"Sylvia and Ted", by Emma Tennant; Henry Holt (192 pages, $22)

from: The Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX) - August 29, 2001

Stephen G. Michaud

From Antony and Cleopatra to Sid and Nancy, star-crossed lovers always make great copy. It's best if they're dead, though, so they can't sue.

This is the opportunity that British writer Emma Tennant seizes in "Sylvia and Ted," her fictionalized take on the famously tangled romance of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Tennant herself once had an affair with Hughes, which adds a frisson of coy authenticity to her story. The reader can't help but guess how much of this sometimes-jolting account first came to light as pillow talk. Then again, maybe none of it did. Tennant cleverly has it both ways.

Sylvia Plath, born in 1932, is best known for her novel "The Bell Jar," originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas, and "Collected Poems," edited by her widower, which won an extremely rare posthumous Pulitzer in 1982. Plath was a gifted and deeply troubled artist, haunted by her father's death from diabetes complications when she was only 8, and afflicted with a clinical depression that ultimately led to her suicide in 1963.

In the consensus view, Ted Hughes was the instrument of that destruction. Plath, an American, met Britain's future poet laureate in 1956 when both were at Cambridge. As Tennant tells it, something hot and primal arced between the young poets, a searing, pre-conscious connection that became Plath's lifeline until the summer of 1962, when Hughes abandoned her for a new love, the hyper-sensual Assia Wevill.

In "Sylvia and Ted," Mrs. Wevill is pregnant with Hughes' child at the time of Plath's suicide. Three weeks later, she undergoes a bloody abortion in Plath's apartment, the same one Sylvia previously shared with Ted. Wevill later becomes the second Mrs. Ted Hughes, and in 1969, she, too, turns on the gas jets, killing herself as well as the couple's 2-year-old daughter.

This part of Ted Hughes' story has received little public examination, principally because Hughes chose not to discuss it. I'm certainly curious to know how this talented, accomplished poet dealt with two suicides by identical means by two plainly disturbed wives. What did that tell Hughes about himself? Tennant apparently doesn't know, or else has chosen not to tell. At least not in this book.

Instead, she assigns Hughes second place in her title, and in her story. He emerges as a sort of thinking girl's hunk: big, brilliant, handsome and intuitive, yet also self-absorbed, bemused by the occult and a bit of a rube. Tennant makes it clear that Hughes did passionately love Plath, but casual cruelty and infidelities of all sorts punctuated their seven years together, including Hughes' summer dalliance with a 15-year-old girl, and culminating in the Assia Wevill affair, which pushed a despairing Plath to lay her head in the gas oven.

Still, Hughes, in his way, was as unstable as Plath. In the end, both poets seemed more devoted to themselves, and to their muses, than they were to each other. Creativity made for a singular love, but also doomed it.

In a scene where Hughes and Plath visit her father's grave, Tennant writes, "Ted knows each thought that flickers through Sylvia's mind, before it's either discarded or made electric by its conjunction with new thoughts and words ... today, as he stands and sees her cry her heart out by the mean gravel patch, he must wonder if they are, or ever can be."

Because of Plath's psychic affliction, the book says the answer, inevitably, was "no:" "Clever as she is, Sylvia ... feels a languor, a giving-in to death, to the father Ted tells her she loves more than she cares for him. She feels a heavy-limbed longing for the sacrifice of suicide: Ted was born to conquer, and she is bereft of even the desire for life. He'll do so well without her!"

In fact, Hughes did do well without Sylvia Plath, although his reputation was permanently scarred by her suicide. "Sylvia and Ted" won't change anyone's thinking on that matter. But, beyond the nettlesome question of what to believe is true in Tennant's book, the author has produced a fascinating, harrowing tale of genius and betrayal.

Memo: Dallas author Stephen G. Michaud's latest book, "Dark Dreams," was published last month by St. Martin's Press.

(c) 2001, Fort Worth Star-Telegram


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