Imagining Troubled Lives Of Plath, Hughes

from: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - May 20, 2001

By Dennis Loy Johnson, Special To The Journal Sentinel

The recent court case that blocked an author from re-imagining the inner lives of the fictional characters in "Gone With the Wind" throws into ironic relief what will be the sticking point for most people with Emma Tennant's new novel, "Sylvia and Ted": it re-imagines the inner lives of real people -- poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, not to mention Assia Wevill, Hughes' lover after his marriage to Plath failed. It's a ghastly tragedy even before being layered with literary meanings.

Plath killed herself in 1963, soon after separating from Hughes. Mostly unknown then, two years later a collection of her blistering confessional poems -- "Ariel" -- turned her into one of the first icons of the feminist movement, and Hughes was universally reviled for supposedly driving her to her death.

Less widely known is that, just six years after Plath's death, Wevill -- with whom Hughes had a daughter, Shura -- committed suicide, too, gassing both herself and 4-year-old Shura. It is the thing that cemented Hughes' reputation as the worst kind of lady killer -- actual. And with that final murder-suicide, the novel rests, in both plot and sympathy.

It's an unfortunately neat package for fiction -- using a plot based entirely on a well-known, recent reality undercuts all sense of suspense.

And Tennant provides no surprises in characterization or prose style. She is of the camp that believes Hughes was a womanizer entirely responsible for the death of both women. He is introduced as a small, nameless boy, working as a "beater" to drive deer out of the underbrush for rich hunters to kill.

But he can't help it -- the 7-year-old kills a deer himself. "How long he has yearned, with his great lust to kill, to take one of these, lift it dead like a bride in his arms and carry it down the mountainside." Throughout, the language is florid, as if to match style with subject.

But in terms of narrative, it often adds up to purple prose that's stripped almost entirely of meaning.

Take the scene of Hughes' and Plath's first meeting at an apartment party. For people looking on, "What can be seen is so wild, so primitive, so extraordinary, that even the music dies down and people break out in excited chatter and the place grows hot . . . There's a sense of orgy -- of Dionysus let loose -- and of the flames that must consume such unlicensed behavior in puritan, postwar Cambridge: the flames of hell." All this, plus endless depiction of what went on in the characters' heads during sex, while creating poetry and while committing suicide. Such fantasizing leaves no room for a far more complicated reality: The text raises no criticism of Plath for abandoning two toddlers; it mentions, but seems largely uninformed by, the fact that Plath was suicidal long before she met Hughes; it seems to blame Hughes as much as Assia for Shura's murder; and it grants neither woman a sense of free will. Nor does it tell you that Hughes edited and brought to light all the writing that made Plath famous, much of it critical of him; that he refused to talk about either woman despite withering, decades-long attack; that he went on to became England's poet laureate and even chance love again -- including one notable failure, with a little-known writer named Emma Tennant.

None of which is to defend Hughes, but merely to say that this story is complex unto being unknowable to outsiders, and that "Sylvia and Ted" is ghoulishly judgmental in its exploitative presumption. However, in another new book, "Ariel's Gift," Erica Wagner studies Hughes' and Plath's destructive relationship not by speculating as to their thoughts, but by comparing their work on the subject -- Plath's "Ariel," and Hughes "Birthday Letters," the collection of poems addressed to Plath that Hughes had secretly worked on for 25 years, and published only just before his death.

Wagner, the literary editor of the Times of London, has written an absorbing book that is more than just the sum of its critical and biographical parts -- it is a tribute to two of the 20th century's most troubled yet brilliant poets.

Memo: Dennis Loy Johnson is a columnist and reviewer who lives in New Jersey. --Sylvia and Ted. by Emma Tennant. Holt. 180 pages. $22. --Ariel's Gift. By Erica Wagner. Norton. 312 pages. $25.95.

Copyright 2001 Journal Sentinel Inc.

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