Germany soon after Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Living briefly in France and Italy, Wevill spent 1934-46 in Tel Aviv. Stunningly beautiful but apparently not without vanity, "She developed into a stunning young woman, for ever staring at her reflection in shop windows, sitting behind the bus driver to peek at his mirror and admire herself..." (p. 22) - Lover of Unreason immediately sets up Wevill's life-long obsession with her own beauty and self-interest. And really, this is the main thrust of the book. We read about her first marriage (to meteorologist John Steele) and stays in Canada, sketchily accounted-for abortions; a second marriage to economist/cosmologist Richard Lipsey, a move back to London and Wevill's meeting with third and final husband David within the first sixty pages of the book. It is the brisk nature of these accounts that frustrated me, because as I read, I felt I was being told about Assia's love for fashion (preferring to walk up and down Oxford Street than attend design classes that she had been enrolled in) and men; rather than understanding the reasons why she may have felt like this. Within the first sixty pages, the figure of Assia Wevill was already being moulded into the shape I knew well from my schooling in all things Plath - adulterous, fickle, easily influenced and beautiful. I feel that there must be more to this story than just this.

Lover of Unreason navigates into familiar Plath/Hughes territory interestingly - with David Wevill allegedly remembering Plath while at Cambridge in 1956, "standing out in her spring dress among the students in their rumpled clothes" (p. 68). David and Assia Wevill shared a love for poetry and seemed to enjoy a strong relationship. They lived in Burma together - a place Assia adored, and David encouraged her artistically. It was very interesting to read about the beginnings of her relationship with David Wevill, and what I feel was a strong merit of this book was the inclusion of snippets of poems Assia herself had written around this time period. I feel like this side to her could have been given much more attention. We are given a few stanzas here and there, but are unfortunately given very little idea about what Assia was interested in, and what might have inspired her in order to pick apart her writing.

Three chapters are devoted to Assia and David Wevill returning to London, renting Hughes and Plath's Chalcot Square home; visiting them at Court Green in Devon, and the affair that ensued. Assia, David and Plath are all given a secondary role in these chapters - like pieces in a game, revolving around Hughes. Koren and Negev document some interesting specifics about the affair between Hughes and Wevill: Assia sending Hughes a blade of grass dipped in Dior perfume to Court Green, and Hughes replying by posting her back her blade of grass plus one from his own garden - "the blade of London grass lay beside the one from Devon" (p. 96). We are also told how "ironically it was Sylvia's rage... that enabled the barely budding romance to quickly bloom" (p. 97). Make of these quotes what you will, readers! Because it is this kind of narrative style that makes me despair of biographies.

The book goes on to describe what happened in the run up to Plath's suicide (lots of glossy revelations about Hughes's sexual tastes), and what happened in the aftermath of February 11th, 1963. We are told how Assia struggled to choose between Hughes and David, her husband. These accounts show Wevill as a conflicted woman, often shallow and unthinking. We also get an inclination that Hughes was seeing other women, such as Susan Allison, who is said to be the woman documented in 'Last Letter'. We read about life after Plath's death, how difficult it was for Hughes. Assia's struggling choice between David Wevill and Hughes, and the ensuing paternal mystery of her child Shura.

It is the period of Wevill's life after daughter Shura's birth that I feel is the best portion of Lover of Unreason. I felt that her love for Shura was very poignant and reflective of Plath's strong love for her children, particularly her daughter Frieda. From motherhood onwards, I felt that actually Assia Wevill and Plath shared many similarities, in a way. That the bonds of motherly love unite these two figures, showing their true nature as strong, loving women. Like Plath before her, remarks are made over Assia's looks. While awful creatures like Dido Merwin commented on Plath's eating habits and weight as an example of her unladylike nature; Assia is also disparaged as being obsessive over ageing and losing her looks. I think this says a lot about how women are belittled in biographies in general. Aside from that, we are given greater details from her journals, better accounts of her artistic interests, hobbies and personality. It was very interesting to read of her translating skills, particularly in publishing poet Yehuda Amichai's Selected Poems. Time spent in Ireland with Hughes seems to have been the happiest, most secure time in her tragic life. Upon their return to London; Lover of Unreason determines that amid Hughes's alleged philandering, Wevill becomes increasingly distanced, increasingly under pressure by the spectre of Plath and in March 1969, along with Shura, she completes suicide.

Lover of Unreason is a well researched book, but I really feel that it succumbs to a lot of the same downfalls as Plath biographies (and writing about women, in general) seem to. I feel now that I know more about the facts of Assia Wevill's life, but never got a sense of who she was while reading. The book is written in too extreme a manner. Ted Hughes is made the central figure, and he is torn apart and judged harshly. Though it is written in a muted way, Lover of Unreason is damning in its subtleness. Assia is seen as selfish, sexually promiscuous, easily led and almost a pathetic figure. Plath is either jealous wife or untouchable literary icon. Hughes is the domineering, boorish man who acts - everyone else just follows his lead. It is for this reason that Lover of Unreason disappointed me. I think that, being the only biography of Assia Wevill, she deserved more than to be a secondary player in the story of her own life. In this way, I think how her life has been depicted resonates greatly with how a lot of Plath scholarship has been carried out - words have been placed into the mouths of these women - their true voices, writings and personalities have been obscured.

The life and death of Assia Wevill is a deeply tragic one. Reading Lover of Unreason, it is almost possible to close the book and comment, "well, she had it coming." This isn't good enough. I feel that readers are being directed to her death from page one. The mournful tones of narrative, combined with over-emphasis on sex, make-up, and her fickle personality detract from the interesting life story and the artistic side of this woman, who meant so much to so many (not just men). Lover of Unreason is a worthwhile read as a fact-finding mission. I found it very interesting to read about Wevill's husbands, her literary interests and how she responded to her role in the break-up of Plath's marriage. Not everything is pleasant, but it has certainly given me a wider frame of perspective on why Plath responded poetically to Wevill in the way she did. Lover of Unreason is by no means an essential read, but it sheds some light on Assia Wevill, and also demonstrates the difficulty of writing about women, even in modern times.


Julia Gordon-Bramer said...

Thanks for this. I Twittered a reply, but wanted the space to expand! Your comment on despairing over narrative style made me think.

As I'm currently deep into the work of a biography myself, there is that tricky balance between making something a readable story, versus a long chronology of data points. I have read too many biographies of the latter, and while yes, they are absolutely clear and accurate, they are dull-dull-dull. An author is going to have to occasionally speculate and process, through his or her own personal experience (and yes, baggage such as prejudices, preconceptions, etc.). Certainly, we won't always agree all the time. But I do think that narrative voice makes the difference between something highly readable and a dry list of facts.

The other thing is that sometimes the narrative voice can be a gift. When the author has an epiphany or understanding of how or why something might have happened, bringing tangible, real-world experience and emotional processing of the facts, if it is told honestly ("It may have been that Assia Wevill..."), then I think this is not only forgivable, but something quite valuable. We are thinking, feeling humans, after all.

So, those are just my two cents. I enjoyed the review!

northern song said...

Hello, I am a new reader here and I could not help but comment when coming across this post. As someone who is currently fairly deep into research on the life and work of Sylvia Plath as well, I must commend you for your decision to post this review. Like you, it was with an almost reserved curiosity that I approached the book. Whether we like it or nnot, Assia Wevill certainly has a firm place in the narrative of both Plath and Hughes. In a literary environment where the unnecessary and primary focus rests on "the love triangle" and all of the speculative (or far reaching) details regarding life, love, and death...this was in a sense refreshing by providing more details of the actual human being involved in the situation. This includes addressing Shura, the 5 year old child that died as a result of these often misconstrued circumstances.
Before I get carried away, I will add that you bring up an excellent point about the way in which females are addressed and approached in literature. It was lovely to see that someone else approached the book much in the same manner as myself, and drew similar conclusions. Your review was truly a pleasure to read!

Stephanie, a fellow Plath fanatic

Rehan Qayoom said...

You have hit upon the real problem with this biography. That it is primarily a biography written against a background of the interaction of other people's lives with Assia's. As you so correctly state, it would have read better as well as being a better biography if the writers had taken Assia as their subject and lifted her from the assumptions and stories that have built up around her. I sensed that there was too much of the Plath/Hughes myth about this book which was a perfectly normal feeling before one approaches the book but one which the book does little do dispel. Having said that one cannot dismiss its importance as part of the canon.

Hughes also speaks of Susan Allison by name in Birthday Letters, alluding to events described in 'Last Letter':

Nor was Susan
Who still had to be caught in the labyrinth,
And who would meet the Minotaur there,
And would be holding me from my telephone
Those nights you would most need me. On this evening
Nothing could make me think I would ever be needed
By anybody. Ten years had to darken,
Three of them in your grave, before Susan
Could pace that floor above night after night
(Where you and I, the new rings big on our fingers,
Had warmed our wedding night in the single bed)
Crying alone and dying of leukemia.

The Plath Diaries said...

Thanks so much for your comments, everyone. I was very hesitant about putting this post online!

Biography is definitely a very difficult medium of writing and Julia as you rightly point out, it is so difficult to find that balance between a dry regurgitation of facts and total fabrication. I think other books have done it better. Gail Levin's biography on Lee Krasner (artist and wife of Jackson Pollock) although not Plath-related, is the story of a woman who is perceived to have lived under the shadow of a man all her life - yet the biography is a wonderful telling of her story, showing Krasner as a talented and excitingly intelligent person in her own right. It's a pity the same couldn't have been done for Assia in this book, and Plath, in general!

Stephanie - Thank you so much for your comment! I'm so glad you enjoyed the review and you definitely made me realise hitting "publish" was the right thing to do!

Rehan - Thanks, as always, for your factual information and quotations! :)

Jennifer Majewski said...

Your review is very interesting...I am currently rereading "A Lover of Unreason," and I, too, have many mixed feelings about the narrative (and the problematic nature of narrative in biography, in general. A book that addresses this issue very intelligently is Janet Malcolm's The Silent Woman). That said, I do think that, although Assia Wevill is portrayed as very self-obsessed all throughout the book, the biographers have hit on an important key--or one of the crucial keys--to her character. Assia's physical beauty invariably became Center Stage in the drama of her life, because it became essential to her very existence: to be beautiful, and to remain, forever, beautiful, was crucial to her self-survival, her identity as a woman. She dreaded the prospect of aging with an almost avid morbidity, and losing her looks, and therefore, her power over men in this way, was unthinkable to her. She seemed to connect her own identity too rigidly to her relationships with men, as so many of us women, very sadly, tend to do. I think this was an important component to her character, and therefore, crucial to the story of her life, and to her terrible undoing.

Anonymous said...

The Lover of unreason is quite interesting. The typical love triangle. Sylvia did not deserve this treatment by Hughes although it happens everyday in life. I am saddened by these tragic events and the loss of a 5 yr. old child. Things may have turned out much different if Hughes remained faithful to Sylvia.

Anonymous said...

The Lover of unreason is quite interesting. The typical love triangle. Sylvia did not deserve this treatment by Hughes although it happens everyday in life. I am saddened by these tragic events and the loss of a 5 yr. old child. Things may have turned out much different if Hughes remained faithful to Sylvia.