Friday 24 October 2014

The Irish sojourn of Sylvia Plath

ASSIA WEVILL: Had an affair with Hughes and then killed herself and their daughter Shura

THE tragedy of an early death, particularly a suicide, is ghoulishly matched by the interest it provokes. Lives lived intensely then extinguished suddenly command great pity but also curiosity; regret but admiration, too.

It's rock 'n' roll; the glamour of something short and sharp eclipses the sorrow of it, and focuses public attention in a way that the gentle unfolding to old age can never do. This glamour clings to Sylvia Plath. People who don't read poetry read Plath. Teenagers who don't read anything read Plath. Her many fans show an intense, possessive adoration in which her life and work are never separated.

Minutely documented, picked over, speculated upon and analysed, there is little left of Plath's life that isn't public property. Yet the essence of this difficult, talented, haunted woman is elusive. The myth gets in the way. There is her myth, his myth - that's Ted Hughes - and the myth of their joint creation.

At Plath's funeral Hughes said, "Everybody hated her." But that can't be right. Many people took an energetic and practical interest in her: helping her write, support herself, stay alive. Shortly before she died, she persuaded the landlord of 23 Fitzroy Road, London NW1, a house where Yeats once lived, to let her the top floors for a year, although they were long promised to the basement tenant. She had a charm and energy that won her friends despite her demanding, neurotic temperament. Hughes also said on the day of her burial, "It was a fight to the death. One of us had to die." On the evidence, this seems more believable.

The antagonism generated by the converging of their lives just can't seem to be laid to rest. Even now there is barely an assessment of one that doesn't include the other. Who was the better poet? Most difficult to live with? Most to blame for the failure of the relationship?

Ultimately, even, who is really to blame for her death?

This isn't the story of Sylvia Plath's life, it's the story of a brief part of it: the time she spent in Ireland just before her separation from Ted Hughes; the lifeline she threw to the poet Richard Murphy, who was unable to catch hold, (and undoubtedly powerless to haul her in, anyway). It's also a bit of the story of the strange and compelling figure that Sylvia was, and the excitement she continues to spark.

Her life was painful almost throughout, often on an intense scale, yet in every photograph of Sylvia Plath she is smiling - a dazzling, white, American smile. Because it was the Fifties, and that's what women did: they turned bright smiles to the world, keeping demons and desires locked away. If Sylvia had been born just 20 years later, with all the raw anger of Punk at her disposal to express the rage and pain that took such effort to subdue, she might have made a go of it. But she was born in 1932, dead in 1963; her adult life lived before the liberation of the Sixties. So she suppressed, distorted, dissembled, smiled - ever the high-achieving all-rounder, the golden girl and homecoming queen.

But where the idealised Fifties woman existed to make the lives of men more pleasant, Plath had an intense ambition of her own. She was an excellent student, her talent recognised with scholarships, prizes, publication. She didn't just settle for participation, she had to demonstrate perfection. Forcing herself to excel at everything, the pressure she brought to bear on a fragile nature is astonishing. No wonder cracks appeared. After one mental breakdown, so remarkably documented in The Bell Jar, she moved to Cambridge on a Fulbright scholarship, full of hope for new beginnings, determined to give expression to the emotions that seethed inside her.

That's where she saw Ted Hughes, and instantly had to have him. He was magnificent, talented, sexually magnetic, already a star, and a match for her. He was everything she needed to validate her, the trophy she owed herself, and her sexual equal. Back then, in early 1956, he was already on the road to glory, building up the twin legends of his poetic talent and his womanising.

They met at a Cambridge party. He tore off her headband and kissed her full on the lips, then on the neck. She responded by biting him on the cheek "long and hard", until blood poured down his face. The moment, despite endless retellings, still has a dark excitement to it. A shudder of passion that set the tone of their volcanic relationship, and her angry, pitiful, aggressive death.

Four months later, they married, in a ceremony in London so hurried it seemed unlikely they would get a licence in time. During their six-year marriage they were rarely separated for over 12 hours at a time. They fought with violent conviction, inspired and drove each other creatively, and made love, Sylvia said, "like giants".

They had a deep, wild connection that survived her suicide (Hughes described three "dream-meetings" with Sylvia, and the endless presence of the dead wife drove his lover Assia demented).

Perhaps such unions aren't meant to last. Certainly by the time Sylvia came to Ireland - her only visit here - the beginning of the end of the marriage was well upon them.

She was dejected and vulnerable, but - as usual - covering it with a bright countenance. She also seems to have hoped that Murphy might be bound to her. She needed a friend, a soulmate; a refuge from the loneliness anddegradation inflicted by Hughes's very public affair and the mocking reminders of her own failure. A tall order for any man, and Hughes was a hard act to follow. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the men she turned to - first Murphy; later Al Alvarez, a Faber editor - were unmoved, unequal or unsuitable . . . maybe all three.

Physical descriptions of Sylvia focus on her energy, her vitality, her immaculate appearance. Undoubtedly she was attractive to men, although she didn't always see or feel that herself, but perhaps it was her inner qualities, her intelligence, passion and curiosity that transformed her. In looks alone, she was eclipsed by Assia Wevill, who had exotic beauty and an animal magnetism not unlike Ted's. William Trevor remembers Assia as looking rather like Sophia Loren; another friend, David Ross, was put in mind of the young Elizabeth Taylor, while Richard Murphy describes her Babylonian beauty. Born in Germany, from whence her family fled to Palestine to escape persecution, she was married to her third husband, the poet David Wevill, by the time she met Ted and Sylvia, whose London flat she and David were renting.

Ted and Sylvia had moved down to Devon after the birth of their second child, Nicholas, in an attempt to give their marriage time and space. Stuck for intelligent company, and caged by the harsh Devon winter, they invited the Wevills for a weekend, a weekend Assia began by announcing, in seductive tones, at the ad agency where she worked, "I'm going to seduce Ted."

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