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Book Review: Lover of Unreason by Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev

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I eagerly anticipated the release of A Lover of Unreason by Israeli journalists Yehuda Koren and Eliat Negev, authors of the unique Holocaust narrative When We Were Giants. I’m shamelessly fascinated with books on the life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, for reasons I can't always pinpoint. I often find myself reveling in tales of their brief time of happiness at Court Green, particularly Diane Wood Middlebrook’s sun-drenched and daffodil-starred descriptions of the property in her Plath-Hughes biography, Her Husband

I always imagine Court Green as a sort of writerly paradise, with a marrow-deep magic that infused the writing of both Hughes and Plath. I want to go back in time and be a guest there, helping Hughes prune the ancient rosebushes or whipping up recipes from The Joy of Cooking with Plath in her kitchen. Perhaps I also identify with the time of Plath’s life in which she was a struggling single mother, ill and surrounded by bad weather, lack of moral support, and small children, for I raised my own children alone in a rural house drenched by storms several months out of the year. As I read various biographies of Plath, I find myself asking certain questions: “What was right in the lives of this couple? What were their mistakes? Could it possibly have ended any differently?”

Still, as I read Lover of Unreason, I found myself asking another question: “Why am I reading this book, so full of tragedy and excruciatingly flawed people?” Lover of Unreason explores the cipher in the Plath-Hughes equation, the shadow in the noonday radiance of Court Green: Assia Wevill, Hughes’ mistress, in part responsible for the end of Plath and Hughes’ marriage.

Assia’s true role in Hughes’ life seems to have been hinted at for years in Plath biographies. I remember reading about her in Edward Butscher’s rather sensationalistic book about Plath, Method and Madness. Butscher gave Assia the pseudonym of “Olga” and described her as a “Russian beauty” who disguised her zaftig figure with long coats, so that I thought of her as dressing like a character straight out of Dr. Zhivago. In fact, Wevill’s weight and her striking looks seem to be a point of discussion in nearly every biography I have read which includes a description of her. I never hear about Hughes’ weight, or Plath’s, and it is hardly a point of interest to me about any of these people.

At any rate, Wevill has been mainly described as a temptress, a veritable serpent in the Garden of Eden that was the Plath-Hughes marriage. I had little idea of Assia’s background until I read the comprehensive study of her in Lover of Unreason. Wevill was the daughter of a Jewish father of Russian extraction and a Lutheran mother of German ancestry.

In 1933, when she was a young child, Assia, her sister Celia, and her parents fled Berlin during the Nazis' rise to power. They settled in Tel Aviv, where Assia bloomed into young womanhood. Assia seemed to become a restless soul, and traveled to England, straight into a disastrous first marriage — and, though married, Assia continued to need and attract as much male attention as she could, and she eventually divorced and remarried three times before she met up with Ted Hughes.

Koren and Negev spare no details of how alluring Assia was. Indeed, her pictures show that she resembled the young Elizabeth Taylor, and her fashion sense was quite strong. I was impressed with the fact that Assia had a lucrative career in advertising and made her way in the world up until the very day of her death. Her third husband, David Wevill, was devoted to her. She had money of her own, good looks, a generosity of spirit that nudged her to lavish friends with gifts, even an artistic bent — she seemed to be a fairly competent poet and was proud enough of her own watercolors that she framed and displayed them throughout her house. Why, then, did her life ultimately come tumbling down around her like a fragile house of cards? Plath at least left her stunning writing, a legacy that outlived her; Wevill seemed reduced to a mere ghost after years of systematic erasure from Ted Hughes’ life.

Negev and Koren fail to fully answer the question of Assia's self-destructiveness comprehensively in Lover of Unreason, or make some sense of the discordant notes in her personality. They state that marriage suited Assia — if so, then how does one explain her many divorces, her apparent need for infidelities and sexual intrigue, her statement to a work colleague that she was off to “seduce Ted Hughes” when Plath and Hughes invited the Wevills for a weekend at Court Green? Negev and Koren do manage to shed some light on why Hughes and Assia continued their relationship beyond the fling it likely was meant to be, for Plath killed herself a few months after she and Hughes separated. The authors point out that Hughes’ need for someone to help him shoulder the responsibilities of parenting the children Plath left behind probably tethered him prematurely to Assia. Indeed, and I think admirably, she did take to Plath and Hughes’ two children, and eventually bore a child of her own with Hughes, a daughter named Shura.

I have seen a rather silly photograph of Sylvia Plath gazing into a crystal ball, as if her psychic powers were beginning to bud along with her poetic ones. I wonder how it might have been for Sylvia, had she been able to see the future after her death, to know that Assia Wevill, the mistress she despised, would literally live in Plath’s London flat, sleep in Plath’s bed (and make love with Hughes there), read her journals freely, use her clothing and household utensils, even ransack dresser drawers at Court Green for Plath’s hair ribbons and combs. Lover of Unreason skillfully highlights how Assia literally wallowed in Plath’s life, probably at great cost to her own emotional well-being. This may have been a bit inevitable, as Hughes moved into Plath’s flat to give his children some security and not uproot them, but I found it odd that they didn’t eventually refurbish the flat to make it their own.

One of the strengths of this book is the description of how heartbreakingly sad life must have been for Assia. Hughes was unable to really commit to a relationship, so she and her daughter lived only sporadically with him, first in a remote, rented house in Ireland, and then at Court Green (along with Hughes’ parents; his father snubbed Assia and wouldn’t even look at her when she entered a room). Despite the fact that he was the father of their daughter, Hughes did not support Assia financially; the small amounts of money he gave her were meticulously recorded loans that had to be paid back quickly.

Assia’s relationship with Hughes seemed chaotic overall, and, though he loved Shura, Assia must have been deeply and painfully aware that her daughter would never gain the same status in Hughes’ mind as his son and daughter by Plath. A disturbing incident, described by Fay Weldon (Assia’s friend and colleague) describes Hughes giving Shura, still a very small child, wine to drink and then laughing as the child became intoxicated and danced around wildly until she fell asleep — something Weldon observed he would never do with his other children. Lover of Unreason also discusses the idea that Hughes could not really let go of Plath and accept Assia’s unique differences; he drafted a list of somewhat daunting house rules at one point which commanded Assia to be out of bed by eight, bake her own bread, put more variety in her cooking, and introduce a new recipe each week, tasks Plath had once pulled off with verve and accomplishment.  There seemed to be no rules in this "draft constitution" for Hughes to follow.

Finally, there came a time when Assia, ordered out of Court Green by Hughes, suddenly found herself on her own, caring for Shura in a London flat during a dreary and cold English springtime, reminiscent of Plath’s desperate London winter years before. There is no question in my mind that Assia loved her daughter Shura, but she also seemed entangled with her daughter, unable to see her as separate – she made no distinction between what she called her "self" and "her little self."  Assia continued to be tormented by her on-again, off-again relationship with Hughes (he rejected her emotionally and physically at this time, yet occasionally went house-hunting with her for a place they could potentially live in together). She fell into an intractable depression and began to make a will, even to hint not-so-broadly that she felt suicidal. Absolutely no one heard her very obvious cries for help.

Lover of Unreason gives haunting descriptions of the bitter cold and lingering ice on the ground around Assia's house as winter refused to release its grip, a metaphor for the fragmented, seared landscape of Assia’s emotional state. After a bitter argument with Hughes over the phone, her hopes crushed, Assia took advantage of her live-in nanny’s absence, picked up the sleeping Shura (it is not clear whether she drugged the child), and lay down with her on a pallet she had prepared in the kitchen, made from an eiderdown quilt and pillows. In a horrifying echo of Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Assia sealed the room, took a handful of sleeping pills with gulps of whiskey, then turned the oven's gas taps wide open. Shura was only five years old when she and her mother died together.

Lover of Unreason elucidates the many painful missteps taken both before and after the tragic death of this mother and daughter. Assia wanted to be buried, like Plath, in a rural English churchyard, her tombstone carved with the epitaph, “Here lies a lover of unreason, and an exile.” Instead, Assia and Shura remained unburied for years, their ashes stored at Court Green (and even misplaced for a short time) until Hughes eventually scattered them to the four winds. The authors do an excellent job of describing Hughes’ devastation after their deaths, his terrible sense that he was toxic to anyone he loved, and his soul-searing guilt over not preventing both Assia and Sylvia’s suicides. One wonders, for all his flaws, how he summoned the strength to pick up his life afterwards. The Assia Wevill-Ted Hughes equation seems an incomprehensible snarl of passions, depressions, betrayals, and warring demons which left, at the end, three senseless deaths.

Lover of Unreason helped me understand and know Assia Wevill a bit better.  Despite her destructive role in Plath's life, I certainly felt a measure of sympathy for Assia and her daughter, though I became somewhat sorry that I read this work in the gray middle of winter. It is an unsparing look at overwhelmingly tragic circumstances, so much so that I think Lover of Unreason is best read in the middle of spring and summer, so that one can step out for a bit of light and fresh air after steeping in the shadowy griefs of this book.

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  • http://www.gohah.blogspot.com GL Hauptfleisch

    Great review, well-written. Sounds like a fascinating book.

  • http://philobiblon.co.uk Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • Ms. Strega (Joan)

    Thank you both very much for your comments, and thank you, Natalie, for syndicating this to advance.net.

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