SYLVIA AND TED by Emma Tennant


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Yes, that Sylvia and Ted. Tennant returns with a short novel that tries to represent the marriage of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, a hectic union that ended with Plath’s suicide in 1963.

At the time of Plath’s death, Hughes was already living with another woman, Assia Wevill, who later bore him a daughter and, much later, also killed herself—and the daughter. It’s a grisly story, and by now a familiar one, especially to the many Plath devotees who see Hughes (who died in 1998) as nothing short of a murderer. Sylvia and Ted won’t change their minds. “Drawn to the subject partly as a result of her past relationship with Hughes,” Tennant (Emma in Love, 1998, etc.) describes the man with considerable malice: he is a “monstrous tyrant,” a selfish brute who slays deer, molests ant mounds and preys on teenaged girls. With animals, he “kills, and loves to kill”; with women it’s much the same. Tennant begins with Sylvia’s childhood and ends with Assia’s decline, and in between there is very little dialogue or directly-depicted action; the author delivers instead a long series of foggily described “moments”: Sylvia getting dressed, Ted fornicating in the fields, and so on. The story here relies heavily on the reader’s foreknowledge of its major events, and anyone without such information will probably find the whole thing unintelligible. Those hoping for an “inside” look at the Plath-Hughes affair will come away empty-handed: Tennant’s emphasis on crude mythical parallels (Plath as Procne, Hughes as Tereus) is far more developed than her anecdotal reporting, and there are no startling revelations about private identities. The portentous prose grates (we see Sylvia “go forth to meet her doom” on the night she meets Ted), and the occasional unintended humor (as when Ted’s young lover thinks of him as “Jack Palance”) serves to trivialize everyone involved.

It matters little, in the end, whether the book is “true,” being, as it is, exploitative, high-handed, and tedious.

Pub Date: May 12th, 2001
ISBN: 0-8050-6675-6
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2001


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