- Reclaiming Assia Wevill: Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Literary Imagination by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick
Robin Morgan was perhaps the first feminist writer to take up Assia Wevill's cause; at the very least, she is likely the most notorious one to have done so. In her poem "Arraignment," Morgan introduces Assia to a world of general readers likely unfamiliar with her place in Ted Hughes's legacy in 1972, just three short years after her death.1 Morgan dedicates almost two complete stanzas of the poem (out of eight) to "Assia Guttman Wevill" and, in them, identifies Assia as a translator of poetry, a woman "afraid of losing her beauty," the subject of Plath's poem "Lesbos," and the second of Hughes's "wives" to commit suicide (while also acknowledging that she and Hughes were, in fact, never married). By way of introducing Assia to her readers, Morgan writes: she, like Sylvia Plath, also "was a suicide, / or didn't you know?"2
This question—which is really a broader interrogation of all that we do not know about Assia Wevill and why this lack of knowledge matters—is at the heart of Reclaiming Assia Wevill: Sylvia [End Page 398] Plath, Ted Hughes, and the Literary Imagination, the latest book of literary scholarship by Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick. Positioning her book as feminist recovery work, Goodspeed-Chadwick notes her indebtedness to the history of feminist literary studies in the introduction to her book. As I read each chapter of Reclaiming Assia Wevill, I could not help but think, in turn, of our own indebtedness as readers to Goodspeed-Chadwick, who has written a brilliantly engaging study of Assia's legacy, of the erasure of women's voices and work in culture, and of the ways gendered scripts entrap us all, even those writers, like Plath, whom we are reluctant to see as flawed. It is heartening to read a literary study that recognizes that there is still a lot of feminist recovery work to be done and then gets busy with that work with such conviction of purpose.
Reclaiming Assia Wevill begins from the assumption that Assia is important to "literary studies, women's studies, and work on Plath and Hughes" and then goes on to demonstrate the myriad ways her life, work, and impact have been marginalized and sometimes "scrubbed" to the detriment, not only of Plath and Hughes studies, but of women in general and victims of injustice in particular (Goodpseed-Chadwick, 2, 11). In some of the most compelling moments in her book, Goodspeed-Chadwick presents a case for understanding Assia as a victim herself, first in life, as a person mistreated by Hughes at nearly every turn over the six-plus years they spent together, and second in death, as someone deemed undeserving of grief. That she has been unfairly blamed for Plath's suicide by a host of people (family and strangers alike) only compounds the injustice. Versed in feminist theories about the lived body, grievability, abjection, and gendered subjectivity, Goodspeed-Chadwick is able to unearth layers to Assia's life and work that ought to change profoundly our discourse about her.
In some ways, Reclaiming Assia Wevill covers the territory one might expect, including the poems Plath and Hughes wrote that take up Assia as their subject. Through close readings of both well-known and more obscure examples, Goodspeed-Chadwick argues that Assia is represented unfairly in Plath's and Hughes's writings and that these representations are not simply unflattering but actually harmful to Assia's legacy and to women more broadly. Her thorough and careful examination of Hughes's treatment of Assia in Capriccio and Birthday Letters leaves little room for arguments against such conclusions. At the same time, Goodspeed-Chadwick is not content to simply flip the script back to a narrative that casts Hughes as the indisputable villain, as Morgan had plainly hoped to do in 1972. Instead, Goodspeed-Chadwick argues that Hughes's Assia poems reflect, in part at...