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.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Thoughts on second year & photo round-up!

Earlier today I was doing a little desktop tidying when it occurred to me that I has forgotten to share the rest of my Plath-related photos from last year's trip to Smith College. So I thought I would post the images on here without too detailed a description, and if anyone has questions or requests for further information, get in touch with me or comment!

Personally speaking, my time really isn't my own at the moment. I've been busy trying to finish drafting my first and second thesis chapters. I am ready to embark on writing my third (having most of the reading/research/arguments done and thought out), but I hesitate to progress without having my first and second chapters ready to the point where I won't need to go over them again until I have the entire thesis completely drafted. Then, the editing begins (hopefully around April)! I honestly can't believe time has flown so much - that I'm about to enter my final year of this wonderful Ph.D. process. I think my wish for this coming year is to really work 9 - 5 every day (as opposed to 11am - 4pm, or the much more frequent 3pm - 8pm/7pm/6pm...eek...).

I also hope that this is the year I begin to feel more like a researcher, and less an imposter. Confidence is something I have really struggled with throughout this process, mostly because of my own negativity and poor self-esteem, but also other factors like my disastrous differentiation process weigh heavily on my mind. Funny how the negative experiences have much more resonance than the positives I have achieved, like getting things published, receiving good feedback at conferences, successfully leading seminars and lecturing, etc. The good news in this respect is that I managed to find some funding to attend the Sylvia Plath Symposium at the University of Indiana at Bloomington this October. Hopefully this will give a needed confidence boost! I absolutely cannot wait to meet some of the biggest names in the field of Plath studies, and the fact I'm giving a paper based on one of my chapters will be a litmus test for how my thesis will be received. What a nerve-wracking prospect! But how exciting, also!

Negatives aside, I think my main achievement of this second year has been my growing belief in the importance and relevance of my question. I really believe that my question is important, and it reflects the way I passionately consider the work of Sylvia Plath. Whether I can bring it to full fruition is another story, but I will do my level best to achieve this! I've also, in the past few months really, finally managed to grasp key concepts of literary theory. Literary criticism has always been something I have grappled with, but I think having taught concepts of theory (structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction particularly) this year forced me to break down a lot of complicated ideas and helped me understand everything a bit more. This further encouraged me to attend philosophy seminars and listen to podcasts, helping to further the knowledge of ideas I was teaching and reading about in my own time. I'm by no means an expert, but I think I'm getting to a place of understanding! Frankly speaking, the next year is going to be insanely busy with work. I predict little else in store for 2013 but writing, a few conference presentations, hopefully one more publication and also trying to save money from my funding so that I'm not completely broke by October next year. So that means no pub, no holidays, no distractions! The climate for jobs post-Ph.D. is a huge topic and worthy of a blog post in itself, so to put it briefly, I'm under no illusions about walking into employment once I finish. I am very ambitious and hope that I manage to get a good job after this Ph.D. While I would like to stay within the academic world... I'm not restricting myself solely to that. It just isn't practical. I'll blog more about this in full another time. I just hope that come the end of this wonderful process I will have passed my Ph.D., have work suitable for publication, not have any debt and have a small amount of savings. Fingers crossed!!

Back to more interesting things. Here are the final selection of Plath-related photos from my Smith College trip last year. It really was just another world over there. Beautiful leafy trees, cute coffee shops, music, the most wonderful library I've ever been in... Just a complete bubble, a haven from the rest of the world. I had dreamed of places like Smith, and Northampton; and to spend time there was an absolute privilege.

Plath lived in Lawrence House from September 1952 until her graduation from Smith in 1955. It was in Lawrence House where Plath met and became friends with Nancy Hunter Steiner. The two girls shared a house together in Cambridge, MA in the summer of 1954 while at Harvard Summer School. Hunter Steiner went on to write A Closer Look at Ariel in memory of her friend.

337 Elm Street, where Hughes and Plath lived while Plath taught at Smith College. They rented an apartment in the back of the house. The photograph of the footpath shows the walk from 337 Elm Street to Smith. Plath would have walked this path regularly. Child's Park (inspiration for 'Child's Park Stones') is further up this street, just a little further than #337.

Finally - obligatory geeky photo of a thrilled Plath fan living her dream at the Smith College gates! :)