Assia Wevill, born Assia Esther Gutmann, would have been 89 years old today, had she not taken her own life and that of her daughter Shura in March 1969. She was 41 when she died: 41 years, reflected in the 41 chapters in my novel, ‘Capriccio’, which endeavours to honour her short life.
Who was the real Assia? Was she a seductive siren, wooing Ted Hughes away from his one true wife? Was she a vain, selfish woman determined to establish herself in London’s literary world? Or was she a frightened wanderer through life, excessively generous to her friends, utterly devoted to her daughter, and a loving daughter herself to her charismatic father Lonya?
Her third and truest husband, the poet and academic David Wevill, has said that no-one has truly understood her, for all the fictional and non-fictional portrayals, from the play ‘Doonreagan’ about the months she spent with Ted and their children in Ireland, to the only published biography,’Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Her close friend, Nathaniel Tarn, has left diaries and letters to the Stanford University Library, which throw light on Assia’s identity. He describes her as a ‘peasant’, never fully accepted in English society, covering her painful insecurity with an over-polished accent and a dramatic persona. Far from being vain, she was highly self-critical, and would be driven to tears when friends teased her about her undoubted beauty.
What did she think of herself? The scant diary entries that remain show her as thinking she was ‘second-rate’, would never amount to anything, was unworthy of the great poet Ted Hughes’s attention, and could never match up to his first wife Sylvia, whom she both idolised and feared. Yet she was a talented miniaturist, an award-winning copywriter, and a talented translator and linguist. In the words of her own poem, she remains ‘unlamented’:
… To see again and no more/The black northern pond,/ Its autumn spent/
Its eye burning with crippled cedar wings…..
Like Thomas Hood’s and my time’s
Unlamented, spring less, passed.
– Assia Wevill, ‘Winter End, Herfordshire’