Sylvia Plath’s Jewish Rival

Meeting Ted Hughes’s other lover

Lover of Unreason (Carroll & Graf, $27.95) is a thoroughly researched and well-written biography by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev of Assia Wevill, the rival of Sylvia Plath. Born in Berlin, she escaped from the Nazis in 1934, and inadvertently became an icon of deceit for those who grew up honoring the tale of Plath’s life and death. This book presents another side of the story. Here, the other woman in Ted Hughes’s life comes to the fore — if not sympathetic, at least humanized. Wevill’s often forgotten Jewish identity is highlighted as the authors explore the history behind their misunderstood subject.

Gradually Koren and Negev reveal the possible reasons behind a disastrous chain of events: Weevil’s affair with Ted Hughes led not only to Plath’s suicide, but to Wevill’s copycat suicide in which she took her child’s life as well. We become acquainted with a soul broken from the start, but possessed of a unique charm. Wevill always used her own tragedies to entertain others: “With an entire repertoire of body language to accompany her words, Assia would hold the floor, imitating people, putting on foreign accents, fabricating adventures from her flight from Germany and her travails on a kibbutz.”

Koren and Negev, Israeli journalists, explore the circumstances of Wevill’s Jewish heritage, and her family’s escape to Tel Aviv from Berlin. After a childhood spent between countries and without any real sense of belonging, Assia changed her name, country, and husband many times over, marrying three times before she met Hughes. This biography artfully reveals a pattern — Wevill barely settled into each new life before trying to escape again. After Hughes, Wevill felt there was no place left to run.

More than half of the book is dominated by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (in life and after her death). This overshadowing is perhaps appropriate for Wevill, who, as the authors note, “was engrossed in her predecessor’s life to such an extent that Sylvia acquired gigantic, mythical dimensions.” Indeed, she was so bound to Hughes that she chose to die following Plath’s method, using a gas oven.

Because the other players in Wevill’s life were writers, the book suffers slightly from an excess of source material. Lists of the books that Hughes and Wevill exchanged, for example, are valuable to scholars, but probably unnecessary for someone simply interested in this complicated life. The reader cannot help but be reminded of the epitaph Wevill requested for her gravestone, but which Ted Hughes denied her: “Here lies a lover of unreason and an exile.”

Aimee Walker is a poet published in Heliotrope, The Paris Review, Rattapallax, and the Grolier Poetry Prize anthology. She works for Free Arts NYC, which brings the creative arts to low-income children and families.