Wednesday, September 13, 2006



“Then, must you speak
Of one that lov’d not wisely but too well.”
by William Shakespeare

Possibly the most famous fictional example of tragic love was that of the star-crossed teenagers from feuding families in Verona.  Each died by their own hand after a fatal misunderstanding:  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Many years ago I wandered round the coast of Brittany looking for relics of Peter Abelard. The true story of Peter Abelard and Eloise happened in medieval times.  Eloise was eighteen and Abelard, who was fifty-one, was employed as her tutor.  He was a philosopher and a priest but they embarked on an illicit love affair, were secretly married and Eloise became pregnant.  Her uncle found out and had Abelard castrated and Eloise dispatched to a nunnery.  For the rest of their lives the only contact was by letters.  In 1817 Abelard’s body was transferred to Pere la Chaise where the lovers lie together at last.

Two later examples of tragic love that have always intrigued me were that of the Fitzgerald’s and the Hughes – possibly because they were all writers.  The Fitzgerald’s: Scott and Zelda were a fabulous couple in the twenties.  They were the epitome of ‘the beautiful people’ and were feted in New York and Europe.  Picasso, Hemingway and Isadora Duncan were intimates and they were adopted by a wealthy couple – the Murphy’s so that life was one long party.  However the marriage was flawed by jealousy on both sides, Scott’s escalating alcoholism and Zelda’s bipolar tendencies which developed into schizophrenia.  Scott’s novels ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’ and ‘Tender is the Night’ earned him fame with Zelda always desperately trying to emulate him with her ‘Save the Last Waltz for Me.’  
Scott was cruelly dismissive of her talent and she ended her life in a sanatorium which tragically caught fire.  Scott went to Hollywood as a screen writer and slowly drank himself to death.  Many years later I was thrilled to meet the brother of a friend of my sister in New York who had been at Princeton with Scott.  He wasn’t very talkative but did say that Scott – even then - burnt the candle at both ends and was ‘overly sentimental’.

The true story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath has always fascinated me.  It was bound to be an exciting liaison with his fierce talent and hawkish good looks and her tortured genius and fragile beauty.  The first time they met at a party she bit his neck till it bled.
Ted Hughes – a Yorkshire man - was born in the bleak landscape of the Calder Valley.  Four months after he met Sylvia they were married and had a creative partnership.  They had two children but there was a lot of emotional pressure and Ted started an affair with a family friend Assia.  Sylvia found out and was destroyed.  Six years after they were married she gassed herself aged thirty.

I made a pilgrimage to her grave in Heptonstall (and round about the same time visited Abelard’s grave in France) and after attending a lecture on Plath given by a feminist I felt very anti- Hughes but over the years became more understanding.  However just recently I have been reading ‘A Lover of Unreason:  the Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill’, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.

As the writers say ‘we reveal how the couple’s tempestuous relationship and his serial infidelity led her to kill herself-and their little daughter.’

After reading this I am vacillating once more.  I cannot subscribe to the maxim that genius entitles you to behave like a monster.  One paragraph had particular resonance for me:-
‘On Saturday morning, March 22, she and Ted bid each other goodbye at Manchester station.  Assia boarded the train to London, and he travelled to Devon.  She seemed to him to be in good spirits.  However, her au pair, Else, had a different impression.’

The next evening Assia took her sleeping daughter into the kitchen, switched on the cooker and lay down to die.
Which is what started me on this ramble of ‘Tragic Love’.  I promise I’ll write something more cheerful next time.


AndrewM said...

Still. Never mind. United are on the box tonight.

PI said...

andrewm: kind of you to ignore my apostrophe errors. I made the mistake of taking note of Spell check. Idiot!

Candace said...

Hi, Pat,
Followed you here from Hoss' site. I'm enjoying your writing!

banana said...

The next tragic love story with be some wanabee instant celebrities...ugh, like Big Brother's Pete and Nikki.

PI said...

Hi, Candace! Hoss's friends are more thsan welcome.

Guyana-Gyal said...

I wonder if another person can make another kill himself / herself. We see it here all the time, suicide due to broken relationships, it's high. But most of the folks who committed suicide here had depressive tendencies or were alcoholics.

granny p said...

Assia was so tragic. I've read some wonderful translations by her of Hebrew poetry. What Ted Hughes did to women... or maybe it was the women he was attracted to; or something. Awful anyway.

PI said...

Banana: it certainly is a strange alliance but like most women I had a soft spot for Pete. I hated it when the ones with jellied bosoms swamped him and made him more frenetic.

GG: interesting point. Both Sylvia and Assia were at best highly strung and certainly Sylvia had a history of depression. Are cruel, ruthless men drawn to such vulnerability?
In my own case, it was just a fleeting thought.

kenju said...

Definitely not cheerful - but interesting nonetheless.

PI said...

grannyp: I think it was the women he was attracted to. And they - both women - were so isolated.

Judy; it just got implanted in my head and I had to write about it - however disjointedly. That happens sometimes and it's better than writer's block!

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Pat, I'm drunk ! it's the afternoon but its a special occasion of sorts and the children are being ably baysat as I type. Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath were fascinating, dull, genius and cruelly selfish. I feel deeply sorry for their children. My own mother is bipolar but thank god she never became a poet. I don'tknow wheterh I love or hate them. I can't take sides though for some reason much as I'd like to. I want to stick up fr Sylvia because I'm manic depressive too but i fancy Ted Hughes like I can't describe and "interested" women always stick up for the man don't they? I'm a disappointment to myself like that but I comfort myself with Darwinian theories of propagation and attraction.

Anyway, Pat. I love you. Your stories are such a gentle, human part of my day. That's what I came to say really.

PI said...

Dear Sam: you are allowed to fancy Hughes (there is a touch of the Rhett Butler there) as long as you promise you would never let a man annihilate you.
Appreciation from such a brilliant girl makes me happy. It would have been nice if the men had joined in more, in the discussion but as MTL said 'they'd rather talk about football!'
Bless 'em!

Dandelion said...

Hello pi

I think you're quite right about vulnerable women attracting cruel men. I think it's like the way bullies pick their victims.

I don't think a person can or should be responsible for another person's suicide, but they can and should be responsible for their own behaviour.

PI said...

Welcome Dandelion: your last paragraph is so true.

Dandelion said...

Thanks. I think my first paragraph was truer, if a little less comfortable :-)

PI said...

Dandelion: a pox on all cruel men - and women too - anyone who rides rough-shod over other's feelings and emotions.

Granny said...

I agree - these men seek out victims and unfortunately there are far too many around.

PI said...

granny: I suppose women's lib helped to some extent. BTW thank you for your tactful observation. It was an error.