By Emma Tennant
Henry Holt, 192 pp., $22
One of the most well-known scandals in literary circles is the suicide of poet and novelist Sylvia Plath and the subsequent condemnation of her husband, poet Ted Hughes, by Plath's myriad fans. He is blamed for driving her to ruin, though she was admittedly suicidal from an early age, much like poor Virginia Woolf. Hughes, even today, decades later, is commonly booed at his readings. He's been called a murderer in public. His surname is regularly chipped from Plath's tombstone. Now, Emma Tennant, in fictional form in Sylvia and Ted, has lent her voice to the fray, and anyone looking for a more equitable approach must look elsewhere. Tennant, another of Hughes' ex-lovers, is not exactly an unbiased chronicler -- she wrote about her affair with Hughes in her book Burnt Diaries -- and here she portrays Hughes as something just short of a demon, adding another suicide to his résumé. The author's note at the beginning of the book is worth quoting in full: "Sylvia and Ted is the story of the twentieth century's most famous -- and most tragic -- love affair, the marriage and separation of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. Events described in the book are based in fact, and in the case of the story of Assia Wevill, Sylvia's rival, who also committed suicide, many of the facts were previously concealed or unknown. Sylvia and Ted is, nevertheless, a work of the imagination."
Okay. But what is most unreasonable, perhaps, is not Tennant's agenda, which is quite clearly to pen a fictionalized account of the affair and cast Hughes in the role of Iago, but her hysterical and hyperbolic tone. Is this affair really the 20th century's most famous and tragic? Of course not.
Tennant continues this overwrought approach in the book's opening section, where she sketches a few quick incidents from the three characters' childhoods. About Hughes' childhood she writes: "In the boy's childhood there is killing. The love of killing, the acceptance and necessity of killing. How can he tell what he must kill and what should be left alive?" The connotation is heavy-handed at the very least. And later, when Sylvia is a young poet in Cambridge and headed to hear a newly acclaimed British poet named Ted Hughes give a reading, Tennant writes: "Thus does Sylvia go forth to meet her doom." This is melodrama, unfiltered and vitriolic.
Tennant's portrait of the poets' marriage is bleak, sad, and lacking any spark of love, yet we know there must have been some tenderness. Surely there is in the worst of marriages. "There is something wrong," Tennant writes, "a wrongness that lies dormant. What is it? There is a silence and heaviness in Ted, who will sit an hour on the hillside, playing God with a colony of red ants."
The author has concocted for her fictional biography an appropriately elliptical and poetic language, and she is capable of some beautiful and spare sentences. Unfortunately, overwritten excesses counterbalance these. "And, then the winter came, with Assia glowing in the heart of it like a red-shaded bedroom lamp you just can't turn off" is an example of the kind of awful and attenuated writing she exhibits here. One wishes she had kept to her pared-down approach and tempered her telling with equipoise and wit, with some concrete storytelling. Sadly, the book smells of recrimination.
Example: "Sylvia has tried not to see this man as a killer. But she knows by now that he cannot walk across this land without the knowledge of where his next victim may lie: rook, pigeon, rabbit, hare. Ted kills, and he loves to kill."
Get the picture? Tennant is writing with a sledgehammer. There is no light let in on her constricted view; the claustrophobia and dread, which may very well have characterized Hughes and Plath's marriage, translates here into a story with no hallways off the main room of hell. There is only a straight line to unrepentant desperation: "His wife is caged," Tennant writes, "her only freedom a further lunge downward to obscurity."
There is the stuff of a good novel in this tragedy of two poets coming together and creating one life that then splinters and sends insecure, sad Sylvia to her self-destruction, but Sylvia and Ted misses it by a wide margin. This brief book is a house of cards, an empty house, flimsy, short-lived, and insubstantial.
Emma Tennant, for all her damning implication, never really makes a tangible case against Ted Hughes. The question remains: Did his infidelity alone drive his wife to suicide? Or was it his "bloodthirsty" personality? After finishing Sylvia and Ted it's hard to remember even one scene. And that's the worst of it: Tennant, probably because of her contrived and vindictive intention going in, has failed to make two real people come alive for the reader.