Tight Wires: On Sandra Simonds’s “Assia”
By Kristin GroganMarch 16, 2023
Assia by Sandra Simonds
Assia Wevill, the poet who was in a relationship with Ted Hughes and subsequently died by suicide after Plath, is not laid to rest in the cemetery in Heptonstall. There are no pencils offered; there is no gravestone to edit or deface, and we had no sense of her unruly ghost on that rainy July day, when Plath’s legacy loomed so large. Wevill’s life is the subject of Sandra Simonds’s novel, Assia. Simonds is a poet and the author of eight books of poetry; Assia is her first novel.
The facts of Wevill’s life are these: She was born in Berlin in 1927. With her family, she escaped Nazi Germany in the 1930s and spent the rest of her childhood in Tel Aviv. She lived in London and Vancouver, traveled widely, married three times, and was in a relationship with Hughes at the time of Plath’s death and for some years after. She wrote some poetry, translated the poetry of others, and found success in advertising. She was beautiful, remarkably so. And on March 23, 1969, Assia gassed herself and her daughter, Shura, in their flat in Clapham Common.
Told in polyvocal, nonlinear prose, Assia takes us through Wevill’s life from childhood to murder-suicide. At times, the novel hews close to scenes that will be familiar to readers of the Plath-Hughes saga—the famous meeting between Wevill and Hughes under Plath’s watchful eye at Court Green, their house in Devon—interspersing these scenes with dream-visions of Simonds’s own creation (each entitled “A Vision”). Wevill’s life is told through a swirl of voices of central and peripheral characters: we hear from Wevill, Hughes, and Plath; Wevill’s third ex-husband, David Wevill; Wevill’s sister, Celia; an ad agency coworker; a nanny named Rebecca; a group of unnamed gossips; and eventually from her daughter, Shura.
Wevill has long been treated as a footnote to the Plath-Hughes drama, as either vixen or victim. In the execrable 2003 biopic Sylvia, Wevill (Amira Casar), is the consummate brunette, dressed in scarlet, who arrives on the scene to lead the hero into perdition and steal him from the devoted blonde (a suffering Gwyneth Paltrow, who becomes dowdier, then crazier, as the film progresses). The Wevill character almost never speaks; she just looks, seductively, and does the washing up, sensually, next to Daniel Craig’s glowering Hughes. Later, as she unravels, Plath-Paltrow screams: “That woman—I conjured her, I invented her!” The terrible movie taps into something true: there is no Wevill without Plath. Wevill is the perfect foil for the ruined woman, driven to madness by a bad man.
In recent years, interest in Wevill has deepened, and the question of what to do with Plath has been echoed by the question of what to do with her successor. The Collected Writings of Assia Wevill, edited by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick and Peter K. Steinberg, appeared in 2021. “Collected” somewhat overstates things: it is a slim volume, comprising frequently interrupted journals spanning just six years, a handful of letters, a collection of verse by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that Wevill translated from the Hebrew, and just five of her own poems. Wevill’s writing is duly fascinating: it is captivating to read, in her journals, what the other woman felt about living with “Sylvia, my predecessor between our heads at night.”
In Simonds’s novel, the first voice we hear is Hughes’s own. This is a bold move, and a reminder that, for a long time, Hughes, and the machinery of the Plath estate, controlled both Wevill’s and Plath’s story. Assia doesn’t appear by name in the first chapter. Hughes calls her first a “mistress,” then “another body, another place to root inside obsession.” A few chapters later, Wevill’s third husband, David, describes her as a good-luck charm for his budding poetic career. “After we married, my poems sparkled,” he boasts, “I was published in all the best magazines.” Assia-as-ornament runs through the book. Almost every character comments on her beauty. Wevill herself offers a rejoinder: “When someone calls me beautiful, I call them my enemy,” she tells us. She is surrounded, her story narrated, by enemies. It is often hard to find within this. When she speaks, it is to her child (“Sweet daughter, little fish, little gargoyle, I am at this kitchen table when I first feel you move”). Meanwhile, the torrent of voices threatens to edge out Assia altogether.
Early on, the novel describes the Wevill couple’s famous visit to the Plath-Hughes household in Devon. In Simonds’s rendition, this sparks an instant competition between the two women. “Shura, the moment I see Sylvia, I feel the dagger of a rivalry push through my chest.” The novel’s Assia takes pleasure in Plath’s jealousy of her beauty. “I feel an overwhelming urge to apologize for my body. But then another feeling arises. She envies my body, and I like it.” Much later in the novel, we circle back to the weekend in Devon and get Sylvia’s version of the first meeting: “The weekend that they came to the cottage, I noticed Assia’s green eyes: aloof as gems. And her cheekbones: bronzed into high, sharp points.” “She was worldly,” Simonds’s Sylvia tells us, enviously; Assia had visited “all the places I wanted to go.” In life, as in the novel, Plath and Wevill resented the other woman, eerily anticipated each other’s feelings about the other, and were shrewd interpreters of each other’s motives and feelings. A few months before her death, Plath wrote to her mother: “[Wevill] has only her high-paid ad agency job, her vanity & no chance of children & everybody wants to be a writer, like me.” Simonds has her Sylvia call Assia a “career woman, copycat, commercial queen.” In her journals, Wevill acknowledges her jealousy of Plath’s writing life: “[S]he had a million times the talent, 1000 times the will, 100 times the Greed and passion that I have.” Wevill’s most devastating self-description—and one that Plath might have found gratifying—was that she was a woman of “no talent” with only a “slight, decorative intelligence.” Simonds has her Wevill break down: “I’m Sylvia without any of her talent,” she confesses. “I have all of Sylvia’s misery with nothing to show for it.”
The symmetry between the two women is almost perfectly neat: where Plath (in)famously imagined herself to be a victim of the Holocaust—“I may be a bit of a Jew”—Wevill, née Gutmann, fled Nazi Germany in childhood. Plath labored to learn German. In her letters home, she wrote: “Am very painstakingly studying German two hours a day.” Assia, a native speaker, was desperate to escape the language—as Simonds has it: “The gothic letters stick in my throat, the violent umlauts bunch up in my lungs.” In Simonds’s novel, the women are trapped together in this gyre of comparison. “Sylvia was a much better housekeeper,” Ted complains, as Simonds maps the trap of comparison—good wife, bad wife—onto a petty domestic drama.
The problem with wading into the Plath-Hughes-Wevill triad is not only that the story is so overdetermined and the love triangle too neat, but also that it is overburdened with the cultural archetypes available for women. Simonds’s solution is not to avoid such terms but to burrow into them. Her Sylvia appears, like the Medusa of Plath’s poem, with her head covered in snakes. Her Assia talks in sea witches, dragons, gorgons, Medusae, Scylla. The novel is thick with myth. Late in the novel, we hear from Shura, already dead, as she delivers a verdict on her mother: “If you want to claim she was a monster,” the child-from-the-afterlife tells us of her mother, “she was a very specific kind.” One tragedy of women: they are denied specificity; they are stuck, forever, in their archetypes.
Simonds’s novel understands that rivalry and intimacy are two sides of the same coin. Her Assia often seems like a particularly astute interpreter of Plath: “The closer you get to the heart of the twentieth century,” Assia tells us during a visit to the newly erected memorial at Dachau, “the harder it is to stay alive.” Simonds’s words could be a thesis statement for “Daddy.” In her “Vision” sections, Simonds departs from the record and shows a friendship developing between the two women. We see Assia at a café with Sylvia, apologizing to her; we watch Assia read a poem to Sylvia that begins, “We are like mothers / but monsters.” In the next vision, Sylvia congratulates Assia and tells her that she is one of them, then cuts one of the Medusan snakes from her head for Assia to keep. Simonds lets us see that Plath and Wevill had “a relationship,” as Plath wrote in one of her finest poems, “The Rabbit Catcher,” with “[t]ight wires between us.” In another vision, they write a poem together, “hold hands and chant like [they] are conjuring something,” then, as when Medusa is slain by Perseus, their heads roll off and onto the ground, in a rewriting of the shared circumstances of their death.
Those circumstances, of suffering and eventual suicide, bind the women closely. In 1968, the year before she died, Wevill wrote to Plath’s mother Aurelia that Hughes was “brutal” toward her during a period of sickness: “I thought suddenly that that degree of brutality would slowly dement me.” Six years earlier, Plath had written to Aurelia something remarkably similar about her husband: “He has been brutal, cruel, bastardly, cowardly and the flesh has dropped from my bones.” The technique that Wevill chose for her death invites—I think deliberately, almost archly—the comparison between the two. In one way, Wevill outstripped Sylvia. When she taped up her kitchen door and gas filled the kitchen of her London apartment, Plath made a snack for the children to eat when they woke. Wevill gave her child sleeping pills, then turned on the gas. In her rendering of the scene, Simonds insists upon its power and—disturbingly—pleasure. “A thrill pulses through my body as I look into the white of your eye,” her Assia tells Shura. “They will never be able to touch us now.” Filicide is definitive: it closes the loop, and whatever the mother has suffered, the child will never suffer. As fantasy, this is precisely its appeal.
More interesting still is how this intimacy between the women works at the level of the novel’s language. The pages of Assia are soaked in Plath, her language and images. Plath’s great skill as a poet was her constant, unsettled image-making. In poems like “Cut,” Plath’s sliced thumb becomes a “pilgrim,” a “turkey wattle,” a “babushka,” a “trepanned veteran,” a fizzing bottle of pink champagne. Her other tic is returning to the same image over and over again. Plath’s images are bloody: the “blue-red juices” that make a “blood sisterhood” of berries squeezed so they burst in “Blackberrying,” the “little bloody skirts” of “Poppies in July,” the “blood bells / Of the fuchsia” in “Medusa.” This gives Plath’s poetry a disturbing psychic restlessness—she can’t move on from the cut finger, spinning out image after image, each more violent as the poem moves along; nor can she peer beyond her own blood-stained vision, seeing it in blackberries, fuchsia, poppies, or tulips.
Like Plath’s poems, Assia is drenched in blood. In the first chapter, a fox prints her “bloody paw” on Ted Hughes’s poems. Assia sees the world through “cracked blood vessels, red eyes.” The first time we meet Assia, she is in the butcher shop, where she sees “[t]hin pools of blood on the white countertop.” She buys red tulips throughout, like the “dozen red lead sinkers round my neck” that Plath describes in “Tulips.” Assia is in the hospital bed after the birth of Shura when Sylvia appears, phantasmagorically, looking for her children: “She pulls the bloody sheet from my body. I am naked, a deflated balloon. Her frigid hands on my abdomen. Stern, terrible, terrifying.” It recalls Plath’s poem “Balloons,” where her son bites a balloon and pops it, “A red / Shred in his little fist.” With its constant echoes and shadows of Plath, Simonds’s novel reverberates with the knowledge that psychic life is constituted in and through language’s unruliness, its tendency to emerge in surprising places. It also reminds us how mired the figures at the center of this drama are. They cannot think outside of Plath; there is no moving beyond her.
In The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (1991), her masterful—and, for my money, definitive—reading of Plath, Jacqueline Rose reminds us that “psychic life in itself will not be relegated to the private, it will not stay in its proper place.” Both the psychic life of the individual and of the collective will not be easily contained. Assia stands in for something much larger, for a culture that is still haunted by Plath. Simonds’s Assia describes Sylvia’s gravitational force: “I have to pull myself out of [her eyes] but it’s like fighting against the strongest forces of gravity.” In the “Vision” sections, Sylvia’s ghost is present at the birth of Wevill’s daughter. “There’s no way to get rid of her,” Assia tells us.
Oh love, she is everywhere. Sometimes she’s just a flash of light, sometimes a tall figure in the closet wearing one of her cheap dresses. She’s snaked her way into our bloodstream, our network of cells. In the kitchen when I’m making you toast for breakfast, she’s a flicker behind my back.
The novel takes us deep into the Plath-Hughes-Wevill psychodrama, which stands in for a cultural dynamic of violent misogyny that is still horribly alive. Our obsessions are our unsolved cultural crimes. In the Ted Hughes chapter that opens the novel, the poet goes home to visit Sylvia, not yet dead, and their children. “It’s a big mistake, to return to the crime scene,” he writes, “but that’s what all criminals do, right?” Later, he protests: “I am not a criminal. Love is not a crime!” Simonds’s novel asks what happens when we return to the scene of the crime, only to find that we have never left. There is no way out, and no way to clean up the mess.
Kristin Grogan is an assistant professor in the English Department at Rutgers University. She is finishing her first book, Stitch, Unstitch: Poetry, Modernism, and the World of Work.
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