Genuine Drama, Badly Done - Sylvia and Ted: A Novel, By Emma Tennant

from: The Buffalo News (NY) - April 29, 2001

by Charity Vogel

This book starts off horrendously, gets a bit better as it goes on, and then ends with a teeth-achingly awful metaphor. Emma Tennant closes "Sylvia and Ted" with the image of a swallow, a nightingale and something called a hoopoe, flying in the May darkness high above the lonely heaths of England. The metaphor of the doomed trio of Sylvia Plath, Assia Wevill and Ted Hughes is so self-consciously artsy it makes you want to give yourself paper cuts -- many of them. Lovely unfortunate Sylvia once asked, "Do I terrify?" Well, yes -- in the hands of Tennant, you do.

But let's begin at the beginning.

Tennant, a British society debutante turned-model-turned author, now in her 60s, gives her newest book the cautious subtitle "A Novel." Apparently, this is meant to prepare us for the thick-as-Krispy-Kreme gloss of sugary artistry the familiar tale wears. And yet, Tennant is quick to claim, everything in the book is true.

Although Tennant herself knew and had an affair in the 1970s with Hughes, the recently deceased British poet laureate, there are no big Hughes-related secrets unveiled here. In fact, the book is basically a retelling of material from Plath's own detailed letters and journals (published in wonderfully unexpurgated form last year) and some of Hughes's writings, with a sprinkling of material Tennant gleaned from personal interviews with people that knew the celebrated three. Tennant gives the well-trodden material new form; she does not, for the most part, give it new life. And that, in the end, is the primary weakness of "Sylvia and Ted."

"'Sylvia and Ted' is a sincere book about a certain type of relationship," Tennant told the Sunday Times of London last fall. It is undoubtedly true that Tennant is very sincere about her story; she even goes so far as to call the marriage of Hughes and Plath, the brilliant young American poet who killed herself in 1963, the "twentieth century's most famous -- and most tragic -- love affair." (Which, of course, immediately made me try and think of all the other couples who might also make that claim. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton? Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow? F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda? John F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe? It's enough to drive you crazy. Take it from me and don't even get started.)

You know you're in for it from the very first, with the section entitled "Three Childhoods and a Suicide." (Ouch.) The three childhoods are those of Assia, who was beautiful; Sylvia, who was tormented; and Ted, who liked to kill little animals for the fun of it. The suicide was Sylvia's unsuccessful first attempt with a bottle of pills in her mother's basement. In the end, of course, both Plath and Wevill killed themselves after their relationships with Hughes unravelled messily.

Interestingly, Tennant's novel derives the bulk of its value from those scenes in which it presents the life stories of Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath side by side, uncritically and unflinchingly. There is no blame for Wevill here -- something most writers about the three have seemed unable to resist. (Is it because Tennant herself loved Hughes? Worth considering.) Most intriguing is Tennant's description of the fateful evening when Ted and Sylvia invited the Wevills, Assia and David, to dinner. Assia is exotically beautiful. Ted is entranced. Doomed Sylvia wears a cocktail dress and makes a casserole:

Sylvia brings the casserole to the table and lifts the lid. In the steam that rises she sees the Gypsy fortune-teller across the table, her stolen child exchanged for a robber prince. ... Ted escapes to childhood, to long days that end in half-light, the fall of dying deer and hare as he walks and shoots, tramping miles over ling and fell. He sees the woman who woos his wife, as they linger at table -- and what he sees is a huntress, as skilled and ruthless as himself.

Shortly after that night, Ted and Assia are lovers, and Sylvia is on her downward slide into madness -- a madness illuminated by a final glorious frenzy of art. Assia Wevill will kill herself, and her small child, just seven years later. Ted Hughes will go on, writing and loving and dreaming of the women he has known.

There's no doubt, finally, that these three individuals are about as dramatic and compelling a set of characters you're ever likely to come across. But there's also no doubt that this is not the book that brings that drama to new life. There's time enough for that, though.

Graphic: Ted Hughes, left, in 1984 file photo, and Sylvia Plath, in a 1955 photo. They and Assia Wevill make up the doomed trio in "Sylvia and Ted: A Novel." The book is basically a retelling of material from Plath's own detailed letters and journals and some of Hughes's writings, with a sprinkling of material the author gleaned from personal interviews with people that knew the celebrated three.

Copyright (c) 2001 The Buffalo News

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