FEBRUARY 19, 2021
DUTCH NOVELIST CONNIE PALMEN’S 2015 novel Jij zegt het, available now in a superb English translation by Eileen J. Stevens and Anna Asbury titled Your Story, My Story, tells Sylvia Plath’s story from the point of view of Ted Hughes. Palmen drew on Hughes’s 1998 collection of poems Birthday Letters to compose his side of the tumultuous relationship. While one of the aims of the novel is to portray Ted in a more sympathetic light, Palmen still depicts his extramarital affairs and violent tendencies. Yet its main goal is to undo his villainous reputation, to question the blame he has often been assigned for his wife’s suicide.
Palmen’s novel in translation has been released at approximately the same time as Heather Clark’s new biography, Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath (2020). Clark details the minutiae of Plath’s life, including when she took her first steps and what she ate, in order to portray her as heartbreakingly human. We also learn about Ted: more often than not, the details are endearing, such as the way he watches their children while she writes, though Clark does bring us face to face with his philandering.
Your Story, My Story begins when Sylvia and Ted’s story does. It portrays the couple as equals, neither more virtuous or villainous than the other. Their legendary meeting is immortalized in these pages. Sylvia bites Ted’s cheek, drawing blood. Ted is portrayed as equally vicious: “I yanked the red hair band from her head, tore the silver earrings from her lobes.” Even though Palmen is telling Ted’s story, Sylvia looms large, nearly obscuring him. “Her madness is my madness,” the narrator says. Later, he calls himself her “doppelganger.” They are equals. Ted can’t tell his own story without telling Sylvia’s.
Since we know Sylvia’s fate, Ted’s narration proceeds from a place where he also knows it. At one point, he observes: “Without knowing it, I was standing on the ground where, seven years later, I would bury my wife.” Describing Plath’s labors on The Bell Jar (1963), he says: “[S]he focused her plutonic energy on writing the novel that would posthumously bring her the fame she’d longed for in life.”
Palmen’s novel is written in vivid, flowery language. Ted thinks of shattering Sylvia’s “mask like a tender iconoclast.” Or: “I picked up her true odor, sharp as musk, sweetly sour as the sweat of a female deer in heat.” Or: “She came in fluttering like a bird, animated, excitable, nervous, enveloped in a unique cobalt-colored aura.” This florid language, sometimes alliterative, continues throughout, and I wondered if it was meant to be a reflection of Hughes’s own style. Is Palmen trying to make Ted the truly poetic one?
I pondered other questions about Ted that Palmen does not address. Did he also have suicidal tendencies? Did he view himself as a godlike figure, as it seems Sylvia sometimes saw herself? What were the details of his writing process? Occasionally we are given a brief description of his literary career — for example: “In November I selected forty poems, titled the collection The Hawk in the Rain, and dedicated it to my wife” — but not enough for us to understand Ted as a writer.
The scenes that resonate most are the ones where Ted is alone. At one point, the narrator describes walking across a bridge and meeting a boy with a fox: “I froze in my tracks in disbelief at what I’d seen and looked into the pleading, coal-black eyes of an orphaned fox cub, and a helplessness swept me back into the endlessness of my childhood.” The idea of being almost one with the animal makes Ted appear as wild as Sylvia. Later, Ted proclaims: “I gutted the fish, plucked the bird, skinned the rabbit or hare.”
Clark’s biography also describes Ted’s violence toward animals: “Hughes recalled that on one of these walks, they came across a half-dead grouse that had been wounded by a fox. He crushed the grouse’s head with a stone, ‘gently,’ in an ‘instant.’” However, Clark also gives us another side of Ted — a helpful man who “built the cupboards, kitchen shelves, counters, and bookcases, and did all the heavy lifting.” We sense his vulnerability when he “suffered what appeared to be a panic attack at the BBC on March 29.” He was struggling to be the most successful writer he could be, just like Sylvia. On the other hand, Sylvia is not always portrayed positively in Clark’s biography: for example, when she saw her child Nicholas the first time, she observed that “I felt no surge of love. I wasn’t sure I liked him.”
In both Palmen’s and Clark’s treatments, the woman Ted falls in love with while married to Sylvia — Assia Wevill — is front and center. In Palmen’s account, Ted is “enchanted” by her: “[H]unter and prey in one — I knew I would pursue her at any cost.” Ted leaves a note for Assia saying that he “want[s] to see her, in spite of the marriages,” showing his intent in the relationship. The affair is clearly planned, placing even more blame on Ted. Yet, while Ted’s relationship with Assia indubitably caused the breakup of his marriage, both Palmen’s novel and Clark’s biography question whether it led directly to Sylvia’s suicide.
Even after the couple separated, Clark conveys a sense of Sylvia struggling with Ted’s spirit. “In four weeks,” Clark writes, Plath “would produce nearly as many poems as she had written in 1960 and 1961.” Many of the poems, Clark says, engaged with “Hughes’s work in a game of one-upmanship.” While Hughes’s affair with Wevill may have instigated Plath’s suicide, it also pushed her to produce some of her best work.
Connie Palmen does not quite succeed in rehabilitating Hughes’s reputation because we only really understand him through the way he sees Sylvia. But the careful, vivid language of Your Story, My Story makes it rewarding reading. Clark’s biography presents a more rounded and detailed picture. And maybe neither Ted nor Sylvia was to blame for the tragic denouement.
Olena Jennings is the author of the collection of poems Songs from an Apartment (Underground Books, 2017). Her translations of Ukrainian poetry have appeared in a number of journals and anthologies, and a volume of her translations of Iryna Shuvalova’s verse, Pray to the Empty Walls, was published in 2019 by Lost Horse Press.