In a series of psychological snapshots, Emma Tennant novelizes the love triangle of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes and temptress Assia Wevill. The book begins with all three as children, then chronicles the courtship and marriage of Plath and Hughes, their breakup over Wevill, Plath’s suicide, and Wevill’s suicide and murder of the daughter she bore Hughes. Tennant is attempting to retell the lives of real people in grand operatic terms as though they were characters in a new Nibelungen. She reclaims her trio from the gossipmongers, and offers the reader their bare hearts, still warm and beating, on a velvet pillow.
In 1999, Tennant caused a minor splash in the U.K. by publishing Burnt Diaries, a memoir of her own stagy affair with Hughes in the mid 1970s. But rather than using her insider knowledge to bring Sylvia and Ted‘s characters to life, Tennant crams her novel with details and images cobbled from the best poems of Plath and Hughes with a flair for bumbled melodrama. Characters are reduced to psychic entities floating about, driven by mysterious mytho-poetic impulses. Plath prepares for her meeting with Hughes by slathering herself in red and relishing the “operatic inevitability” of going “forth to meet her doom.” Plath as hyped-up vixen “wants only to be assured . . . that with her red hair she can eat men like air.” Tennant’s sampling of the final lines of Plath’s “Lady Lazarus” is ludicrous. Written after her separation from Hughes, the poem concerns repeated failed suicide attempts—a far cry from the youthful sexual awakening it’s pasted onto here.
The mythic sheen’s so bright it’s often hard to tell what’s happening in the plot. Most of the action, even the suicides, occurs off-screen or is arrested as characters grapple with figurative meanings. There’s not much dialogue, either. Even as young children, Plath, Hughes, and Wevill apparently share a gift of prophecy and glumness. At two and a half Plath waddles along the ocean and “senses that this is the last day of her oneness with the world.”
In a single chapter, Sylvia appears as Electra, Clytemnestra, Hamlet, Oedipus, and Persephone. I haven’t seen so many quick persona shifts since Sally Field’s Sybil. During Plath’s wedding party at Wellesley, Aurelia, Sylvia’s mother, looks on benignly, but when Ted extends his hand to shake hers, bees appear out of nowhere, droning and buzzing à la The Exorcist Part II: “Clytemnestra of the canapés and iced drinks, veiled killer who excels in the polite and professional chitchat expected of an intelligent teacher—does Sylvia actually suspect the husband she has brought here to America of having been accepted by Aurelia as a substitute for Otto [Plath’s dead father]?”
In an attempt to quiet some of her personalities, Plath visits Otto’s grave. The scene is familiar to Plath readers from her poem “Electra on the Azalea Path,” in which she struggles to de-mythicize her dead father. While Hughes isn’t present in Plath’s version, Tennant has him traipsing after her on the same Azalea Path, remarking how similar she is to Persephone, “half the time, by her own admission, in the winter of depression and despair and the other half summer-gay, complacent, content.”
Meanwhile Wevill is sailing toward London, in a ship’s passage as foreboding as Dracula’s. When she enters the ship’s ballroom, the band, struck by her dark beauty, begin their set early. “Somehow they know that she, the ‘other,’ the one people will see as the swarthy woman of the tarot pack, who comes across water like bad luck, like the Black Death, like a devil, is on board.” When Sylvia and Ted return to Britain, Wevill’s there, waiting. Hughes the ravenous beast-god falls for her hard. Simultaneously he’s having an affair with Plath’s dowdy, 15-year-old virgin baby-sitter, the blissful blank page into which Hughes as Jove carves a new language (i.e., he fucks her in a field beside a country schoolhouse).
The world watches this high tragedy, emoting on cue like a Greek chorus, and annoyingly knowing everything before it occurs. Tennant has written the first novel in which hindsight is the continuous present. When Wevill first visits the Hugheses, “even the kitchen table suspects” doom. Later, Sylvia divines Wevill is pregnant just from looking at her. She knows what’s going on, the furniture knows what’s going on, but the reader is left in the dark. I think Wevill has a botched abortion, but I wouldn’t bet money on it. We do glimpse Wevill prone, under a nurse’s care, suffering in her bloody bed, transformed into Little Red Riding Hood. Wolves howl in the background as Hughes—”tall handsome woodcutter,” “wolf”—enters the room.
Angela Carter could have gotten away with this rococo symbolism—maybe. Tennant can’t. In her hands high modernism gasps and sputters. What is it about the lives of Sylvia and Ted that encourages this madness of excess, where more is never enough? Tennant’s book is a hoot until the moment one remembers that these are real deaths, real broken lives. Perhaps someday the dead will be vindicated, and Plath will rise with her red hair and eat Tennant like air.