Assia, who was an advertising writer for most of her life, had a romantic history fraught with complicated entanglements. For years, she had a polyamorous arrangement with her husband, economist Richard Lipsey, and her boyfriend, poet David Wevill. Eventually, Assia married David Wevill, but not long after that her married landlord Ted Hughes had turned her head.
Assia was pregnant with Ted’s baby when Sylvia Plath killed herself, but he was in bed with another woman the night his wife died. After an emotionally devastating year, Sylvia’s depression overtook her. On February 11, 1963, she left food for her sleeping children, Nicholas and Frieda, and opened a window to let the healthy air into their room. She then went to the kitchen and methodically stuffed rags under the doors for extra protection before she turned on the gas and stuck her head in the oven. Her death is now more famous than her words, but at the time, little was reported about her death. Like Assia’s very existence, Sylvia’s death, and the full force of her story, was hidden.
Both Sylvia’s mother Aurelia and her estranged husband Ted Hughes seemed determined to keep her death, and, especially, her method, quiet. In the U. S., where she was a pretty well known poet at the time, one of her only obituaries appeared 16 days later in an obscure paper, The Wellesley Townsman, listing her cause of death as pneumonia. This secrecy mirrors a line The Bell Jar, where Esther notes that the only publication in the house, The Christian Science Monitor, treats murders and suicides as if they don’t exist. Most of Sylvia’s fans found out she had died when some of her poems started getting published n magazines throughout the year. Her death would be listed as one of the sparse facts in the accompanying minibiographies.
After Plath’s death, Assia terminated her pregnancy. It took a humiliating parade of doctors willing to perform an illegal abortion before she finally found a doctor she felt comfortable with. After it was over, she went to the only place she had to go at the time: Sylvia Plath’s bed. “I’m immersed now in the Hughes monumentality,” she wrote during this time. “Her and his. The weak mistress forever in the burning shadows of their mysterious seven years.”
“What do you want? What do you need?” Assia wrote to Hughes. “You’re only in possession of what you don’t want. Why are you relieved that I’m no longer pregnant? And when I’ll go back home, will you be less sad?” The time between Sylvia’s death and Assia’s was spent reaching out for an impossible life with Hughes: one not shadowed by Sylvia’s suicide.
In those first few tender years, Assia cared for Frieda and Nicholas, but she never found her place in Hughes’ home. Their happiest time was a brief experiment living in Ireland, but with Hughes’ mother’s health failing, and the precarious financial life of poets, they couldn’t stay in that place of escape. As time and circumstances pulled them apart, Assia got pregnant again. Though Ted knew Alexandra Tatiana Elise, called Shura, was his child, he never offered her a full acceptance.
He did, however, offer Assia strict instructions if she were to remain in his life. A letter from around 1967 orders Assia to never stay in bed after 8, take a nap, or wear a dressing gown. The list drills down like a conjuring of a domestic goddess. She was expected to teach the children German, play with them an hour a day, and cook every day. Furthermore, one recipe every week had to be one Hughes had not had before. Included was the expectation that Assia be “nice to her friends, even the ones she despised,” and that she never speak of Ted to anyone else. His prominence, both as a poet in his own right, and as the keeper of Sylvia Plath’s legacy. Assia and Shura’s existences were threats to his public narrative.
Assia was asked to add addendums, but her reply was an appeal to emotion rather than a response to Ted’s demands. “I want to know whether you want to mend us because you still love me, because you still feel the animal thing between us (the sight of me in that awful bed must have been pretty unappealing) or maybe you want me as you child keeper only,” she wrote. ” . . . Love me back– and if you can’t, then say so, and let me go with whatever peace I can salvage.” Instead of signing the note, she drew a dying bird with outstretched wings.
March 23, 1969, Assia turned on the gas on her own oven, retracing Sylvia’s last acts. But, while Sylvia left her children behind to live in this world, Assia took four-year-old Shura with her.
Years years before, when Assia found out Sylvia killed herself, she was asked if she felt any remorse over the situation. She reportedly replied, “Why should I? It was nothing to do with me.” These words seem cold, and while they are undoubtedly cruel to everyone involved, including herself; they are words of denial, of shock, of stating the opposite of what you know to be true.
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