Sorry affair



Robson, 320pp, 20

WHEN SYLVIA PLATH committed suicide in 1963 her husband, Ted Hughes, was with another woman, Assia Wevill. Wevill, who was carrying Hughes's child at the time, has remained that "other woman" in the public mind, and more specifically in the battle between fans of Plath and fans of Hughes. This fascinating, respectful and dignified biography of Wevill, who took her own life and that of her and Hughes's child, Shura, is an attempt to flesh out that narrow and one-dimensional view.

It succeeds brilliantly. There has been a great deal of prurient digging around in the lives of Plath and Hughes, especially since Hughes's death in 1998. But Koren and Negev have resisted the urge to gossip and speculate, taking care to go with the facts as much as possible.

Given that all biographers fall in love with their subjects to a certain extent, it is perhaps inevitable that Hughes does not come out of this account particularly well - the authors are desperate to be fair, but they cannot help damning him with detail (one mind-boggling revelation: shortly after Wevill's suicide Hughes married one mistress, Carol Orchard, in secret, then rushed back to inform his other mistress, Brenda Hedden, in bed, of this marriage).

Born Assia Esther Gutmann in Berlin in 1927 to a Latvian Jewish father and a German Gentile mother, Assia Wevill was a pretty child who became a beautiful adult. According to her sister, she was self-conscious about her looks, often deriding them, but she cared about clothes and enjoyed dazzling men. When her family fled Germany for Palestine, she caught the eye of a British officer, John Steele. Her mother, anxious to get to England, wanted her daughter to become his wife, but it wasn't until the war was over and Assia left for London herself, that she married Steele.

The couple emigrated to Canada, where Assia met Richard Lipsey, an economics student. They fell in love and, impulsively, she left Steele. Soon, they were married, but on the boat back to England Assia met husband number three, David Wevill, a young Cambridge graduate who wrote poetry. Once in London the two began an affair and soon she had left Lipsey. This third relationship, which soon became a marriage, seems to have been the most successful of the three; Assia took a job in an advertising agency (one boss was Fay Weldon) and took pleasure in her husband's writing and his literary friends.

One of those friends, of course, was Ted Hughes. At the time the four of them met (the Wevills, Hughes and Plath), the Hughes-Plath marriage was in trouble, according to Koren and Negev. Here, Wevill's biographers are at pains to lay certain myths to rest: the infamous "kiss" that Hughes is reputed to have given Wevill in his kitchen, kicking off their affair, is played down; they say that Wevill herself gave little importance to it, and subsequently shopped for a tapestry pattern that she knew Plath would like.

But once Hughes had left a note at Wevill's advertising agency, saying, "I have come to see you, despite all marriages", their fates, as they say, were sealed. Wevill and Hughes embarked on a passionate affair, he and Plath separated, and Plath subsequently killed herself. Wevill is reported as asking after the event, "What does it have to do with me?" She moved into Plath's flat with Hughes and his two children by Plath, Frieda and Nicholas, and in spite of gossip, seems to have done a sterling job in caring for the two children. Her own baby by Hughes was aborted, but after a subsequent pregnancy Shura was born.

Hughes never publicly acknowledged Shura as his daughter, a source of great pain to Wevill. His reluctance to marry her and his indecision about their living arrangements only added to her anxiety that the ghost of Plath had come between them. In fact, what had come between them was Hughes's affairs with Hedden and Orchard. In March 1969, after a day of rows about where they should live, Wevill gassed herself and her six-year-old daughter.

It is a traumatic and painful read, this account of a life unfulfilled and cut short. Wevill seems to have found it impossible to find self-definition; she constantly defined herself through men. She left three husbands, but would fly into jealous rages when she found her exes had moved on to new loves; she might castigate Plath for killing herself, but as her relationship with Hughes petered out, she grew more and more subservient, writing aching, begging letters to him.

Hughes drew up "house rules" for Wevill to obey (possibly an attempt to control her wilder tendencies and give her day some structure), and she mentions in her journal the existence of a "second novel" by Plath, discovered just after Plath's suicide. This novel has never been found and it is only mentioned in Wevill's diaries. Is it possible that Hughes destroyed it?

Wevill herself comes across as quite a handful: beautiful, exotic, sophisticated and intelligent, but also erratic, emotionally inconsistent, and ultimately unable to cope with the intensity of her feelings for Hughes. It is only right that someone should defend her corner after all this time. Koren and Negev do not excuse the murder of her daughter, but they do attempt to understand what drove Wevill to do it. I defy anyone not to view the "other woman" in the Plath-Hughes relationship more sympathetically after reading this book.