Sylvia and Ted By Emma Tennant Henry Holt & Co., $22
It's a measure of how Emma Tennant's existence is contained in the world of letters that she begins her novel Sylvia and Ted with an author's note calling it "the story of the twentieth century's most famous - and most tragic - love affair."
It would be an excellent thing if poetry carried such weight in popular culture that the relationship between Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes dominated the consciousness of the English-speaking world, the way, say, those of Charles and Diana or Jack and Jackie did, or Edward and Mrs. Simpson before that.
But there's no point in quibbling with Tennant about her enthusiasm. She has written an intriguing "work of the imagination," using the facts of the terrible conjunction between the gifted and unstable American poet Sylvia Plath and the gifted and emotionally impenetrable English poet Ted Hughes.
They met at Cambridge in 1956, married and had two children, and Sylvia killed herself in London in 1963, when Ted was having an affair with Assia Wevill, who also killed herself, along with her daughter by Hughes, six years later.
The midcentury was an odd time to be a genius and a middle-class wife and mother. Modern feminism was incipient. Ted respected Sylvia's talent - Tennant includes an anecdote about their domestic adaptation to the necessities of writing around babies, dividing care of their infant daughter by morning and afternoon. And Ted, the future poet laureate in the service of Queen Elizabeth II, was the designated potato peeler of the Plath-Hughes household.
But the subterranean understanding between the sexes the couple had internalized was that his poems were his work and Sylvia's writing was her work in addition to her children, her kitchen and her garden. When Ted fell in love with Assia, he left the Devon house he shared with his wife to follow his new interest with little ceremony, "a pressing need to take the Exeter train to the city in the morning. Work: Money: a matter of urgency," as Tennant describes it. Sylvia would have had to make a few provisions concerning children before she boarded a city-bound train to meet a lover.
Tennant uses Greek myth to condense the conflicts, recasting the golden-haired poetess as the golden-haired athlete who offers to marry the man who can defeat her in a race and loses when she stops to pick up golden apples tossed in her way by her opponent. "Ted has thrown the first golden apple - the baby, innocent in its cot - to the running beauty, the Atalanta/Sylvia he must outstrip and conquer in the race for fame." Sylvia, famously, put bread and milk beside her sleeping children's beds before she put her head in the gas oven in her kitchen. And she left the poems that would be collected as Ariel on her desk, poems that recast her, as Robert Lowell wrote, as "one of those super-real, hypnotic, great classical heroines." They can hardly be read as separate from her death lust. Lowell again: "These poems are playing Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder."
Tennant, previously best known for her not-very-serious sequels to Jane Austen novels, had a romance with Hughes in the 1970s, and clearly intends that connection to bolster the credibility of her enterprise, making a reference to "insights from my own past relationship with Hughes" in an "interview" her publisher sent out with review copies of Ted and Sylvia. Assia is Tennant's villain, a witch, more significant as the dark fate Sylvia had predicted for herself finally arrived in the flesh than as Ted's lover. She's already had three husbands when she makes a bet in the advertising office where she works that she can seduce the poet. How would Sylvia and Ted read if you didn't know the story before you started? It would be an odd experience, possibly pointless, since there are assumptions that allow Tennant to write, which she does nicely, and to speculate about the motives and feelings of all three of her principals.
Copyright (c) 2001 The Commercial Appeal, Memphis, TN
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