The torment of Ted Hughes

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This review by Mark Ford of ‘Ted Hughes: the Unauthorised Life’ by Jonathan Bates, gives an interesting slant on Bate’s book, and echoes much of the portrayal of Hughes’s remorse in my novel: ‘Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath.

 In March 1969 Assia gassed both herself and her four-year-old daughter by Hughes, Shura, in her flat in Clapham. She had grown tired of sharing Hughes with his two women down in Devon, Brenda Hedden (a social worker) and Carol Orchard, a local farmer’s daughter and nurse, who would become his second wife. Hughes did, on occasion, explicitly question the implications of his … behaviour in his private journal, noting, for instance, of this particular erotic triangle: ‘3 beautiful women – all in love, and a separate life of joy visible with each, all possessed – but own soul lost.’ The sorrows of the polygamist … As the errant poet struggled to manage his handily alphabetised commitments to A, B and C, as he referred to them in his journal, Assia battled with the complexities of the situation in which she found herself after Plath’s suicide.

 

Although less jealous and possessive than Plath, Assia had her own moments of despair and fury: in a will she made in April 1968 she left to Hughes only ‘my no doubt welcome absence and my bitter contempt.’  Hughes’s ‘The Error’, from the suite of Assia poems collected in Capriccio (1990), presents her subsequent death as almost a direct consequence of Sylvia’s suicide:

When her grave opened its ugly mouth
Why didn’t you just fly,
Wrap yourself in your hair and make yourself scarce,
Why did you kneel down at the grave’s edge
To be identified
Accused and convicted
By all who held in their hands
Pieces of the gravestone grey granite
As Bate’s tells it, Hughes had no need of others’ vitriol to feel haunted and tormented for the 35 years that followed his first wife’s death. He suffered as much as they could have wanted. And while some may find specious Bate’s theory that Hughes’s serial infidelities were in fact a way of staying faithful to the memory of Plath – an argument that certainly pushes to a new level of sophistication the Cole Porter lyric ‘I’m always true to you darling in my fashion’ – it’s hard not to feel that Hughes never escaped the baffling labyrinth into which his relationship with Plath led him.
Excerpt  from Sorrows of a Polygamist’ by Mark Ford: a Review of Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life by Jonathan Bate  

Birth Day of Assia Wevill 15 May 1927 – 23 March 1969

 

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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’

 

Assia the Artist

Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
Assia in Mandalay, Burma, circa 1960. Image reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

Few people know that Assia Gutmann Wevill was an accomplished artist in her own right. She painted brightly coloured miniatures of birds, fish, and flowers, and gave them to friends. She also drew the illustrations for many of Ted Hughes’s works. Sadly these have not survived

As well as her talents in the visual arts, Assia was a gifted translator. Her collaborative work with the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was published to acclaim.  Assia was a poet in her own right, but sadly was never published in her life time.

Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason', p.224, Koren and Negev
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’, p.224, Koren and Negev
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960 (Courtesy David Wevill). Reproduced from 'Lover of Unreason' by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.
Painting by Assia, Burma, 1960
(Courtesy David Wevill).
Reproduced from ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev.

The Invisible Woman

I’m reprinting this review here in acknowledgement of the role ‘Lover of Unreason’ has played in the writing of my novel, ‘Capriccio’. It has been my bible of facts, the scaffolding on which I’ve created the inner lives in fiction, of Assia, Ted and Sylvia. Eilat Negev herself has written to me that she and Yehuda often wished they’d had ‘the freedom of fiction’.

 

The invisible woman: A Review of ‘Lover of Unreason’ by Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren, reprinted from article in The Guardian by Peter Porter

Assia Wevill was airbrushed from the Hughes/Plath heritage. Peter Porter welcomes her restoration by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev in A Lover of Unreason
A Lover of Unreason by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev

 

A Lover of Unreason
by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev
320pp, Robson Books, £20

Looking yourself up in the index, Norman Mailer-like, might be a good way to joke-start a review, but not, I think, here. My name occurs a number of times in this biography of Assia Wevill, but whatever my ego might have hoped for or resented, reading the full story has only revived an acute horror at what happened more than 40 years ago.

The two Israeli authors are not stylists – their tone is that of a black-edged issue of Hello! – but they have assembled in great detail the life of a remarkable woman whom many of us knew and loved but whom we all seem to have allowed to be airbrushed out of literary history. For me to have waited till the main actors are dead to lay at the door of Ted Hughes and the literary establishment the cruelty of excising Assia’s true part in the Hughes/Plath heritage, assigning her only the role of marginal temptress, may seem a cowardly act. My excuse is the lack, up to now, of any written record to support my conviction that a common front was declared against her soon after her death. In the name of a greater legend she had to be kept in the background.

When Hughes became Assia’s lover and left Sylvia Plath in 1962, her eclipse was set in motion. While she was not a poet of genius, as Plath was, she was more than just a beautiful woman who set her cap at a celebrated poet. She had wit, charm and generosity, and while she could be wilful and self-dramatising, she was also natural and straightforward – never in my eyes the “femme fatale”.

The book’s title is from her self-composed epitaph: “Here lies a lover of unreason, and an exile.” There is another epitaph: “Assia was my true wife and the best friend I ever had” – this from a letter of Hughes’s written after her suicide in 1969. But any connection with her was suppressed by him at the inquest and, more damagingly, she appears either sidelined in his writing or demonised, as in “Dreamers”, in Birthday Letters

[ … ]
Her German the dark undercurrent
In her Kensington jeweller’s elocution
Was your ancestral Black Forest whisper –
[…]
Warily you cultivated her,
Her Jewishness, her many-blooded beauty
[ … ]
Who was this Lilith of abortions
Touching the hair of your children
With tiger-painted nails?
[…]
She sat there in her soot-wet mascara,
In flame-orange silks, in gold bracelets,
Slightly filthy with erotic mystery –
A German
Russian Israeli with the gaze of a demon
Between curtains of black Mongolian hai

These lines are excerpts from a violently hostile text. The poem ends: “the dreamer in me / Fell in love with her, and I knew it”.

The Birthday Letters are addressed to Plath; Assia is their subject only in this quoted poem. That Hughes should use one suicidal woman to excuse himself to another is extraordinary, but more so is the contrast between this denunciation and the passionate life he shared with her from 1962 until her death. Time did not bring reconciliation or empathy.

Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev have traced her surviving papers and diaries, held chiefly by her sister in Canada, and have interviewed some of those who knew her in Israel, Canada and England. Nothing that puts Hughes in a poor light is not supported by his own words. Assia’s most scarifying observations are directed at herself; their agony is a via dolorosa of love’s exchanges with revulsion.

Assia Gutmann was born in Berlin in 1927. Her father, Dr Lonya Gutmann, was a Russian Jew married to a Lutheran nurse. He removed the family to Palestine in the 30s, recognising that, even with an Aryan wife, he would have no future in Germany.

Neither he nor Assia had much sense of Jewish identity or interest in Jewish culture – and even less in what was to be the new Jewish state. They were lovers of European high culture – the great novelists, poets and composers whose names recur in her correspondence. She grew up speaking German, Hebrew and English. Dr Gutmann was a bon viveur – Palestine/Israel was exile to him. Assia didn’t attend any Jewish school, but rather an academy for well-off Arab children who identified with the Mandated British. Somehow she acquired a beautifully modulated English voice long before she set foot in Britain. In “Dreamers” Hughes declares “her speech Harrod’s”. I found it more melodious than affected: perhaps Australian class worries are different. The Gutmann family strategy was to get out of Palestine.

Written out of History

Written out of history
theguardian.comOctober 18

 

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Assia Wevill in 1968
Within a period of six years, Ted Hughes faced the sudden deaths of four people dear to him. In February 1963 his estranged wife, Sylvia Plath, gassed herself in her kitchen following his affair with another woman, Assia Wevill. He was just 32 when he found himself in sole charge of their children, Frieda, who was three, and Nicholas, barely one year old.

Six years later, in March 1969, Wevill killed herself and Shura, their four-year-old daughter. At that time, his mother Edith appeared to be getting on well after an operation on her knee, but Hughes was afraid that the news might affect her recovery. In the following weeks he shunned his parents, and did not visit, phone or write to them. When his father asked Olwyn, Hughes’s sister, what the matter was, she told him but made him vow to keep it a secret. But he could not keep silent and told his wife. Edith suffered a thrombosis, lapsed into a coma and died three days later. Ted was certain that Wevill’s suicide was the final blow.

In a letter to his close friend Lucas Myers, Hughes reflected on his part in the deaths of his wife and lover, confessing that with Plath it was his “insane decisions”, while in Wevill’s case it was his “insane indecisions”. When he granted us a rare interview in London in October 1996, Hughes said Plath’s death “was complicated and inevitable, she had been on that track most of her life. But Wevill’s was avoidable.” Perhaps this was why he tried to erase her from his life.

The press refrained, for some mysterious reason, from reporting the tragedy. The crime columns of the London newspapers that week in March 1969 ran items about the strangling of a wife in her home and the death of a girl who set fire to herself in Paris, but there was no word of the deaths of Assia and Shura Wevill in Clapham Common. Only one local paper, the South London Press, violated what amounted to a hush-up. Even there, the story was at the bottom of page 13, and omitted any hint of an intimate connection between the poet and the deceased.

Throughout his life, Hughes warded off biographers and journalists and asked his friends to refrain from mentioning him in interviews or in their memoirs. When his archive at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, was made available to the public in 2000, it was devoid of Wevill’s presence in his life: none of the numerous letters they exchanged, the notes, drawings or photos, were there.

In the rare instances where he agreed to provide biographical details, Assia and Shura were never mentioned. He claimed that after Plath’s suicide and until his marriage to Carol Orchard in 1970, he raised his children assisted only by members of his family or a local woman who helped with the daily chores – that for all those years, he was looking for a permanent feminine figure but “the right woman failed to materialise”. In fact, Wevill lived with him in what she called Plath’s “ghost house”, 23 Fitzroy Road, London, and then in Ireland and Devon, and mothered his children.

In May 1962, Assia and her third husband, the Canadian poet David Wevill, were invited to spend a weekend with Plath and Hughes, who were then living in the village of North Tawton in Devon. It was on that weekend, as Hughes later wrote in a poem, that “The dreamer in me fell in love with her”. Six weeks passed before he and Wevill met alone for the first time, when he came to London for a meeting at the BBC.

But Plath was quick to discover the budding affair. She ordered him out, and he was happy to comply. The following day he knocked on the Wevill’s door carrying four bottles of champagne. Wevill made no secret of Hughes’ ferocious lovemaking among her office friends. Equally repelled and fascinated, she told Edward Lucie-Smith, “You know, in bed he smells like a butcher.” In the next two months he shuttled between the two women.

In mid-September he and Plath took a holiday in Ireland. On the fourth day he disappeared. His whereabouts have remained a mystery not only to Plath but to subsequent biographers and scholars. However, in our research we discovered that when Hughes embarked on the Irish trip, he already had a ticket to another destination. Ditching Plath in Ireland, he hurried to London to meet Wevill, and the two of them headed south for a 10-day fiesta in Spain. He and Plath had spent their honeymoon there, and she hated the country. For him and Wevill, the trip was a delight, providing them with a creative boost: a film script that they had started writing together.

When he returned home, Hughes had a terrible row with Plath; he refused to give up his mistress and left for London permanently. Two months later, Plath moved to London as well. Hughes and Wevill were no longer making a secret of their affair. They were seen everywhere, so much so that many people mistakenly thought that they were actually living together.

On February 11 1963, Plath ended her life. Two days later, Myers came for a condolence visit and found Wevill resting in Plath’s bed. A month later Hughes and Wevill decided to abort the child that Wevill was carrying.

Wevill and her husband, David, agreed to a six-month trial separation, and he went to Spain, while she moved in with Hughes and his children. They spent the summer vacation with Hughes’s parents in Yorkshire. In her diary, Wevill described a family dinner: as she was leaning over the table to give Frieda her food, she and Hughes collided in a kiss.

In September 1963 Hughes returned with his children to Devon, leaving Wevill on her own in the death-flat: he wanted some time to himself and she had serious doubts about his commitment to her. When David returned from Spain, he joined Wevill in Plath’s flat.

The affair continued, but they lowered its profile and invented a secret code for their correspondence. Hughes dispatched daily love letters to Wevill’s home, addressed to F Wall Esq. It was a private joke between the lovers, that Hughes was the fly on the wall at the Wevills’. It is puzzling as to why they went to all this trouble when they could have used Wevill’s office address, as they had done before: was it for the thrill, and the romantic intrigue? Alexandra Tatiana Elise (nicknamed Shura) was born on 3 March 1965. Ten months later, Wevill left David and moved with Ted to Ireland. It was a time of bliss, and Hughes was delighted and relieved that his children had taken to their half-sister.

Hughes was exploding with ideas. He even found the strength to probe into the suicide of his wife and began writing Crow, handing Wevill the drafts to comment on. Later, he dedicated the book to her and Shura. Wevill’s diaries, still in private hands, give a unique account of Hughes at work, “like a great beast, looking over an enormous feast, dazzled and confused by the variety”.

Wevill was a perfect partner: artistically inclined, she wrote some poetry and was a rather skilful painter, but she was not ambitious and had no artistic ego herself. “He’s almost incapable of performing one word wrong,” she wrote admiringly. She said she felt reverence in the company of “one of God’s best creations”.

Together, they were working on a book of Hughes’s poems and her drawings. The theme was A Full House, a pack of cards in which the kings, queens and knaves were biblical, mythological and historical figures.

The poet and translator Michael Hamburger, Hughes’ good friend, remembers another project of Wevill and Hughes: Wevill showed him “miniature paintings in brilliant colours with many animals and plants”. Neither project materialised, and though some of the poems survived none of Wevill’s drawings has.

Originally, they planned to stay in Ireland for five years, but after a few months they had to return to Devon, to tend to Hughes’s ailing mother. His parents were dismayed by their son’s scandalous relationship with the haughty, thrice-married woman: they feared it had ruined his reputation. Hughes’s father determinedly ignored Wevill’s presence. He never spoke to her, refused to sit at the same table and averted his eyes when she put a plate of food in front of him. And in any disagreement between Wevill and his parents, Ted invariably sided with them.

Edith Hughes was moving from one bout of illness to another, and eventually Hughes realised that she would never get better as long as she and Wevill lived under the same roof. He initiated a disengagement plan: Wevill and Shura would return to London and wait there until his mother was strong enough to return to her home in Yorkshire. On odd weekends Wevill and Shura came down to Devon, and he visited them in his trips to London. They continued looking for a house of their own, but Hughes found fault with them all. It dawned on Wevill that being at his side at the time of Plath’s suicide had contaminated her for ever, and that he would never marry her. “I have lived on the dream of living with Ted – and this has gone kaput,” she wrote in her suicide note to her father. “There could never be another man. Never.”

Shura had become the core of Wevill’s existence, and she was quite certain that if left motherless, the four-year-old, pampered child would be a second-class citizen in the Hughes household. She was afraid that Shura was too old to be adopted, and did not wish her to grow up alone as a foster child, an orphan. Her murderous act was thus the outcome of a distorted over-responsibility: “Execute yourself and your little self efficiently,” Wevill had written in her diary three days before.

Soon after her death, Hughes wrote a poem in which he tormented himself about having been destructive towards his nearest and dearest “who were my life”. He never published it. Was it because it contrasted with the account that he wished to leave for posterity? In 1990, he published a volume of 20 poems, Capriccio, which revolved around Wevill. In it, he blamed her for consciously burning herself on Plath’s funeral pyre.

· A Lover of Unreason: The Biography of Assia Wevill by Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev. Published by Robson Books, price £20.00. To order a copy for £18.00 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875

What is Truth in Fiction?

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, 'Capriccio'image

Assia Gutmann Wevill, the subject of my novel, Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath

What do readers look for from historical or biographical fiction? Is it the ‘truth’ in the form of accurately researched facts, or are they seeking  a deeper truth behind those facts? There are facts a-plenty in ‘Capriccio’, the result of ten years’ extensive research of the characters’ lives and works.However,   I have dug deeper into the realm of possibilities to create a story which, although largely following known truths, adds drama and colour to the lives of these real people.

The question of truth in fiction has been constantly in my mind throughout this novel’s long gestation. I first heard of Assia Wevill in the year 2000, when a newspaper article ‘Haunted by the Ghosts of Love’ came to my notice. It was written by Assia’s biographers, Eilat Negev and Yehuda Koren. Something about Assia’s story resonated with me, and for the next few years I read and researched everything I could about her role in the famous story of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath.

When Negev and Koren’s biography, ‘Lover of Unreason’, came out in 2006, I was at first devastated to know that others had got there before me, and abandoned all thought of writing my own book about Assia. Then I realised that what I wanted to write was not a ‘straight’ biography, but a re-creation of the lives of Assia, Ted and Sylvia during the turbulent years of their tragic triangle. This is not to say that Negev and Koren gave us only the bare bones of Assia’s story – far from it; they left no stone unturned, and I’m forever in their debt for revealing the many facts which have formed the ‘scafffolding’ for my novel.

As author of historical fiction,  Sulari Gentill, suggests,” bringing a  historical figure to life is often about juxtaposing the contradictions to reveal the small details and allow the reader to see to them as human beings. The “holes” in history, the blank spaces, are  where we spin our tales and create. We fill in those spaces with imaginative hypotheses, with stories that link separate historical facts with a fictional narrative.

By filling in the ‘holes’ left in the documented events of those years 1961 to 1969, using imagination to create dialogue, thoughts, dreams, journal entries and letters by the main characters, I hope to make their story live again.

 

A is for Assia

 

Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes Wevill, Devon, England,1967
Assia Wevill and Shura Hughes Wevill, Devon, England,1967

Preamble: In the British Library Manuscript Room, London, I had the privilege of accessing the Ted Hughes’ archive, containing some of his private diary notes and unpublished poems. Throughout his papers, he refers to Assia only as ‘A’, perhaps evidence of his continuing shame for his Adulterous relationship with her. (Jonathan Bate suggests the ‘A’ could be the ‘A’, the mark of the adulteress, Hester Prynne, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, ‘The Scarlet Letter’) . This is an excerpt from my 3500 word essay on the topic. Let me know if you’d like to read more!- Dina

A IS FOR ASSIA

The Capriccio Poems of Ted Hughes

 On a bleak day in March 1969, a woman and her child were found dead from gas inhalation in the kitchen of a shabby flat in Clapham, London. The woman was Assia Gutmann Wevill, the mistress of poet Ted Hughes. She had taken her own life and that of her four-year-old daughter Shura. Six years earlier, on one of the coldest February days in England’s history, another woman was found dead from gas inhalation in the kitchen of a flat in Primrose Hill, London. She was Sylvia Plath, poetess and wife of Ted Hughes. Her two young children were found crying but unharmed in their nursery upstairs, where Sylvia had flung open the windows in spite of the cold, and left bread and milk within reach of her children.

Whereas Sylvia went to some pains to protect her children, Assia took her daughter with her into death. ‘Her only way of outdoing her dead rival was in the manner of her death,’ wrote Al Alvarez, in his memoir ‘Where Did It All Go Right?’ Assia herself wrote in her journal that she couldn’t bear to leave her little daughter to the mercy of a cruel and unforgiving world.

The common link in both tragedies was Ted Hughes, in one case the woman’s husband, in the other her lover. What role did their relationship with Hughes play in the deaths of these women? And what can we learn from his poetry of his true feelings about them?